In one sense, Durham’s growing popularity among job seekers makes his job easier, says James O’Donnell, head of talent management and acquisition for city government.
“Durham is growing and is getting national attention as a great city to live and work, so we seem to be getting applications from outside the local market as people are relocating,” he says.
But the city’s private employers, including many new companies, are getting the same applications, meaning the employer who hesitates could miss out on a good hire, O’Donnell says.
“Finding qualified candidates for hard-to-fill positions is always challenging, no matter the jobless rate,” he says. “But now there is an urgency to hire quickly before we could potentially lose a candidate.”
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O’Donnell isn’t alone in seeking to quickly fill job openings with the best candidates. Across the Triangle, his counterparts face the same challenge.
In July 2009, one month after the Great Recession officially ended, the Triangle’s jobless rate was 9.1 percent. Today, it’s 3.3 percent, according to data from the state.
Tim Mayes, interim head of human resources for the city of Raleigh, doesn’t have to see the data to know that the Triangle’s jobless rate is near historic lows. He can see it in the number of applications coming into City Hall.
“The overall pattern for most jobs is that there has been a decrease in the number of applications that the city receives in comparison to prior years,” he said. “In 2010, there was a greater number of applications, presumably due to the high unemployment rate.”
O’Donnell empathizes. Three times in the last four years, he said, the city of Durham has needed to hire an electrical inspector to inspect work in commercial buildings and other new construction. The first time, in 2015, the city received 34 applications, and 24 of those job hopefuls met the minimum qualifications for the job. The next time around, when Durham needed two inspectors, the numbers fell slightly — 33 applications and 23 qualified applicants in 2016.
But this year, when Durham needed another electrical inspector, the city had just 20 applicants, and only 15 met the minimum job requirements, O’Donnell said. Put another way, between 2015 and 2018, the number of people seeking that particular Durham job fell 41 percent, and the number of qualified applicants fell 37.5 percent.
The drop-off didn’t surprise O’Donnell. “I am not sure I expected any differently,” he said. “We directly compete with the private sector, and when that sector heats up, the public sector seems to be overlooked.”
The Triangle’s building boom and growing tech sector especially are bane and blessing when it comes to filling local government job vacancies, O’Donnell said.
“The effect is both positive and negative from a supply perspective,” he said. “We have many more construction and tech candidates that are coming into the market to take advantage of the boom, but the boom also increases the number of companies competing for these candidates.”
Not surprisingly then, IT jobs and jobs in skilled trades can be among the hardest for local governments to fill.
“It has been more challenging for us to find experienced construction and skilled-trades people — electrical, plumbing, building, mechanical — as well as civil engineering and IT positions,” O’Donnell said. “Experienced construction candidates are in high demand in the market, especially candidates that can proficiently operate the specific equipment.”
Like Durham, Raleigh is finding it harder to fill jobs that are also in high demand in the private sector, Mayes said. “Technical, planning and construction positions are difficult to fill due to the boom in the Triangle’s economy and the specific skill sets that are in demand in the market,” he said.
One problem — for both public- and private-sector employers — is that the talent supply in skilled trades doesn’t appear to be keeping pace with the demand, O’Donnell said. “The electrical, plumbing, building (and) mechanical skilled trades seem not to be attracting as many high school students as they used to,” he said. “But the demand is — and, I think, will continue to be — very high.”
Paul Kane is executive vice president and CEO of the Homebuilders Association of Raleigh and Wake County. Of the shrinking talent pool in skilled trades, “it’s a problem that just didn’t happen overnight,” he says.
It began years ago with high schools dropping shop classes because they thought young people needed to prepare instead for a four-year college degree, Kane said. As a result, “they’re just not embracing the industry,” he said of young people. “The average age of contractors is going up.”
Even though Kane knows some trim finishers who earn six figures, “there’s this perception that it’s dangerous, low-paying work,” he said of construction.
“Good-paying construction jobs have been a little stigmatized, and we’re trying to overcome that,” Kane said.
That effort includes working with the Wake County public schools, Wake Technical Community College and N.C. State University to reverse the slide in young people pursuing careers in skilled trades, Kane said.
It’s an effort that will take time to bear fruit, he said. In the meantime, “we still have houses to build today.”
To help meet local demand for skilled trades, Kane’s group held a jobs fair in May, and its website hosts a jobs board.
For their part, local contractors are extending their searches for skilled laborers, Kane said.
“To a large extent, a lot of the builders have been looking beyond Wake County to recruit help,” he said. “I’m even hearing that they’re having trouble filling upper-level management jobs.”
“It’s nationwide,” he said of the labor shortage.
In the competition for IT people and civil engineers, local government might not enjoy the same reputation as some private-sector firms, O’Donnell said. “We have some great reasons for candidates in these fields to work here — amazing benefits, stable work environment — but the candidates tend to gravitate to more entrepreneurial companies,” he said.
That would seem to bode well for Raleigh-based Red Hat Inc., a provider of open-source software products. But even Red Hat must compete for top tech talent, said DeLisa Alexander, the company’s chief people officer.
“It’s definitely becoming more competitive than it was a couple of years ago,” she said. “There definitely is more demand.”
Red Hat is driving some of that demand, Alexander said. “We’re creating a lot of new technologies,” she said. “We’re creating new markets.”
Adding to the demand are new entrants in the technology sector and the widespread adoption of technology by traditional companies, Alexander said.
“Everybody is becoming a technology company,” she said.
Combine all of those demand forces, and it’s “a little bit of a perfect storm,” Alexander said.
Like Wake County homebuilders, Red Hat has taken steps to compete for talent. It has, for example, an in-house job-referral program that allows employees to recommend people for jobs.
Red Hat also takes what Alexander called a holistic approach to recruitment and hiring. It touts the company’s mission and its work environment, she said, and Red Hat has also stepped up its diversity efforts. “We’re seeing that get some traction,” she said.
Of course, public-sector employers have tools in the recruiting box too.
In Johnston County, the fast-growing public school system recently had openings for an HVAC technician and electrician, among other skilled jobs. To help fill those vacancies, the schools held their first-ever trades jobs fair.
Billy Massengill, the school system’s facilities officer, said he was pleased with the response. Some 65 people attended the job fair, and most of them filled out an application, he said.
“We were extremely pleased with the numbers as a first run of the trades job fair,” Massengill said.
He was pleased too with the quality of the job seekers. “More then 60 percent of the attendees asking questions about particular jobs would need little or no training in the related fields,” Massengill said.
To compete with the private sector, Durham will sometimes post job openings on industry-specific websites and some of the larger job-posting websites, O’Donnell said. But Durham isn’t Facebook or Google, he said.
“We won’t ever be the employer with a huge recruitment budget; we run very lean,” O’Donnell said. “We won’t be the employer that has a latte machine or a ping-pong table in the break room; the taxpayers rightfully wouldn’t accept this.”
So how do local governments sell themselves to recruits who are also considering private-sector offers?
“The city completed a compensation study in 2017 which has helped the city’s pay be more in line with the market for jobs,” Mayes said of Raleigh. “Also, the city offers a benefits plan which includes medical, dental, a supplemental retirement plan, vacation, sick leave, holidays and paid parental leave. The city’s total compensation package — pay and benefits — is in line with the market and allows us us to be in the ballpark to compete for most positions.”
Benefits help set Durham apart, O’Donnell added. “Only a handful of companies can match our retirement plans,” he said. “We have a health plan that offers no monthly premium, paid parental leave, paid sick leave, paid vacation. We can even use our employee badge as a free pass on the GoTriangle transit system. All these things add up and are much better than most benefit plans in the private sector.”
Benefits matter in Johnston County too, said Brian Vetrano, the school system’s chief of human resources. “Johnston County Public Schools is a great place to begin a career — a great place to end your career too — because of all the benefits we provide,” he said.
And not just the usual benefits like retirement plans and health insurance, Vetrano said. “There are opportunities for growth for employees, opportunities for job advancement and opportunities for professional development,” he said.
And if local governments need a trump card in their recruiting deck, they can play this one:
“As a potential employer, the city is able to sell the fact that individuals can assist in making an impact on the community,” Mayes said. “Serving the public has intrinsic value for many potential employees.”
O’Donnell agreed. “People always say that they gain personal satisfaction by giving back to their community and making it be the best place to live,” he said. “That is the definition of what you will be doing every day when you are working for the city.”
It helps too that Raleigh and Durham are happening places, Mayes and O’Donnell said.
“Many of our positions are in downtown Durham, where great shops and restaurants are around every corner,” O’Donnell said. “You have the DPAC and the Durham Bulls stadium, and I could go on. There is a buzz here that is just great to experience.”
“Raleigh,” Mayes added, “is not only a great place to work but also a great place to live and play, whether it is the museums, parks, concert venues or downtown nightlife.”