Over 20% of the positions in Long Beach’s workforce are unfilled, with the city pointing to the “Great Resignation,” a competitive job market and its own antiquated, months-long hiring practices as the driving forces behind the vacancies that are slowing city services.

The vacancies span across all city departments, according to data gathered by the city earlier this year, which showed some had as many as 40% of their full-time positions unfilled (Economic Development), while other larger departments, like the Health Department and Police Department, have hundreds of open spots and vacancy rates between 23% and 34%.

The citywide average is 22%.

Filling those positions has historically been a lengthy process, with the time between job requests being approved to candidates being hired and onboarded taking upward of six to seven months.

“People are not sitting around for six months for government jobs anymore,” said Joe Ambrosini, the city’s director of Human Resources. “That’s just not happening.”

So, the city is trying to pivot to a faster hiring process by shaving off days or even weeks by eliminating some previous processes like drug testing and physical exams but also examining the benefit of mass hiring events.

The city is also proposing a pot of about $2 million to fund retention and recruitment bonuses and down payment assistance for city employees, as well as beefing up its own hiring team to get people processed and on the job faster.

“There’s not one solution that’s going to get us out of this,” Ambrosini said.

The ‘Great Resignation’

Ambrosini and others point to the mass resignations of 2021 as a factor that has exacerbated the city’s vacancy issues.

An estimated 47 million Americans quit their jobs that year, and the trend has not let up two years later, with 9.5 million jobs remaining open across California through June 2023, Ambrosini told the City Council’s Budget Oversight Committee on Tuesday.

In an interview, Ambrosini said the tight labor market and an “arms race” of bonuses, benefits and higher salaries being offered in the private and public sectors has continued to contribute to unprecedented rates of job switching.

“If you got a better opportunity, you were going,” Ambrosini said of continued resignations. “I’ve never seen salary and salary offers like they’ve been being made in the past year.”

Christina Pizzaro-Winting, the executive director of the city’s Civil Service Department, which helps process the bulk of the city’s full-time employees, said the pandemic provided an opportunity for a lot of people to sit back and reassess what they actually wanted to do with their careers.

While the city is still getting applications for job openings, the numbers it’s seeing are far smaller than pre-pandemic.

“The challenge is the numbers aren’t the same that they have been in the past, for all our positions, in terms of volume of candidates,” Pizzaro-Winting said. “In particular with police, it’s just a different mindset.”

It’s not just people quitting their jobs to move onto higher-paid positions elsewhere, Pizzaro-Winting said. Older employees who are opting to stop working sooner are also contributing to turnover the city is currently seeing.

“A lot of people are retiring earlier than expected,” she said. “It’s been kind of a drain because people have not stayed as long as they thought they’d stay.”

Services Interrupted 

With roughly 1 in 4 jobs unfilled, keeping the city running has required some tough policies.

Some departments, like the city’s Fire and Police departments, have resorted to mandatory overtime to ensure that enough employees are staffed each day to provide service to the community.

A lone Long Beach police officer walks down the Promenade in Downtown Long Beach Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Other long-term efforts, like rezoning the city’s neighborhoods, have been affected by the pandemic as much as it has spots being unfilled. The Development Services team leading the rezoning efforts has a vacancy rate of about 75%.

“It’s been particularly challenging during the state of emergency when we’ve been doing everything we can to support housing,” said Alison Spindler-Ruiz, the city’s planning bureau manager.

Spindler-Ruiz said the shortages across the department have led to employees working overtime to meet deadlines and that has resulted in burnout. The department is looking to hire planners for the first time in over two years.

The department also handles building inspections and approving construction plans where the vacancies have required changes in how staff members approach the job, said David Khorram, the city’s superintendent of building safety.

Khorram said the pandemic helped push the department into phasing out paper and embracing digital records, which allow inspectors to file inspection reports from the field instead of from City Hall at the end of the day. They’ve also combined electrical, plumbing and mechanical inspections into one, making the department more efficient, but the days longer for inspectors, who average about 12-15 inspections per day.

Khorram said Long Beach employees are often poached by other agencies because they know Long Beach inspectors are trained to handle technical elements like airports, oil production and the port.

“I lost about five or six per year, especially to Orange County because they pay a little bit better,” Khorram said.

However, he said he’s conducting about two to three interviews per week, and he’s optimistic that the turnover is injecting new blood into the department that could be instrumental in the long run.

“Whoever joins Long Beach now for the next five years, there is job security here and lots of meaningful projects to work on,” Khorram said, referencing the myriad projects the city has planned ahead of the 2028 Olympic games.

The Public Works Department will also play a pivotal role in getting the city ready for the Olympics, and Director Eric Lopez said the city will have to change its approach if it expects to fill the vacancies, which for Public Works is as high as 60% for positions like maintenance assistants.

“We cannot do our jobs with vacancy rates as high as they are today,” Lopez said.

Those positions carry out a variety of jobs like picking up dumped items reported through the GoLongBeach app, filling potholes, trimming trees and serving on the city’s new slurry seal team that repairs streets.

The department is looking at promoting part-time employees to fill the vacant full-time positions. Successfully filling those positions, though, will depend on the city adapting to the changing job market, Lopez said.

“How you reach people today in this labor market is drastically different from when the hiring rules were set however many decades ago,” Lopez said.

Speeding up the process 

Unlike the private sector, Long Beach has two paths to employment within the city.

Pizzaro-Winting, who heads the Civil Service process, said that the city has a merit-based hiring practice to weed out potential cronyism or nepotism and to help ensure people are hired for what they know, not who they know.

For most jobs, the Civil Service Department works with Human Resources and other individual departments to create job descriptions and then helps recruit candidates who sometimes are required to take a variety of tests to assess their qualifications for the job.

Those people are sorted into “bands,” or qualifying lists, that are given back to the departments to use for interviews. The process can take months.

For non-career positions and those in city management or in elected officials’ offices, though, the process goes through Human Resources rather than Civil Service. In theory, Ambrosini said the process should be much faster than Civil Service, but the data hasn’t reflected that.

In a presentation to the Budget Oversight Committee, Ambrosini said Long Beach was taking 213 calendar days to fill positions compared to the industry average of about 130 calendar days. His department is working toward a goal of reducing that to 90 business days.

“I think it’s front and center on everyone’s mind, which is great,” Ambrosini said. “In any problem you have, recognizing it is the first step. No one is here burying their heads in the sand, and that’s a great first step.”

A new tool could be the type of mass-hiring event the city recently used to fill trash truck driver positions after a major shortage of workers led to trash days being skipped earlier this year.

A Long Beach trash truck picks up a refuse bin in the Willmore neighborhood Friday, June 16, 2023. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

The event was held on a Saturday at the city’s Health Department, where computers were set up to allow people to apply on the day of the event, current employees were on hand to talk to applicants about what to expect and Public Works staff were present to do on-site interviews.

Fingerprinting was provided the same day, as was the processing of city-issued badges for those that were hired. Members of the city clerk’s office worked the event to allow applicants to take the city oath.

Josh Hickman, deputy director of Public Works, said Tuesday that 54 new drivers are scheduled to start over the next few months, with the first 18 set for their first day of work Aug. 28. Perhaps equally important, the department has an eligible list of over 100, something it will need to tap into when the city officially starts collecting organic recycling later this year.

The event was seen as a success and a potential model for some classifications. Maintenance assistants are being considered for a similar hiring event.

Hiring events could be part of the city’s overall efforts to speed up the process of filling jobs, including doing away with drug tests and physicals for positions that don’t require them, something Ambrosini said could amount to about two-thirds of city jobs.

The city has also invested in a centralized talent acquisition team within the HR Department to streamline the hiring process and create a “greater sense of the city’s commitment to meaningful and sustainable change.”

In the immediate future, the city could lean on perks to help retain and attract new hires like bonuses and the potential to work from home.

“That is a huge feature and honestly that has helped us to compete in the labor market,” Ambrosini said of the hybrid-work agreement the city reached in 2021. “If we did not have that, Long Beach would have a vacancy rate that is higher.”

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.