City struggles to keep qualified workers on staff

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The city is struggling to find qualified workers, and Honolulu’s mayor says it’s enough to drive him crazy.

Near-record-low unemployment makes hiring a challenge for all businesses, and the mayor says the city needs to do a better job of recruiting.

The city says it currently has more than 1,600 civil service positions open. The mayor says the challenge is not just finding qualified workers, but also holding on to them.

“It’s hard because there’s a lot of demand for these same types of talented people in the private sector, and they tend to pay more, so we lose out on some very good talent and some of our really good guys get stolen away,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

Caldwell says the city Department of Planning and Permitting has been among the hardest to fill positions. Because of the thriving economy, construction is booming, so the private sector is luring away those skilled workers.

Even entry-level positions have been hard to fill, affecting some services like trimming grass in public areas.

“If they can get an entry job in the union that pays better, they’ll leave, and so the challenge is making sure our grass is cut. You see grass tall in certain median strips, it drives me crazy,” said the mayor.

He says the city needs to do a better job by paying more and touting its generous benefits, but experts point out that’s probably not enough. 

“You have the immediate health benefits, but in terms of retirement benefits and things like that, that’s a long ways down the road,” said Carl Bonham, economics professor and executive director of UHERO, the economic research organization at the University of Hawaii.

So when it comes to skilled positions, Bonham says the city might try to do what some private businesses have done and recruit former Hawaii residents who want to come back home.

“If you can pay enough to cover our cost of living and the housing costs and all the other challenges of living here, then that’s a good target market,” said Bonham.

The city has more than 9,600 civil service positions.

We did the math, and it turns out nearly 17 percent of city jobs are not filled.

Interested in working for the city? Click here to see the current job openings.

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