Anthony Romero is an executive Monday through Friday.
On weekends, he is a busboy.
That’s because someone has to step in to help his restaurateur wife, who is struggling to find enough workers.
“It’s all over (the place),” Romero said of the staffing crisis.
That includes Albuquerque city government, where Romero spends his weekdays as the human resources director. Inability to fill jobs has, in some cases, impacted city services, like the recent service reduction on dozens of bus routes.
The city ended 2022 with a 22.5% vacancy rate, by far the highest since at least 2010. It is currently hovering at 22.1%. City job postings, meanwhile, generate significantly less attention than they once did. In 2017, city openings yielded an average of 93 applications apiece. By 2022, that had fallen to 30.5 applications, a 67% decline over five years, according to a Journal review of city data. And for the city, each posting is not always indicative of a single job opening; the Solid Waste collection driver posting, for example, currently represents more than 20 current vacancies.
Hiring has been a well-documented challenge for employers nationwide, as the labor force participation rate has yet to fully rebound from the early-pandemic crash. But it is perhaps more surprising inside a city government that navigated the pandemic without layoffs and that prides itself on stability and comprehensive benefits, including some not commonly found outside government. That includes a pension, or defined benefit retirement plan, something Romero said he remembers his own parents urging him to find in a job.
But that reputation just isn’t enough anymore, Romero said.
“We’ve allowed ourselves to get very comfortable in thinking that everybody’s going to want to (work here),” Romero said in a recent interview from his City Hall office, noting that the city is having to evolve to stand out in a “hyper-competitive” labor market.
The city is not alone. Bernalillo County’s current vacancy rate is 29%, while the state of New Mexico’s is 24.3% within classified positions.
Sarita Nair, head of New Mexico’s state workforce agency and a former top city of Albuquerque administrator, said government has a few extra hurdles when it comes to finding and keeping workers. The salary structures are sometimes rigid, and the hiring process can take months. The city of Albuquerque is averaging 86 days between posting a job and getting final approval to hire the selected candidate (excluding the long-term fire cadet postings).
Many government jobs are also what Nair called “truly frontline” and not the kind of work that can be done from home. At the city, that includes public safety and bus drivers but also those who staff libraries, community centers and animal shelters.
While the city offers hybrid schedules – up to two days per week remote work for the jobs that allow it – Romero said the lack of full-time teleworking opportunities has proven a deal-breaker for some employees.
“I think that’s also in people’s minds now: ‘You know, if something else (major) happens, I’m going to be expected to keep working,'” said Nair, secretary of New Mexico Workforce Solutions.
But just finding and hiring the right candidates is not the only big challenge for the city; it also has an increasingly difficult time keeping them. Its annual job turnover rate hit 17.8% in 2022. Romero said he’s “not hugely concerned” with that, since it’s in line with national trends for government employers.
But it is high by city of Albuquerque standards, where churn averaged only 12.4% over the preceding 10 years. More retirements have played a minor role, but terminations – including voluntary and involuntary departures – are driving the turnover rate acceleration.
The city’s termination rates was 13.7% in 2022, also the highest since at least 2010.
Some areas are particularly susceptible to heavy outflow. Among the 10 largest city departments, five had termination rates higher than the city as a whole in 2022, led by Transit at 27.9%. The president of the union representing city Transit workers did not respond to multiple Journal messages seeking comment.
While understaffing within the Albuquerque Police Department is often the subject of headlines and scrutiny, APD’s termination (12.2%) and turnover (16.5%) rates are less than the city’s as a whole and the retirement rate is similar (4.2% in APD compared to 4.1% across the city), according to 2022 city data.
Romero said his department plans to start doing “a lot deeper dive” in areas with high turnover rates to better understand the issues. For now, the city’s primary effort to understand the employee exodus is an exit survey. Initiated four years ago, the survey is voluntary and only a fraction of departing employees – 7.8% – have completed it thus far.
Those in that small sample most often cited retirement as their reason for leaving, followed by management concerns and morale issues. Asked what would have influenced them to stay, the top response was higher pay.
Nair said salary is workers’ chief reason for leaving a job. It supersedes longevity and advancement opportunities, she said. As for those benefits the city touts? Nair said she doesn’t think they hold much sway with workers, particularly those who are younger.
“Even though there’s all this quality-of-life talk, the No. 1 reason people are leaving their jobs is compensation,” she said.
Romero said the city is in the middle of a sweeping “classification and compensation” analysis for the first time in more than 20 years. The findings will evaluate salaries, including the jobs where city pay is not currently competitive; study what staffing levels need to be to meet city objectives and help guide officials as they make potential changes to larger compensation structures.
The city in 2021 launched a hiring bonus program, offering anywhere from $750 to $15,000 incentives for those accepting the hard-to-fill jobs. About 570 people so far have received the bonuses – which the city typically issues in installments and are not entirely fulfilled until a year of service – though the city could not provide retention rates after payouts.
Romero said the city is also trying to streamline its hiring process and that 34% of last year’s new hires were completed in 60 days or less. It is also tinkering with how it posts jobs online and uses social media to spread the word about openings, and is literally taking its message on the road with a hiring “bus” that can go out to special events.
Romero’s office is also evaluating ways to be more flexible, perhaps offering some hard-to-fill jobs as part-time positions to attract seniors or others uninterested in the five-days-a-week grind.
“We’re trying to stretch as much as we can,” he said.
Getting back to normal?
Officials say they have started to see some promising signs. Department directors say they are starting to put dents in what had been stubborn vacancy rates.
Hiring remains difficult, Arts & Culture Director Shelle Sanchez said, but “I feel like we’re definitely moving back toward a more normal place.”
Low staffing has challenged her department for the last few years, stressing the existing workforce and sometimes affecting public services. It has occasionally forced lunch-hour or early closures at some of the city’s smaller libraries, Sanchez said, and limited the city’s ability to rent museums and other cultural venues to residents for their weddings and other private events.
Sanchez said her department currently has 55 vacancies but has selected candidates to fill over 20 of them. Those new hires would lower the department’s vacancy rate to about 8%, something she said took focus.
“We just made (recruitment and hiring) one of the most important things we did every day,” she said.
Albuquerque Solid Waste Director Matthew Whelan said the city has been more aggressive about marketing jobs and that his department is down to 100 open jobs (19% vacancy) from 137 (26%) over the last four months.
Staffing problems within the department’s “clean cities” division led to difficulty keeping roadways clear of overgrown weeds last summer, a situation that captured some public attention. Whelan said that area is about 80% full now and he doesn’t expect similar problems this summer.
The department is still looking to hire trash collection drivers with 22 open jobs in that area.
“It seems like a lot, but we were at 32 (driver vacancies) around two months ago,” Whelan said. “We’re still trying to get people in. You want to put that in (the story)? We’re hiring.”