As Boulder continues to feel the strain of staffing shortages, the city is working to better understand what it’s facing by collecting department-specific vacancy data.
The city’s staffing challenges have been perhaps most visible within Boulder’s Parks and Recreation department, which was forced to reduce hours at its pools due to lifeguard shortages and may have to further reduce services this summer.
However, it’s a citywide problem, at least in part influenced by employees being laid off and furloughed during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Every department is feeling the strain of lack of capacity,” City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde said in a January City Council study session. “When you furlough over 700 people, it leaves a gigantic hole in an organization.”
The Boulder Police Department, Housing and Human Services, Planning and Development Services and Human Resources are among the other departments with significant constraints, according to anecdotal reports from city spokesperson Sarah Huntley.
Housing and Human Services and Planning and Development Services are in a particularly challenging position due to leadership vacancies within each department and the departments’ involvement in a number of key projects included in the City Council’s 2022 work plan.
“They’ve been pretty clear in their messaging,” Huntley said. “They’re hanging on in terms of core services, but they need patience and time to rebuild their leadership in order to take on additional work.”
The city currently has 105 openings listed on its jobs portal, 10 of which are seasonal or temporary and 95 of which are standard ongoing — what’s considered the most traditional form of employment within the city.
However, the number of job openings doesn’t necessarily paint the full picture of vacancies given that there are other open positions that have yet to be posted.
Furthermore, the current workplace software is somewhat limited in terms of the data it provides, Huntley noted. The city will be implementing a new HR tracking program in September, which will allow it to better understand the situation.
And following a request from the city manager earlier this week, Boulder is collecting department-by-department vacancy data, also intended to help the city paint a clearer picture. The departments are in the process of providing that information, and Huntley expects it will be available within the next week or so.
Since Jan. 1, Boulder has hired 67 people across the city organization, while 53 people have left, either voluntarily or involuntarily.
“The challenge is in the current job market you might fill a vacancy and as a department is starting to celebrate … somebody else departs and you’re back to having to adjust workloads,” Huntley said. “It’s just an incredibly challenging workforce.”
As employees leave, the city offers exit interviews, though they’re voluntary. In general, Huntley said burnout and a re-evaluation of work-life balance are among the key themes gleaned from those interviews.
Some of these feelings can be exacerbated by the turnover in the city’s top management positions.
“Because we’re having difficulty filling key positions, and there’s such a high expectation from our community and our Council of work product, it makes the challenge of keeping up more difficult,” Huntley said.
In under two years, the city manager, city attorney, planning director, transportation director and human resources director have all left. Some of those departures, such as the city manager and the city attorney, were longtime employees retiring or taking a step back, while others left after less time with the city to take roles in the private sector or to be closer to family.
Certainly, Boulder is not the only entity in Colorado or across the country struggling to retain and recruit people.
According to a study from Eagle Hill Consulting, a Virginia-based business management consultant, 65% of government employees report being burned out. That’s higher than their private sector counterparts, 44% of which reported burnout.
The firm’s research also indicates that 49% of government workers said they were likely to leave the organization within the next year, while 30% of private sector workers reported the same.
The same research findings suggest workload; work-life balance; a lack of communication, feedback and support; time pressures; and performance expectations are among the factors contributing to burnout.
Beyond that, Boulder has in the past struggled with cultural issues. The 2019 Tipton Report produced by a consultant indicated the city’s Public Works and Planning and Development Services staff had a ”feeling that senior leaders and city council don’t truly respect and value the input from and the role of staff — they don’t have our backs.”
Rivera-Vandermyde has said in the past that it’s her intention to ensure staff members within the city organization are supported as Boulder in 2022 prioritized recovery from the pandemic.
“(Recovery) means instead of furloughing folks and limiting non-essential services in the midst of the pandemic, we’ll be focused on restoring services in our community … and focusing on the hiring and retention of talent to alleviate the strain of employees who have picked up the slack for many of those employees previously furloughed,” she said in January.
In a City Council conversation ahead of its annual retreat earlier this year, Rivera-Vandermyde acknowledged that Boulder’s focus on hiring comes at a time of national staff shortages and a competitive marketplace “that has almost more to do with location than with salary, though we know making sure that we’re offering (a competitive) salary and perhaps other benefits is going to be important to remain an employer of choice.”
Several Boulder City Council members also emphasized the importance of ensuring the city’s staff are paid well and supported and that the organization is focused on hiring new people.
Without factoring in the cost of living, Boulder’s current openings are typically advertised with salaries higher than or consistent with national averages.
For example, according to Glassdoor, a company that provides insights on jobs and companies, the national average principal budget analyst salary is $113,757 per year. A listing for this role in Boulder is currently advertised with an annual salary range of $98,800 to $120,848.
Similarly, the average salary for a chief building official is $98,989, according to Glassdoor. Boulder is offering an annual range of $92,976 to $148,720 in its listing for that position.
In terms of hourly jobs, Boulder is offering a range of $20.90 to $25.55 for a lead custodian job. When calculated as an annual salary, that’s higher than the average national salary of $32,585, which Glassdoor reports.
“Without a robust city staff we are not going to be able to implement any of these awesome ideas,” Councilmember Tara Winer said earlier this year. “So for me, the most important thing is going to be recruitment and retention.”