About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

More needs to be done to make public service a stable and appealing career to young people.

Members of the Hawaii State Senate may be wondering how they can address the state’s shortage in public workers this legislative session. As we know, this problem is also felt in the City and County of Honolulu. Both governments have been complaining about this problem since the 2000s, so what gives?

My readers are smart enough to know that having a protracted “hollow force” in state and county government is a recipe for disaster. Not only does short staffing affect the ability of many offices to fulfill their mission to the public, but over time it also creates a toxic organizational culture of entrenched fiefdoms, disgruntled workers, and a risk of losing all functionality when certain individuals retire because no one was mentored to replace them.

This is not a Hawaii-specific problem, to be fair. We like to blame “Covid” for this problem, but it was around long before that. Since the early 1990s, workers in America have been expected to have more education and more experience just to get in the front door, while private companies and governments alike hire fewer of them and assign them bigger and bigger roles. 

No one wants to work in a dysfunctional system where there is maximum responsibility for minimum pay or job security, so, not surprisingly, many companies and governments suffer from chronic vacancies and hollowed-out offices.

Long gone are the days when an office hired one person to manage the file cabinet, one person to make the coffee, and another person just to answer the phone, and all three of them could eventually work their way up to becoming the company’s CFO, CEO, and CMOs. The first and longest-serving director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, started out as a library clerk, then became a division chief, and then became director, where he would stay for five decades. 

Nowadays, you spend two to five years at one job, quit, work somewhere else for a little more money with a slightly better title, and then repeat that again and again, until you die of a heart attack, cancer, or live to retire at age 67 or later (if you’re lucky). We can’t do much about this, because it is a systemic and structural problem brought on by globalization, financialization, and changes in technology, just to name a few.

As a result, we now have a “Goldilocks” approach to hiring, retention, and promotion in Hawaii and across America, where workers must be “just right” to make it through the door. But once they get in that door, they wonder why the hell they even stepped through it to begin with. This does not at all mean that in Hawaii we can’t try to improve the process a little and work the problem to a more manageable level.

Start Recruiting Early

I hate to say this, but the state of Hawaii and the City and County of Honolulu need to start pursuing people when they’re in their junior or senior years of high school. The reason for this is that we need to get people interested at a young age in public service so that we have a plan for the day when millennials, Gen Xers, and the youngest of the baby boomers — currently aged 60 — begin to leave government in large numbers.

More needs to be done to get young people interested in the wide range of jobs in public service. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017)

The Legislature and City Council could create a “delayed entry program” for the civil service where exceptional youths with an interest in public service could be paid to go to college, and then, upon graduation, take positions in the government. This accomplishes two things. First, it guarantees a job for graduates with skills. Second, it ensures we have workers in the future. These candidates would then be trained up and, as they qualify, promoted to higher positions where they would in turn mentor younger people to replace them.

I’m pretty sure no high school senior in the class of 2024 is saying to their friends, “When I grow up, I wanna be a branch chief in the department of such-and-such so I can get yelled at and bullied by the Senate during legislative info briefings.” What are you, crazy? On the other hand, if we start showcasing to young people the importance of public service, and if we make it predictable and rewarding for them to join and rise through the ranks at an early age, then we’ll have the all workers we need 10, 20, and 50 years from now.

Simplify The Hiring Process

If the Senate Ways and Means Committee wants to see why Hawaii has so many vacancies, I recommend WAM go find an underpaid, part-time Senate session worker and tell them to apply for an entry-level position in the executive branch. Ideally, this person should be as overqualified, articulate and intelligent as possible. If they have multiple degrees, and especially if they are geniuses with Microsoft PowerPoint and Excel, that is an added plus to throw them into the meat grinder.

Why do I say that? Because what will likely happen is they will get scheduled for 40 interviews with 40 different state offices or agencies once they apply, and 38 of them will all send back regret-to-inform-you letters telling them they weren’t good enough for the position. 

One office will tell them they have an offer of employment, while the other office will reply to them six months from now, telling them that they have a job for them if they’re still interested. I say this because if you can’t hire an entry-level office assistant, then how can you possibly hire for other, more complex and senior positions?

“Good enough” and “close enough” is better than “not enough” when it comes to filling positions that have been empty for months or years. 

I’ve sent many of my brightest friends to apply for executive branch positions and they all get spanked by the hiring process and sent away empty-handed. There’s something seriously wrong when a department goes before WAM and tells them they can’t hire, but then, that same department is rejecting interviewees who are minimally qualified to do the job. That needs to stop.

If you want to start filling vacancies, you have to start hiring the people you interview. Pressure needs to be put on department heads to push their offices to just hire the people that are referred to them. “Good enough” and “close enough” is better than “not enough” when it comes to filling positions that have been empty for months or years. 

Cut The Grandstanding

Ultimately, retention is a political issue. That may be shocking for some to hear this, but the fact of the matter is that politics lately has become increasingly subject to the kinds of gimmicks, grandstanding, and goat roping that make people want to avoid or get out of government service. 

People are perceptive, and they can tell when purges are going to happen because a witch hunt is in progress at the Legislature for a certain agency, or when the governor or mayor has an agenda that makes it difficult to work in certain departments. When all is said and done, if you have good elected officials, you’ll have a good government, full of dedicated, enthusiastic people.

And if you have bad elected leadership? Well then, I’ll direct you to a quote from Cato, a play respected by many of America’s Founding Fathers: “When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway, the post of honor is a private station.”

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About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Latest Comments (0)

Not quite true: I was on many interview panels where we knew of highly qualified applicants, but the dumbed-down process hid them in the "objective" rankings for selection. (A corollary point: is it any surprise that polls of unsuccessful applicants lay the blame on a popular trope ?)I saw many applicants who were woefully unprepared, too lazy to even bother to Google the agency they were applying to, or show any interest in or even comprehension of its mission*; sometimes even its name. The process propped them up, obscuring better candidates; in years past, those "closed" meetings tried to reframe such processes to get at worthy candidates, not snatch up "insiders".*One memorable example: "I'd like to work for Customs because I like the outdoors, and am totally interested in the traditions, people, and customs of the Pacific."

Kamanulai · 1 month ago

Start a cooperative education programs at the high school, community college, and four-year institutions. Someone needs to manage the program and it should be a faculty member as they know their students better than anyone else. The person managing the program (often faculty) needs to be released from some of their teaching duties or paid additional income for participation. In some measure one might refer to the program as "boots on the ground" for both the student and faculty member. Students who participate earn credits. If the student is graduating, they are quite often offered a full or part time job. Organization participating in the program must provide a mentor who will mentor one or more students. I managed such a program at the community college level in California.

Richard_Bidleman · 1 month ago

For many positions in state and county government, the biggest competitor in hiring is the federal government. State and county are typically at a large disadvantage competing against feds because pay is so much lower.

Rob · 1 month ago

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