New Research from the Center for State and Local Government Excellence at ICMA-RC Finds Spike in Retirement Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

New research assessing the state and local government workforce finds jurisdictions are facing acute challenges recruiting employees in several critical areas. Health care positions are identified as hard to fill by 60-75% of survey respondents, followed by positions in corrections and policing, both at 64%. Other positions identified as hard to fill include skilled trades (57%) and engineering (52%), which are professions in direct competition with the private sector.

The research also shows that the COVID-19 pandemic is triggering a higher rate of retirement among the state and local workforce. The percentage of respondents indicating that retirement-eligible employees are accelerating their retirement plans was 38%, the highest rate observed since this research began in 2009. The retirement spike comes as employers already are anticipating a high number of future retirements among Baby Boomers.

These findings are in a new report from the Center for State and Local Government Excellence at ICMA-RC (SLGE at ICMA-RC), Survey Findings: State and Local Workforce 2021,  by Gerald Young, Senior Research Analyst and lead on the survey at SLGE at ICMA-RC. Download the research.

Since 2009, SLGE at ICMA-RC has partnered with the International Public Management Association for Human Resources (IPMA-HR) and the National Association of State Personnel Executives (NASPE) to conduct this annual study on state and local workforce issues. The 2021 survey asked many of the questions from the original survey, with additional detail around emerging issues.

Click here to download the slides from the related webinar held on May 19 or view the webinar recording by clicking the video link below.

The 2021 survey was conducted online from February 25, 2021 to April 6, 2021, and the results are based upon the responses of 288 public human resource professionals who are members of IPMA-HR and/or NASPE.

“Clearly, the pandemic is having a tremendous impact on the state and local workforce, which was already facing long-term challenges,” Young said. “Overall, the data shows that recruiting and retaining workers is only getting harder at a time when the pandemic is accelerating retirement. On the upside, we are seeing increased telework and other flexible scheduling arrangements. This can help with employee recruitment and retention for employers who cannot offer higher salaries.”

Selected key findings are as follows:

  • Recruitment has remained difficult, with more than half of respondents indicating challenges filling positions in health care, corrections, policing, skilled trades, and engineering. For organizations recruiting registered nurses, about four in five said they received fewer qualified applications than the number of positions available.
  • A looming challenge is the retirement of experienced employees as the Baby Boom generation prepares to leave the workforce. This survey finds that most of the impact is still to come, with 52% responding that the largest share of potential retirement is anticipated in the next few years.
  • Hiring for full-time and part-time positions was lower for more than 42% of respondents in the past year, while retirement was higher for 30% of respondents.
  • The share of respondents reporting furloughs (19%) and layoffs (15%) remained lower this year than in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 recession.
  • Overall, 28% of respondents indicated a decline in their full-time workforce size over the past year, with another 47% indicating no change.
  • The most common workforce action in 2021 was to hire new staff, which 74% of jurisdictions did, even if they may have cut staff in other areas. The greatest change in the past year was the implementation of travel or training restrictions, which increased from 21% of respondents in the March 2020 survey to 67% in 2021.
  • Most jurisdictions did not implement cuts to health or retirement benefits in the past year. But among those that did, there was a reduction or elimination of cost-of-living adjustments, or certain costs were shifted from the employer to the employee.
  • The percentage of respondents who feel their wage is competitive with the labor market is 60%. By comparison, with pensions still much more prevalent among public agencies than private, 92% rate their benefits as competitive.
  • Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, flexible work arrangements became much more common. The percentage reporting regular telework for eligible positions (53%) has almost doubled since 2020, with the practice more common in state agencies than local ones (64% vs. 19%).
  • Sought-after skills have been a survey topic since 2015, with non-technical skills topping the list every year. In 2021, the most sought-after skill is analytical/critical thinking, at 74%.

SLGE at ICMA-RC will continue to track these and related issues, both as part of this survey series and related polling of state and local government employees. SLGE at ICMA-RC gratefully acknowledges the participation of IPMA-HR and NASPE in this research, as well as the dedication of state and local government employees during these extraordinary times.

The Center for State and Local Government Excellence at ICMA-RC

The Center for State and Local Government Excellence was founded in 2007 by ICMA-RC, and in 2021, the two organizations formally joined forces to form the Center for State and Local Government Excellence at ICMA-RC. SLGE at ICMA-RC helps local and state governments become knowledgeable and competitive employers so they can attract and retain a talented and committed workforce. It identifies leading practices and conducts research on public retirement plans, health and wellness benefits, workforce demographics and skill set needs, labor force development, and topics facing the not-for-profit industry and the education sector. Additionally, the center brings state and local leaders together with respected researchers. For more information, access to all research and publications, and to sign up for the center’s newsletter, visit and follow on Twitter.


Media Contact:

SLGE at ICMA-RC | Kelly Kenneally | 202.256.1445 | [email protected].

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