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Community Development departments across North America are feeling the pressure to approve permits faster and jumpstart stalled development projects. That task is being made more challenging by a lack of quality applicants and a high turnover rate.
“To put it in perspective, at the end of 2021, the public sector was close to a million positions short of where it had been two years ago,” said Christine Brakefield, Former Chief Building Official (CBO) for the City of Midwest City in Oklahoma.
Brakefield, who co-hosted a webinar with Clariti on the topic of technology’s role in staff retention, spent 7 years as a CBO, and now shares her expertise in hiring and technology as a solutions consultant at Avolve Software. Below, we share some of her insights and strategies for hiring and retaining permitting and inspections staff.
Building and inspections staff are resigning at an alarming rate and open spots are taking longer to fill—much longer. According to a 2022 research study, 73 percent of state and local government respondents cited building permitting and inspections roles as some of the hardest positions to fill.
At the same time, existing government employees are retiring at a faster rate. 53 percent of respondents in the same study indicated that their retirement-eligible employees have accelerated their retirement date, with 41 percent anticipating that most retirements will take place over the next few years.
“We're having trouble filling the top of the funnel and having to deal with more and more people leaving at the bottom of the funnel,” said Brakefield.
Why are these positions so hard to fill? One reason may be the level of specialization required. Many permitting, planning, and inspections roles require licenses and certifications to even get started. Furthermore, the people most qualified to fill the roles usually come from the construction and development industries, which are experiencing the same uphill battle when it comes to hiring.
Another issue is a growing gap between public and private sector salaries. Brakefield noted that, historically, the private sector paid about 3.7% more than the public sector. The gap was offset by retirement and benefits packages that couldn’t be as easily obtained in the private sector. Today, the gap between public and private sector salaries is more like 8.2%.
When it comes to retaining existing employees, burnout is a significant factor. Brakefield shared a slide (shown below) about the role of mental and emotional exhaustion in turnover, regardless of the person’s next steps.
The slide also illustrates how burnout drives turnover that adds stress on the remaining employees who must now contend with higher workloads–which may contribute to their burnout, as the process repeats itself. This negative cycle could spell trouble for cities seeking to boost economic development and address the housing crisis.
How technology helps you hire and retain talent, according to a CBO
Fortunately, modern permitting and plan review systems alleviate a variety of employee and job seeker complaints and make recruitment easier. Brakefield shared several ways technology can be leveraged to attract new hires and support employee satisfaction.
1. A paperless office makes a good first impression.
“I think we often undersell what the office environment leaves as an impression on those who are coming in to interview for the position,” Christine explained. “When [my permitting office was] paper based… stuff was stacked everywhere. The phones were ringing off the hook because people had to call to get any and all information or ask a question.”
Brakefield compared this experience to a later one hiring an inspector after her team had adopted permitting technology. “They came in to interview and saw that everybody had big monitors and clean desks. There wasn’t paper strewn everywhere.”
2. Cloud software enables remote work—which attracts talent.
Permit administrators using online permitting software have the flexibility to work from anywhere—and scores of studies are showing that remote and hybrid work schedules increase employee satisfaction, productivity, happiness, and overall efficiency. Embracing technology and flexible work policies is an important way to stay competitive with the private sector, which has been much quicker to adopt both practices.
Of course, for staff who do a lot of work in the field, such as building inspectors, full-time remote work isn’t an option. However, with the right technology setup, government leaders can still offer field employees the ability to work from home once or twice a week like the City of Aspen did.
3. Good training programs=happy employees.
Having a great product is only one part of the equation. Brakefield stressed that even with best-in-class permitting software, permit offices won’t achieve widespread adoption and success without a solid implementation and training plan.
A good software provider can help you plan for organizational change management, and get you set up for implementation success. The result? Happier employees who understand what’s going on, how they fit in, and how they can do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.
4. A tech-forward mindset appeals to job seekers.
Field employees aren’t usually thrilled about the administrative work that awaits them back at the office. Advertise your adoption of online systems and flexible work policies in your job descriptions and recruiting materials.
“Having technology that gets rid of the majority of the administrative work and instead allows inspectors to be out in the field—and advertising that in the job description—is attractive,” said Brakefield. “It’s something that really set my inspection positions apart from some of the other open roles I was competing against.”
The Clariti-ProjectDox integration is a pre-configured, plug-and-play permitting and ePlan review integration that offers a single source of truth for permitting and plan review work streams. No stacks of paper or multiple solutions required – permitting workflows can be completed from start to finish with one system to save time.
Here’s how it helps: