They Can't Find the Bodies
On the staffing crisis in American cities
Here’s my latest story: No Clean Water, Unplowed Streets: What the Public Sector's Hiring Problem Means For All of Us
Stories about municipal governments don’t usually get tons of eyeballs. That’s because many of the things that happen on a local level can feel very . . . boring. Zoning permits are issued. Taxes are raised Public works projects are approved. I once wrote a story about participatory budgeting in Vallejo, California (did that sentence just make you fall asleep?) and one of my biggest takeaways was that a surprising number of residents were okay sitting at very long meetings rather than being at home watching basketball.
But I’m often drawn to stories about local governments because they get so personal. Most people know each other, so problems that seem dry—how many firefighters does one town actually need?—can get very emotional. And don’t tell Rand Paul, but local government has a huge impact on our daily lives. Local governments maintain our roads and pick up our trash and educate our children and do a whole lot of other things that most people would find it very hard to function without.
So what happens when local governments can’t find enough workers? Things very quickly go awry. For this story, I looked at local governments across the country that are facing huge hiring and attrition problems. Local government workers skew older, and those workers have been retiring en masse, in part because they are sick of getting yelled at by their neighbors. And as they retire, many municipalities can’t find anyone to take their place. They can’t offer as much money as many private-sector jobs, and they’re not exactly known as the type of flexible, perks-laden places that Gen Z desires.
“We can’t find the bodies,” one town manager told me. “It’s not that we have a small applicant pool, we have no applicants.”
This is a much bigger problem than McDonald’s not being able to sell as many hamburgers. Imagine that you work for the water department in a small town. Then imagine one of your colleagues leaving, and then another, and another—and your job, which was once reading soil samples, is now reading soil samples and testing for COVID in the water supply and monitoring the water treatment plant, and responding to resident calls. You can imagine that would be pretty unpleasant. It might make you want to . . . quit?
This is going to get worse before it gets better. And it’s already pretty bad. You might have heard that Austin, Texas had a boil-water advisory for three days in February, meaning residents had to boil their tap water before they drank it or cooked with it. One of the reasons for that? The utility had lost a record 30 employees in January.
I go into more detail in this story, about Austin and other examples, but I think this is also a time we’re going to start to really miss having robust local newspapers. If problems are happening in Austin, a booming and fairly wealthy city, because they can’t find enough workers, there are surely similarly scary things happening in other cities, but we don’t know about them because there is no one is paying attention. I’ll keep paying attention, so feel free to send me any juicy local government gossip. I’m going to be learning all about municipal living: Andrew, Benjy, and I are dog sitting in a NYC suburb for four months starting next week.
Here’s the story again: https://time.com/6165374/public-sector-job-vacancies/
And in case this topic interests you as much as it does me, here are some of my past stories about local government intrigue: