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‘No department left untouched’: City of Boise struggling to fill vacant positions

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The City of Boise hasn’t been spared by the challenges of the Great Resignation. 

Like private businesses in nearly every industry and other government organizations, the City of Boise is also facing a difficult hiring environment and struggling to fill vacant positions. To fix the problem the city is considering possible wage increases, new recruitment strategies and switching up benefits packages to attract more employees and keep them. 

[Economic growth, frustration and deferred dreams fueling tens of thousands of job resignations in Idaho]

Human Resources Director Sarah Borden told Boise City Council Tuesday morning the city currently has 228 open positions and an 8% vacancy rate, which is up from its typical 4-6%. This is still better than the state of Idaho’s 12% vacancy rate, but it’s hitting every department and starting to limit operations

“There is no department left untouched by this,” she said. 

A perfect storm of retirements, growth and COVID-19

The departments with the highest vacancy rates include the Boise Public Library with nearly a quarter of its positions unfilled. The majority of this department’s employees are library assistants and pages who often work part-time for some of the lowest wages the City of Boise pays, according to wage records obtained by BoiseDev in recent years. The departments with the fewest openings are the Boise Fire Department and Parks and Recreation, but Borden said this is largely due to a recent fire academy class graduating and starting work along with Parks and Recreation on its off-season and not hiring for seasonal summer workers yet. 

Borden said the combination of a wave of baby boomers retiring, people leaving the workforce due to the pandemic and the need to provide care at home for a family member and the economy creating more jobs fueled an unprecedented demand for workers. She said data shows for every two job openings in Idaho there is one worker to fill them. 

A graph showing the vacancy rate in various city departments. Courtesy of the City of Boise

It’s also hard for the City of Boise to keep employees once they come in. After reviewing the city’s 114 exit interviews from 2021, the majority said they were leaving to take other jobs with 45% of non-retirees saying the city’s salaries and increasing cost of living were a big factor in the decision. A smaller number of respondents said the strain of COVID-19 pushed them to leave, either due to the need to take care of another family member or due to their own mental health. 

“We’re also seeing an increase in turnover from people who have been here less than a year,” Borden said. “Not only are we trying to increase staffing, we’re replacing those we just hired. It starts to feel like you’re treating water a little bit.”

What is the city doing about it?

To fix this, Borden has a few proposals. 

She said HR is preparing for the FY 2023 budget and what wage increases could be added to keep up with the market, but also considering the idea of splitting cost of living adjustments and performance pay into different categories to help with keeping up with inflation. Another idea would be to make benefits packages more flexible, allowing employees to pick and choose what is important to them along with the ability to build a hybrid work schedule. 

The city’s Community Engagement Department also launched monthly supervisor and management training and Borden said there will be more on the way to help support staff and help them be prepared for difficult situations. A survey of employees will also be rolling out soon. 

City Council President Elaine Clegg said the city should also try to focus its recruitment on people who have left the workforce entirely for childcare, eldercare or other reasons and try to entice them to come and work for the city with what they’re looking for. 

“We’re never going to fill these jobs if we don’t find other employees who aren’t currently looking,” Clegg said. 

City Council Member Luci Willits asked if the city had any data on if its vaccine mandate for new employees was impacting hiring. Borden and Mayor Lauren McLean told her because it’s a new requirement and because it’s difficult to measure people choosing not to apply to an organization, there is no data on this impact. 

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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