How suburban governments are dealing with their own labor shortage

Lombard Village Manager Scott Niehaus is in a position many suburban municipal leaders find themselves in three years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“On any given day, we're on a rolling vacancy level of seven to 10 positions,” he said. “Before, we had a never-ending line of people who wanted to work for us.”

A Daily Herald analysis of 67 suburbs shows half those towns are operating with fewer employees now than before the pandemic.

The analysis shows 38 towns reported fewer employees working in administrative positions, 31 have fewer public works employees and 28 have fewer public safety workers.

In towns such as Lombard, Palatine, Barrington, Buffalo Grove, Gurnee, Batavia and seven others, staffing levels are down in all three sectors, data from suburban audits show.

“That's definitely the trend nationally, too,” said Chris Goodman, an associate professor of public administration at Northern Illinois University. “The private sector employment has recovered from the pandemic, but the public sector has not at all recovered.”

A report from MissionSquare Research Institute in an upcoming issue of the Illinois Municipal League's magazine indicates local government staffing levels are down 2% from pre-pandemic levels.

Experts say the glut is a result of multiple factors, including the retirement of baby boomers and public employees being lured away to private-sector jobs that provide higher pay and more flexible scheduling.

In the case of public safety jobs, municipal leaders say a backlash against police work in recent years diminished interest among younger applicants.

“In talking with local administrators, the number of applicants really just isn't there,” Goodman said. “There are plenty of open positions, but the number of qualified candidates is way down.”

And it's not like municipal leaders haven't made an effort to attract new employees.

“We've raised our entry-level salaries, but clerical workers have chosen not to re-enter the workforce,” said Palatine Village Manager Reid Ottesen.

According to Palatine's most recent audit, village leaders reported 11 fewer full-time equivalent (FTE) employees in 2022 than in 2019. Ottesen said the village now holds just four positions open because other vacant positions were eliminated in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“Police is a real struggle to get large applicant pools,” Ottesen said. “We're fortunate when we go through the process the top candidates are as good as we've always gotten, just not enough depth.”

Niehaus lamented the same issue.

“We had 72 take the police test, and about half passed,” he said. “That gave us a list of 35 people on it, but we've burned through that list already because they've gone elsewhere.”

The employee shortage has many towns competing with each other for workers.

Vernon Hills recently hired three new employees in executive-level roles, all coming from neighboring towns.

“It's more important than ever to be competitive,” said Vernon Hills Village Manager Kevin Timony. “We have become more sensitive to our compensation packages.”

Timony said the village adjusted the scope of some roles to cover needs.

The new public works director also serves as the village engineer.

“We really have one person doing two roles,” Timony said.

Filling public works posts is difficult because towns compete with private-sector employers who can offer significantly higher salaries. When they can't hire employees to perform necessary work, municipal officials often turn to contractors.

“Many towns may find they aren't saving any money by contracting because they will pay two or three times the cost of having the work done by someone in-house,” Goodman said. “It seems like a lot of places are just doing more with less, or in some places doing less with less.”

Not all suburbs are struggling, though. Elgin and Naperville are among 34 towns reporting higher FTE employee figures in 2022 than in 2019. Yet, both cities still are hiring.

“The city most certainly has not been on a hiring binge post-pandemic,” said City Manager Rick Kozal. “Elgin management employees, as you may recall, took salary reductions during the pandemic, and there has been no significant staffing up since then.”

Among 67 suburban municipal governments, half are reporting fewer employees than before the COVID-19 pandemic, mirroring a national labor trend. Associated Press File Photo/April 2023

Municipal hiringHere's a look at post-pandemic suburban government staffing levels.

67: Suburban town governments in analysis

33: Towns reporting fewer employees in 2022 than 2019

38: Towns with fewer administrative employees

31: Towns with fewer public works employees

28: Towns with fewer public safety employees

13: Towns with fewer employees in all three sectors

Source: Municipal audits

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