Like nearly every other sort of organization throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, local governments have also had trouble finding and retaining employees. Positions at both the town and the county remain vacant, despite ads running in the Taos News and in other local media.
A town ad for various administrative and field positions lists openings for a police cadet, deputy public works director, paralegal, planning technician, lifeguard and more.
“It was difficult to find people before COVID, now it’s only gotten more complicated,” said Town Manager Rick Bellis regarding the government’s hiring efforts. He said a key part of the hiring process, especially for leadership positions, is making sure a solid succession plan is in place.
In this particular case, Bellis said the town is looking at hiring a recruiter. The Town is also looking at “casting a bigger net” by using online platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook.
“Obviously, we’ve already reached out to the [New Mexico] League of Municipalities, but almost every municipal government and every county government is [shorthanded] in looking for the same people,” Bellis explained.
Part of the solution while shorthanded is to train current government employees to move up into more senior roles. “We’re looking at ways we can train the people that we already have to move up to positions, so we’re putting more money into training.”
In addition to training employees to move into more senior roles, they have been cross-training employees to be able to fill in at various departments. “If somebody at the landfill gets sick but somebody from the roads department has the training, they can fill in for a day or a week if needed,” said Bellis.
They have also entertained the idea of job fairs with on-the-spot hiring, “where you do a lot of publicizing and people walk in and you have everybody ready to do background checks, and you review resumes, and interview people right on the spot.”
Overall, Bellis said a smaller workforce is something the town doesn’t mind. “We would rather have a smaller workforce that was more highly skilled, and be able to better pay them, than to have a larger workforce where everybody just specializes in one thing.”
Taos County Manager Brent Jaramillo said they are facing the exact same challenges in finding and hiring qualified applicants for the county government. “We do have applicants, but it has been extremely difficult during the pandemic to attract qualified workers.”
A total of 21 full-time positions are open at the county as of press time. Jaramillo said they have advertised for a deputy county manager, detention center cadet and communications specialist. The lack of employees in those areas have made it more difficult to run the county efficiently. “It’s hard to provide those essential services — from dispatch to public works to the sheriff’s office without the staff. We just need the resources and human power to fill these vital positions throughout the county,” said Jaramillo.
The county recently teamed up with UNM-Taos, which helped the county create an employee recruitment video highlighting the benefits of working for the county, which Jaramillo said include healthcare and retirement plans.
While the county said they have not increased their wages yet, Jaramillo said they are “looking at a compensation study to increase wages across the board.” He said that current employees would like to see their wages increased, but “they like to see additional personnel as well.”
He noted that current Taos County employees are also putting the word out. “Everybody’s pitching in and everybody’s had a good attitude,” he said. “I think a lot of employees are also trying to sell the county; I know department heads are trying to talk up the county’s benefits component of the package.”
Jaramillo acknowledged some county positions may pay less than advertised fast food jobs (Wendy’s is offering $15 per hour for regular shift workers), but said the inclusion of additional benefits add up and offer greater security in the long run. “[Fast food] may pay an hourly salary more, but they’re not giving retirement or health insurance.”
Bellis said the town made “a commitment, even before the state passed the new minimum wage, to every year try to raise whatever the lowest entry level salary was.” Currently, full-time jobs at the town are starting at $12 an hour. “Our ultimate goal is $15 an hour,” but Bellis said it would likely take a year or two before that goal was reached.
Bellis reiterated that the worker shortage is partly due to the fact they are competing with other local governments, such as Santa Fe and Los Alamos. Meanwhile, major cities like Albuquerque are competing with Arizona and California. “After a while, money doesn’t make a difference,” Bellis said.
Bellis also noted that the largest working generation (Baby Boomers) are now retiring. “As they leave the workforce for retirement they’re going to leave a gap both in numbers of people and experience.”
He said that government jobs increasingly require “more training and more sophistication” as the shrinking workforce competes with technology and automation.
One solution Bellis sees to the problem is public-private partnerships, and contracting employment positions with the private sector. “I think we really need to look at the idea [of creating] a regional entity, sort of like North Central Regional Transportation District did for transit, where everybody pays a little into it and everybody gets to use [those employees],” he said. “I really think that’s the trend we’re gonna be faced with right now.”