Much has been written about the ongoing labor shortage across the state and across the country. The pandemic caused a major disruption in America’s labor force—something many have referred to as The Great Resignation. In 2022, more than 50 million workers quit their jobs, leading to labor shortages across a wide range of industries. And according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD), the statewide unemployment rate hit a new record low of 2.5% this spring.

The City of Madison has certainly not been immune to these challenges. But we have also found some creative solutions to help increase hiring, while at the same time improving job quality and in many cases saving both time and money. One example is the Public Works Laborer position established for the first time in 2023. This position, the first six of which were hired this past May, are career-focused year-round full time positions whose work will be divided between City public works agencies including Streets, Parks, and Engineering.

In the past, each of these Divisions separately recruited and trained seasonal positions – for example, snow and ice removal in the winter; gardening and tree-trimming in the summer, etc. etc. – who worked for several months and then left during the off-season. In the current workforce climate, such seasonal work has become increasingly difficult to hire and retain. By contrast, the Public Works Laborer program will lessen the over reliance on seasonal positions within Public Works, provide life-sustaining pay and benefits at the first rung on the ladder of city full-time employment and reducing the barriers to entry into full-time city employment.

These employees work across a number of Public Works Division silos, gaining valuable job experience and exposure to a wide variety of work, and building positive working relationships with staff involved in the hiring and promotional process. They thus provide an opportunity for hires to earn their way into higher-skilled and -paid positions in the City that they may have struggled to gain entry to without this program.

The fact that these positions can work in multiple agencies also helps managers to manage peak workloads, thereby lessening the need for each Division to recruit their own seasonal workers to meet this ebb and flow of demand. If this program grows as hoped, the burden on HR staff as well as agency supervisors who spend, collectively, hundreds of often fruitless hours recruiting, interviewing and training seasonal workers should be lessened considerably, improving efficiency and job quality for those positions as well.

So, while the current labor market has certainly proved challenging to us at the City, it has also in some cases spurred creative thinking that has allowed us to deliver better services while also providing improved job quality and opportunities for City workers.

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