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With planning, local leaders can reduce disruptions caused by employee transitions

Cities and towns were already contending with pressures on the available workforce associated with the aging of the Baby Boomer generation when the COVID-19 pandemic caused an acceleration in the rate of retirements over the past year. The lean staffing structures of many municipalities, as well as the older average age of public employees, raises the stakes for communities facing these challenges.

The knowledge and service vacuums that can occur when key employees leave local government can pose threats to operational and fiscal stability. Vacancies disrupt routines and can potentially derail important projects. The search for replacements diverts time and effort away from other objectives, and, in the case of a prolonged vacancy, a community may need to expend additional, unanticipated funds on contract services to fill the gap. Further, remaining staff are often called upon to backfill roles, train inexperienced newcomers, or improvise creative solutions — all of which divert resources from other vital tasks.

Local leaders are advised to be attentive to measures that can help manage the risks associated with employee departures, whether they can be anticipated (such as retirements) or not. To minimize the disruptions of employee transitions, municipalities can take proactive, concrete steps to plan for succession in key positions.

Communities with dedicated human resources departments may be better able to employ systematic approaches, while small towns that operate with very few employees in each department often find it difficult to groom in-house candidates for critical roles, or to cross-train staff to hold the line during vacancies at any level.