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Oakland stares down major staffing gaps, mirroring Bay Area hiring woes

The city, like many municipalities nationwide, battles high competition for skilled workers and demands for higher wages for front line workers.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Oakland city officials stared down a sobering report on major staff gaps plaguing the city, with a vacancy rate only beat in the Bay Area by the city of Vallejo.

At a special finance committee meeting Monday, staff informed City Council members that the city is struggling to hire across the board, including engineers, planners, building inspectors and accountants. Like municipalities nationwide, Oakland battles high competition for skilled workers amid demands for better wages

A table shows data for how many cities saw job applications reducing around the Bay Area in California. Photo from Oakland Human Resources Management.

Staff say a survey conducted this spring found the city’s vacancy rate at 16.33% stands out, over Berkeley at 16% and under nearby Vallejo, which is at about 28%.

The Oakland-Hayward-Fremont regional unemployment rate was 3.3% in March, when the California unemployment rate was 4.2%, according to the California Employment Development Department. But according to the city’s Human Resources Director Ian Appleyard, “Less people are applying to city jobs.” Since 2019, there have been 43% fewer applications to Oakland city jobs.

Updated data show all vacancy rates in city departments in Oakland. Photo from Oakland Human Resources Management.

“These are really troubling numbers,” Appleyard said, adding the city is having to compete with wages offered by cities around the Bay as well as with the private sector and tech industry.

The highest vacancy rates are in the workplace standards and enforcement, housing and development and planning and building departments. Candidates for directors of the transportation, workplace standards and enforcement and human resources are being interviewed. The city has relied on a recruitment consultant, CPS HR Consulting, for about 17 recruitments since 2020.

A new report from human capital management group NeoGov shows that nationwide “the number of applications per job has dropped 21% between 2015 and 2021.”

New data show how many Oakland jobs in the last year, by department, were emptied by resignations and separations. Photo by Oakland Human Resources Management.

“In an industry that already suffers from a workforce that is disproportionately older, the Great Resignation presents potentially dire circumstances,” the report said. The organization cited decreasing job applications, particularly for jobs offering below $40,000 per year, saying around the country public agencies are trying to increase flexible remote and hybrid work opportunities.

City Administrator Ed Reiskin reported as of May 2, there were 772 empty full time positions with 36 furloughed. In the past, the budgeted vacancy rate for the general fund was 4%. But last year, that rate was adjusted by the City Council to 8.4% using an additional $1.3 million.

Reiskin wrote that there were 379 full-time and permanent part-time hires in the past year, 53.6% of which promoted current staff. However, he added internal promotion “means more than half of our hires replace one vacancy with another, which leaves our vacancy rate unchanged.”

The resignations coming out of the police department, at 71% versus 37% retirements, "is a real concern," Appleyard said. The department has just over 1,000 full time positions funded and the city reported that among sworn OPD officers, there were 92 resignations in 2021-2022 as of May 2 and 66 in the previous year. Mayor Libby Schaaf has asked to increase the police budget in the mid-year budget cycle this year for the second time, after proposing a budget for increasing the police department’s spending which was $18 million more than what the council ultimately approved last year.

Across the Bay by comparison, San Francisco’s Mayor London Breed has proposed a budget to fill hundreds of vacant law enforcement jobs and prioritize pumping funding into the police department — increasing the SFPD budget by about $50 million to $708.3 million in the next fiscal year, according to San Francisco Chronicle.

The report argued some points in the city’s favor. Full-time employees who left in the last three years worked for the city for an average of 12 years, compared to the national average of 6.5 years in public sector jobs. The city’s overall hires also exceed the average for employees who left. 

Appleyard said the city plans to improve hiring efficiency and recruiting to hire more quickly and improve candidates’ experience. He said, “We’re struggling because of many of these things we can’t control,” but advocated for work to promote the city, “setting the tone as Oakland as the city of choice.”

The city did not outline specific immediate actions to address service gaps in the meeting, which drew criticism from Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan and Councilmember Treva Reid.

Reid said “I’m not hearing a strategy or a plan” for how to tackle unemployment and complaints of low pay. She said she and other East Oakland residents, “We live it, we feel it, we endure it,” when city workers cannot respond to requests for civic maintenance. 

Reid asked for a race and equity analysis to be added to the report, saying that her district has high levels of unemployment and lacks “culturally competent” outreach. 

Kaplan levied allegations that some departments may not fill all positions that are funded, because a manager did not “click” with a candidate. She said as a result, “We have had people injured and killed, because the basic roadway safety improvements we authorized and approved have not been implemented.”

Reiskin disagreed, saying “They are very motivated to get these positions filled” but have the discretion to not hire if they do not find a candidate they think fits the role.

The committee will revisit the report again in September, with new information on working with nonprofits and an analysis from the Race and Equity Department.

For those representing city workers, the problems outlined are just more of the same. Felipe Cuevas, president of Service Employees International Union, Local 1021, said he is not happy the city increased its budgeted vacancy rate to 8% since “That’s less services they can provide.” 

“Building inspectors, fire inspectors — you name it, they’re short staffed,” he said. 

Cuevas added the city must address service workers’ low pay: “There’s a number of classifications that are … 10-13% underpaid.” He added that “We have not gotten any hero pay from the city,” referring to state bonuses cities could use to pay frontline employees for working during the pandemic.

“I know there’s a lot of agencies that pay more,” Cuevas added. “There’s no real incentives I know of here in the city.”

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