Strategies for managing local government’s ageing workforce
Australia’s ageing population is not new or unique. Much of the developed world has been ‘getting older’ for some time – countries like Japan and Germany are ageing at even faster rates than we are. But what does an ageing workforce mean for Australia’s local government sector?
When talk of Australia’s ageing population infiltrates policy, it’s often the ‘dependency ratio’ which dominates. That is, how many taxpayers will be left to foot the bill for a growing number of retirees reliant on increasingly expensive infrastructure and services, like health, but who are no longer contributing the taxes needed to pay for them?
One issue that doesn’t get quite as much attention is – who will be left to do the actual work and deliver those vital infrastructure and services all Australians, regardless of age, will need? An ageing population also means an ageing workforce, and as we get older, there will be fewer of us left to ensure our roads are well maintained and to keep the lights on at the library, much less pay for them.
The real challenge is that local government is one of the industry sectors most exposed to an ageing workforce.
Alex Lawrie, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Local Government and based at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), has been using his research to shine a spotlight on the implications of Australia’s ageing population for local government. The Centre began tracking the local government workforce after the 2011 Census through the National Profile of the Local Government Workforce, an initiative of the 2008 National Local Government Workforce Strategy developed under the Rudd Government and spearheaded by the COAG Local Government and Planning Ministers Council.
Having built a picture of how the structure and dynamics of the workforce are changing nationally, Lawrie says the results are somewhat scary, but not surprising. “We’ve been tracking the workforce over three Census periods and it is definitely getting older. The real challenge is that local government is one of the industry sectors most exposed to an ageing workforce. In fact, the only sector where you will find an older workforce is agriculture, forestry and fishing.”
According to Lawrie, the trend makes a lot of sense. “Anecdotally we know local government is a great place to work. Because of the diversity of infrastructure, services and functions councils provide, there is a job for just about everyone. The Census also tells us local government workers are more likely to stay in the sector as they progress through their careers. Often local government is someone’s first job and as they move through the various stages of their career, they build up vital ‘corporate memory’.”
That can also be a huge risk, he says. “The ‘tips and tricks’ these valuable workers accumulate over their careers is part of what makes local government so knowledgeable about the places they govern, and particularly innovative in ‘doing more with less’. But those hacks for delivering quality infrastructure and services for less often aren’t written down – they are held in the minds of staff.
“As I travel around Australia working with lots of councils, I hear amazing stories about the incredible value that a particularly knowledgeable, often longstanding, council employee provides. But as soon as they leave or retire, this strength turns into a ‘key person risk’.”
Not only are the communities that local councils serve getting older and needing more complex infrastructure and services, but the workforce that provides these is getting older at a much faster rate than other sectors. “The Census also tells us assets, engineering and infrastructure, alongside human and community services, is where there is real pressure in terms of an ageing workforce – with these employees tending to be older than other areas. And we know from the Centre’s groundbreaking Why Local Government Matters? national social research series, that these are amongst the infrastructure and services that are most highly valued by communities.”
According to Lawrie, there are other challenges facing councils. “Unfortunately, those parts of councils under most pressure in terms of an ageing workforce also face strong competition for workers across the country. Australia’s decade-long infrastructure boom shows no signs of abating as councils plough through their backlogs and State and Federal governments deliver massive city-shaping and nation building projects.
“At the same time, Australia is in the midst of major social policy reforms, including the NDIS and aged care reforms, that are creating huge demand for workers in human services and social care. Local government is competing for an increasingly in-demand labour pool.”
But what can local government do about it?
Lawrie says it isn’t all doom and gloom. “We hear so many great stories of councils on the front foot with this issue.”
“It all starts with good workforce planning, and that relies on good workforce data. Indeed, that was part of the rationale for the National Profile of the Local Government Workforce – to give the sector, for the first time, the data it needs to start thinking about and responding to this crucial issue.”
Flexible work practices
The ageing population comes down to a number of factors, one of which is better health outcomes. And a healthier population means a workforce that can potentially work longer than once assumed. “There is huge opportunity for councils to think about how they best use some of their more knowledgeable workers as they transition to retirement. Many workers are increasingly preferring to have some level of active employment – and income – as they move beyond ‘retirement age’.”
Mentoring programs that facilitate knowledge exchange between older and younger workers during the transition phase is one way councils can keep that valuable knowledge in-house, he says.
Talent attraction strategies
Another way councils can meet the ageing workforce challenge is through well-thought out talent attraction strategies. According to Lawrie, the local government workforce is already showing signs of improvement on that front. “In the five years since the 2011 Census, we’ve seen a slight up-tick in the proportion of young people entering local government. It appears we have reached the crest of the ‘retirement wave’ rushing over the sector.”
“We know local government is often an employer of choice because it provides place-based employment close to home. It also offers one of the best opportunities to influence outcomes on the ground, which is a real motivator for people in human and community services roles who are looking to make a difference.
“Local government offers a role for just about everyone, so emulate talent attraction strategies that work in other sectors, like finance or IT, can also work in local government because they are occupation specific”, he says.
This is a version of an article that originally appeared in the 2019 Local Government Yearbook, (Edition 26).
About the author
Alex Lawrie is a research officer and PhD candidate at the Institute for Public Policy and Governance, specialising in city strategy, urban policy and governance, workforce planning and development.