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Happy but Looking??? Staff Retention, Training and Development

By Bob Jean, Washington City/County Management Association Range Rider

According to an article in a recent International City/County Management Association newsletter, 83% of employees are happy BUT looking for another job. Even though satisfied with their current jobs, employees are looking for:

  • Better pay and benefits
  • Opportunities for advancement, and
  • Recognition for work well done

Like many cities and counties during the "Great Recession," layoffs meant more work for remaining staff, pay freezes and benefits rollbacks or cost-sharing, and reduced training budgets. While understandable and even necessary during the recession, these responses are not sustainable long-term for any healthy organization. We all say our employees are the heart and soul of our organizations, but do our actions match our words?


Don't kid yourselves. Our employees have skills that are valued in the marketplace and they do have options. Will they have to leave and move to another organization to advance in pay and in their careers? What's the cost to the city or county of recruiting and then retraining new employees, $10,000-20,000? Can we afford to NOT fairly compensate them for the value of their work? Employees understand the limits on our slowly recovering budgets. Be open and honest with them. Communicate what you can do to start to help their pay recover as the budgets recover. Even a discounted cost of living adjustment is better than a continued freeze. And, no, our employees don't just "consider themselves lucky to have a job." Now's the time to look at your performance evaluation system and switch to a real performance based step system, vs. straight time steps. Be creative in your benefits cost-sharing, and create systems that allow employees to tailor the value of their benefits to meet their individual needs, vs. one size fits all. Recommit your organization to the value of public service, respect and pay your employees, and they will follow.


Opportunities to advance and grow in one's career are not always vertical up the organization chart. More and more organizations have a leaner and flatter structure. Promotion opportunities are more limited. Look for horizontal leadership development opportunities, involving employees at all levels in cross-functional or interdepartmental teams, working on specific projects that might have been contracted out or postponed. Look for opportunities to develop "leaders at all levels." The rewards for this can be in the form of recognition or some extra vacation or merit days, not always pay. Challenge your employees. Rotate the up and coming leaders around to work temporarily in other departments. Let them know you are committed to getting them ready to compete when positions do open.

Training and Development

Most cities and counties, ones I managed included, really didn't worry about filling vacant positions, either from turnover or retirements. No more! Local government is in a quiet crisis-a crisis of leadership. Baby-Boomers are retiring in record numbers and there are fewer GenXers ready to assume their roles. There are only 2 people coming into local government for every 3 leaving. Have you cut your training budgets, or have you invested in maintaining the skills of your employees? Under the toughest of times, an amount not less than 1% of payroll should be budgeted just to maintain credentials and certificates. A training budget equal to 2-3% of payroll is needed to grow their skills and abilities to cost-effectively provide public services. You may ask, What if we train them and they leave?" The real question is, "What if we don't train and they stay?"

Are your employees "Happy BUT Looking?" Or do they understand your commitment to them and their ability to grow and advance with your city or county? Let them know by your actions as well as words that you do recognize and respect the value of their public service.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Bob Jean

About Bob Jean

Bob Jean writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Bob Jean retired in 2010 after 15 years as the City Manager for University Place, Washington. He has over 35 years of city and county management experience. He is a past Board Member for AWC. He received the ICMA national Award for Staff Development and Training. He currently serves as an advisor to cities and counties as a Range Rider for WCMA.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.