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Business News/ News / Government Is Hiring This Year and Boosting Pay: ‘We’re Booming’

Government Is Hiring This Year and Boosting Pay: ‘We’re Booming’


As many companies slow down hiring, the public sector is adding workers.

State and local governments are trying to fill positions that have seen high turnover in recent years, including police officers, teachers and more.  Premium
State and local governments are trying to fill positions that have seen high turnover in recent years, including police officers, teachers and more.

While many companies have been cutting staff and freezing new hires this year, the government is laying out the welcome mat.

Public-sector jobs at the federal, state and local level have risen by 327,000 positions so far in 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is approaching one-fifth of all new American jobs created in the first eight months of the year. In contrast, public-sector jobs accounted for 5% of employment growth during the equivalent period last year.

“After two years of very underwhelming government hiring, it’s a necessary catch-up," said Julia Pollak, an economist at online jobs site ZipRecruiter.

Much of the recent hiring spree has been to backfill jobs left open by millions of teachers, police officers and other public servants who quit during the pandemic. Other roles at government agencies languished because the public sector couldn’t effectively compete against private employers that were offering pay raises and signing bonuses to attract talent during several years of a white-hot labor market.

But just as layoffs hit sectors from tech to finance, government agencies have boosted funding for new hires and have dangled richer perks. This year’s growth in public-sector jobs represents the highest share of overall U.S. payroll gains since 2001, when the government hired masses of workers focused on public safety after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pollak said.

Perks and pay bumps

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has bulked up its staffing along the border with Mexico, and is offering recruitment bonuses as high as $20,000 for hard-to-fill jobs in some locations. Arizona recently started to give 12 weeks of paid time off to new parents who are employees of the state. It is tough for governments to quickly stump up cash for compensation, but in the past year many more cities and states have enacted pay increases.

A ZipRecruiter analysis found that postings for government jobs listed on its site this year advertise pay 20% higher than they did last year. Raises for firefighters and police officers, as well as many types of social work, fueled the higher pay number. Meanwhile, companies across tech, transportation and manufacturing, among other industries, are offering less pay for the same roles than they did last year—and are adding new hurdles for job applicants to clear.

Yet most public-sector roles go ignored by job seekers. Half of all government jobs attracted an average of 5.5 applicants in the first quarter, according to the latest data from NeoGov, which provides applicant tracking systems to governments.

“I don’t think the greater job-hunting crowd has discovered the public sector yet," said Cara Woodson Welch, who leads the Public Sector HR Association.

Bureaucratic downsides

Job posts larded with acronyms and jargon—or job titles such as “Program Manager (Integrator)"—may not help. Nor do long hiring timelines and pay levels that have traditionally lagged behind those of corporate employers, said Rivka Liss-Levinson, senior research manager at MissionSquare Research Institute, which studies state and local government workforces.

“They’re basically saying, ‘We’re going to give you a job with a lower salary and it’s going to take us longer to hire you,’" she said.

Public-sector workers tend to skew older than the general workforce, Liss-Levinson said. That has meant more retirements during the pandemic, on top of the other people who left because of caregiving or health concerns, or for better pay in the private sector.

While private-sector employment is now 3.29% over its prepandemic level, the public sector has struggled to shore up its staffing.

“States are always going to be behind because they have to fight for a budget to be enacted, they can’t just change on a dime," said Leslie Scott Parker, executive director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives.

Recent gains in government payrolls could prove fragile if economic headwinds create budget shortfalls, making it harder for governments to fill new positions in the future, economists and human-resources executives said. Some job seekers see potential downsides to government work, as well. In addition to earning salaries that are lower than many in the private sector, government workers can face an advancement process that is slower and more cumbersome.

Hiring experiments

Many government agencies are trying to be more nimble where they can, revising job descriptions to attract more applicants and relaxing requirements to expand their applicant pool. Examples include scrapping requirements for office workers to have a driver’s license, or being able to lift a certain amount of weight.

However dull the job description may be, government jobs tend to align with what many of today’s workers say they want: stability, reasonable hours and a sense of purpose, said Jennifer Fairweather, chief human-resources officer for Colorado’s Jefferson County.

In 2020, the county rolled out a four-day workweek for many employees, which Fairweather said has helped drive both applicant interest and staff retention. Before Covid, an entry-level administrative job might attract 200 applicants, a figure that plummeted in 2021, when private employers aggressively raised pay to court workers.

“We were lucky to get 20 applications then," Fairweather said. Such roles now attract more, such as 75 applicants.

Other local governments are also experimenting. In southern California, San Diego County recently rolled out same-day hiring for most jobs other than those in public safety, said Brandy Winterbottom, the county’s HR deputy director. The offers are made conditional on passing background and other checks.

“We said, if fast food can do it, we should be able to do it," Winterbottom said, adding that 60% of applicants respond with a same-day acceptance.

San Diego County has hired hundreds of people this way, many of them social workers and nurses. Recruiters also actively reach out to workers when local employers have layoffs, she said.

Some jobs, such as jail workers and nurses, remain difficult to fill, but the new tactics have paid off. San Diego County employs 20,000 workers, up from 17,600 before the pandemic, and its vacancy rate has dropped to 11% from 20% last year, she said, adding: “We’re booming."

Write to Te-Ping Chen at

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