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Friday, Feb 23, 2024

Business Services Shorted by City Staff Needs

No sugarcoating it: our civil service system is broken in Los Angeles. Some of you will think, “What does this guy have against government workers?” Don’t get me wrong. Many government employees show up and put in a full day’s work, but the problem is the recruitment and retention of our civil service workers. The city needs to do more.

Covid-19 ruined our government workforce. Millions retired early, a fifth of the workforce changed careers, and millions more were left out of the force due to long-Covid. Couple this with Angelenos leaving because they can no longer afford to stay in an overpriced city, and you’ve created the perfect storm that starves our city departments of skilled and necessary workers. To add insult to injury, the inefficiency that plagues our civil service system means it cannot compete with the private sector, which offers better compensation and a more organized applicant process.

The rules of the past don’t work in 2022 Los Angeles. Working for the city of Los Angeles was once considered highly respected and was known to be competitive, but now there are two vacancies for one applicant, creating competition amongst various city departments. So not only do we have a city government that already undermines efficiency and works against the business community, but we don’t even have the staff to provide services and facilitate development projects. What a crapshoot.

What is wrong with our employment process? Examinations, evaluations, and promotion schedules. The Board of Civil Service Commissioners is a charter body that sets the rules and enforcement throughout the service system, including their “competitive” examination process, which also evaluates experience and character. Promotions and “lateral” movements are also overseen by the board, with merit and seniority prioritized for those considered for senior positions. 

There’s nothing wrong with this, right? Wrong, totally wrong. What should be addressed is the dragged-out application process many must go through to join the service system. If you are a recent college graduate looking for your first job and applying to both city and private sector positions, you are likely to get picked up faster and provided a better compensation package from the private sector than our city government could ever provide.

Not only does the civil service keep career-starting applicants out of reach, but the service system also does a great job of keeping those with years of experience at arm’s length. The Los Angeles City Charter states that all department promotions for senior positions are based on merit and seniority, prioritizing those who retake promotion examinations every two years. So, for a senior engineer with 10 years of experience in the private sector who wants to bring their knowledge to the city, tough luck; they will have to start from the bottom and work their way up. And as more people look for quicker promotions and job hop every few years, we only make it harder for the city to retain experience and talent because we need to promote as fast as we can hire.

Different generation

Our civil service system was designed to benefit an era of boomers and Gen Xers getting a job, climbing through the ranks, and ending their time with a nice city pension to vacation off of. But the younger generations are different; they saw their parents working in the same job and how miserable they were. Now millennials make the choice to leave jobs they don’t like, job hopping every few years.

While our long-term goal should be to completely reform the employment provisions of the City Charter and remove certain employment and evaluation requirements, expedite the recruiting process, and reform the merit-based promotion system, there are steps that we can take now to address our shortages.

First, the City Council can and should increase funding for departments dealing with staffing shortages, such as City Planning and Building & Safety. Providing financing to increase wages can increase the public sector’s appeal to those who may be enticed into the private sector for compensation levels.

Second, the mayor’s office can redirect staff from various departments to others with staffing shortages for at most 120 days. Doing so can help city personnel understand each department’s function and how to circumvent or overcome departments’ barriers concerning red tape and communications.

Third, the Board of Commissioners has the power to make temporary appointments from a reserve list of individuals who have been out of the civil service for less than five years; call them back to work as efforts are made to address our recruiting and retention shortfalls. Finally, the board has the power to enter contracts with independent firms if they are more economically feasible than having city employees. Immediately, the board should enter contracts to catch up on city services and development projects, providing a release valve to have city services provided again. 

The rules that worked for the previous generation no longer apply; we must make these changes because the city doesn’t have the luxury of being selective as it once was. We must reform our civil service system and employment provisions of our charter to rebuild our city workforce and make Los Angeles thrive again.

Stuart Waldman is president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, a business advocacy organization based in Van Nuys that represents employers in the San Fernando Valley area at the local, state and federal levels of government.

Hannah Madans Welk
Hannah Madans Welk
Hannah Madans Welk is Interim Editor at the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Inside The Valley. She previously covered real estate for the Los Angeles Business Journal. She has done work with publications including The Orange County Register, The Real Deal and doityourself.com.

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