Public Sector Agencies with Private Sector Expectations

Recruiting and retaining high-quality employees at public ports requires addressing unique challenges.

By Meredith Martino

Most project managers acknowledge the triple constraints of their work, sometimes called the Iron Triangle: quality, time and cost. If a project is of high quality and completed quickly, it’s going to cost a lot. If it’s completed quickly and at low cost, the quality is going to suffer. And if the project must be of high quality and low cost, it will take a long time to complete.

Human resource managers face constraints of their own in finding and retaining high-quality employees while balancing the cost to the organization with the ability to retain those employees for as long as possible. And within public ports, there are often unique challenges that can impact the staff makeup of the agency.

Public Port Challenges

“We really act like a business,” said Nancy Lawlor, manager of human resources at the Maryland Port Administration. “Other state agencies focus on providing services to citizens, but we generate revenue.”

This duality is common among public ports. Functioning as arms of municipal, regional or state governments, ports are nonetheless expected to be sources of revenue – either keeping their financial ledger in the black on their own or generating funds for their larger government bodies. This tension creates challenges in recruiting and retaining port staff at all levels.

Where private companies can determine their own hiring processes within the bounds of employment law, public agencies have to be accountable to taxpayers, with a high level of transparency and often limited budgets compared to their private sector counterparts. “We are accountable to the citizens,” said Lawlor. “We have to be careful in how we reward and motivate.”

Public ports also must deal with boards or commissions that change frequently, often the result of an election outcome – either directly or indirectly. Ken O’Hollaren, interim executive director at the Port of Port Angeles and former executive director at the Port of Longview, is familiar with the challenges of this aspect of port employment.

“There is no avoiding political change. It is part of being a public agency,” O’Hollaren said. “The key role of the executive is to be a conduit between the board and the staff, to let management focus on their management roles and keep political issues out of the organization.”

Competing with the Private Sector

O’Hollaren, who also has served as AAPA chairman of the board, agreed that it can be difficult for ports to offer compensation comparable with private entities, but he noted that many ports attract talent from the private sector. “Ports are seen as good places to work. People who come from the private sector are attracted by what we do,” he said.

Baltimore’s Lawlor said the benefits that come from public sector jobs are often attractive to many people. “People who come here like the work and stay for the other benefits,” she said.

The Maryland Port Administration has taken advantage of social media and technology to increase the size of its recruiting pool. While MPA representatives still attend career fairs at local colleges, they use websites such as Monster and LinkedIn to recruit globally. Lawlor said that it is easier to fill positions that have “transferable skills,” such as information technology or finance. But jobs that require specific knowledge of the port and its maritime operations – such as marketing, cargo operations and harbor planning – are more challenging positions to fill.

“A real difficulty comes with hiring engineers because they can make so much more in the private sector,” Lawlor elaborated.

Culture as an Antidote to Compensation

The salary constraints of public hiring are common among all public agencies, no matter their function within broader government. Art Glover is associate director of human resources at a large county library system that employs approximately 325 people, and he is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s HR Disciplines Special Expertise Panel. Glover acknowledged that many public agencies don’t have the flexibility or higher pay of the private sector, but agencies can create a culture that attracts high-quality employees.

“Where there is room for creativity and innovation, encourage that,” Glover advised. “Giving people a voice makes people feel listened to.” Glover said his agency has created a culture where employees are given “room to breathe,” which has translated into great work from staff at all levels.

Finding non-financial ways to attract and retain people is not just an idea popular with HR managers. Seasoned executives also recognize that office culture is critical to recruitment and retention at ports.

Port Angeles’ O’Hollaren believes that involving employees in strategic decision making benefits both the organization and the staff.

“Get people engaged at the highest level possible,” O’Hollaren said. “It communicates the value of the employee to the organization, and it gives management an opportunity to see the employee in a new environment.”

Glover echoed this sentiment. “Often public employees want to give back to their community,” he said. “Their work is meaningful for them, and they are invested in the mission of the organization.”

Recognizing and Rewarding Success

In the December issue of HR News, the monthly publication of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources, Craig Southern profiled successful efforts within the state of Georgia to retain employees in various state agencies. The state runs a Georgia Faithful Service Awards program for long-serving public employees, but agencies within the state have adopted individual policies and created unique programs to retain talent.

The Maryland Port Administration has a peer-driven recognition program to commend employees, and MPA’s Lawlor said the agency has a high success rate of retaining employees. “A lot of our employees are eligible for retirement right now,” she said. “It is a problem of our success.”

Port Angeles’ O’Hollaren said he is “a huge fan of promoting from within wherever possible,” because identifying candidates who are known quantities removes risk and has great benefits for morale among staff.

“There are many cost-effective things agencies can do around recognition,” SHRM expert Glover said. “It doesn’t always have to be about money.”