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Building a More Diverse Public Sector Hiring Pipeline

Local governments are rethinking how they go about connecting with job candidates. “It’s just not enough to post a position and then say we have no qualified diverse talent,” says one official.

Few in the public sector would believe—or admit that they believe—that hiring a diverse workforce isn’t beneficial. But hiring doesn’t even become a factor if a diverse mix of candidates aren’t applying for jobs in the first place. Around the country, some local governments have recognized this problem and are looking for ways to solve it. They’re taking steps like cultivating public-facing images and messaging that emphasizes how diversity is a priority in their workplaces, and they’re strengthening connections with colleges, and even high schools and middle schools, to expand their pool of potential employees.    

There’s a long way to go. As we’ve written in past Route Fifty columns, there can be implicit and explicit biases in the public sector hiring process. And, according to data from a MissionSquare Research Institute survey, in 2021 only 38% of the cities responding found their workforce to be reflective of the community when it came to race and ethnicity. Though 56% of cities surveyed by MissionSquare for another report indicated that diversity, equity and inclusion are a top or high priority, only “42%  have a formal program in place,” according to Gerald Young, the senior research analyst there. Young points out that this statistic doesn’t capture places that might have some kind of informal program.

Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in public sector hiring aren’t just a matter of doing something that seems fair and right. It’s also smart governance. As Leisha DeHart-Davis, professor of public administration at the University of North Carolina, says, “The research tells us that when a local government looks like the community it serves, it is perceived as being more legitimate and elicits greater cooperation for the government.”

One way to help diversify recruiting is by putting forward an image of a city that appears welcoming to people of all races, ethnicities and genders. The careers page on Memphis, Tennessee’s website is a solid model of this. Under the words “A New Era in Public Service,” are images of a female police officer and a black male firefighter. “But if you look at a lot of local government websites, they don’t even think of the pictures they put up with their job ads,” says DeHart-Davis. “Memphis really got it right with that image.”

That’s just the beginning. Key to recruiting a diverse workforce is developing a pipeline that leads men and women of different backgrounds to public service.

Delaware, for example, “is committed to reinforcing the pipeline to jobs with the state from historically black colleges like Delaware State University,” says Claire DeMatteis, secretary of the Delaware Department of Human Resources. The school offers 46 undergraduate degrees, 21 graduate degrees and six doctoral degrees. “The real prize is when we keep those people in Delaware, preferably in the public sector,” she says.  

Because not all potential public servants will attend college, Delaware has extended its reach a step deeper into the educational track. “For people who aren’t college-inclined,” says DeMatteis, “we created Delaware Pathways, in the high schools and middle schools. We grab the kids—many of them in the non-white population—and bring them through high school or middle school and connect them with a job path that can lead to employment with the state.”

Though Philadelphia still faces an uphill battle in recruiting a more diverse workforce, the city is committed to moving in that direction and is taking concrete steps to do so. In the past, for example, the city’s fire department held all its civil service tests periodically on a single day. “But just because the city thought Saturday was a convenient day, it might not be for many people, especially those in our most challenged communities,” says Michael Zaccagni, director of human resources there. “So, we expanded things out and now our testing is done over a two-or-three-month period during which people can come in and test at their leisure and they can even take the test remotely. That has had a major impact on the diversity of the employment pool.”

Another approach, which is being used in Philadelphia, and elsewhere, is to change the degree requirements for the jobs where that’s feasible. For example, instead of requiring a bachelor’s degree, job postings can say “bachelor’s degree or equivalent,” which opens up the positions to people who qualify in other ways but don’t have a diploma. 

This is an important tool in the pursuit of a diverse workforce, since according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute in 2019, about 40% of Black adults aged 25 to 29 had at least a two year college degree, compared to 56% of white people.

King County, Washington has recognized that attracting “black, indigenous and other people of color” to public sector jobs means reaching out to them through the media—but this also requires looking beyond  traditional outlets. “Up until the last three years, we were advertising mostly in The Seattle Times,” says Richard Moore, deputy division director for HR service delivery there, “But now we use smaller community-based outlets like radio advertising for the Latinx-Hispanic community and news publications for the Korean community.”

Similarly, Philadelphia has recognized that “it’s just not enough to post a position and then say we have no qualified diverse talent,” says Nefertiri Sickout, the city’s chief diversity equity and inclusion officer. “So, we work with the appropriate organizations to develop a pipeline of talent, including historically Black colleges and universities and diverse chambers of commerce including the African American Chamber of Commerce, the Asian American Chamber of Commerce, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Using those existing membership groups to target recruitment is helpful, but it takes time, and it requires being very intentional in our approach.”

Clearly, no city or state will make progress in this field if there isn’t support and guidance from government leaders, including elected officials. Says Gordon Goodwin, senior director of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, “If you have been consistently rewarded for making your recruitment goals, why would you do anything differently unless someone says that a diverse workforce is a priority?” 

“A lot of reporters are looking for a one-size fits all quote about what governments can do about achieving racial equity and I’m sorry, but if there was a little placard that you could just read from and that said, ‘you just need to do these things,’ then it would be easy,” Goodwin added. “But it’s a process of actually understanding how the current processes and procedures are not working for everyone. If leaders don’t point that out, then you have a tendency to return to just putting things up on the website and complaining that you’re not getting enough people of color applying for jobs.”