Help wanted: Cities scramble to fill public works positions as hurricane season heats up


PORTSMOUTH, Va. ( WAVY) — Isabel was less than a category 1 hurricane when it hit Hampton Roads in 2003, but the wind and torrential rain were enough to produce the largest power outage in the history of Dominion Energy. The region’s evacuation route, Interstate 64 west, was underwater and many families were forced to evacuate their homes.

“I know I was without power for two weeks and people were still putting that debris out and clearing roads,” said Robin McCormick, a spokesperson for the City of Hampton.

As the Atlantic Ocean continues to heat up this hurricane season, a heavy truck that’s part of the public works fleet rolls along the streets of Hampton bearing a magnetic sign of the times. The sign says “We are hiring” for the department of public works, which currently has 22 open positions.

(Photo courtesy: City of Hampton)

“We have the videos up, we have the mini billboards, we have giant magnets on our trash trucks that are like huge to get the word out that we are hiring,” said McCormick.

Hampton has a 14% shortage of people who work drainage, an 18% shortage for traffic control, and an 8% shortage for solid waste workers.

Hampton is hiring, but so are contractors working on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and other major projects. The competition for skilled workers is fierce.

Hampton has cross-trained other employees who will backfill vacancies in the Public Works Department in the event of significant damage from a storm or other disaster.

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“They are crucial before a storm they are the ones who go out clean storm drains that tend to clog up they are the ones who prepare to get things ready to make sure ditches are cleaned out to try to prevent that flooding and afterward they are the ones to pick up all that storm debris,” said McCormick.

However, the issues extend beyond just Hampton.

“There’s just a shortage of skills trade people in the country and especially here in Hampton Roads,” said McCormick.

Kim Lee, a spokesperson for the City of Newport News, said the city currently has 69 vacancies in Public Works out of 335 budgeted full-time positions. That averages out to about a 20% vacancy rate.

Lee continued: “The openings are across several divisions/functions in Public Works including solid waste, stormwater, street maintenance, and stormwater, with a concentrated number of vacancies in solid waste. Despite these vacancies, service levels have not been significantly impacted. Our dedicated employees have been working hard to maintain citizen services, with some personnel being reassigned to different divisions and/or working overtime to minimize any impacts this shortage has on our citizens.”

“We are currently recruiting for construction maintenance workers for our Public Works, Waterworks and Parks, Recreation & Tourism departments. Like other organizations, we are having some challenges recruiting workers who have a CDL. To help in that effort, we are now offering CDL training through one of our vendors to ‘skill-up’ employees for those positions.”

Drew Lankford, a spokesperson for the City of Virginia Beach, also said the city is facing numerous vacancies. They amount to more than 14%.

Lankford said: “The City of Virginia Beach hiring page on its website currently shows that there are 127 open positions within the multiple divisions of Public Works which normally has 860 employees.  While we have experienced some recent successes in hiring, there are some positions that remain difficult to fill.  The department works diligently to meet the expectations of our citizens, but ultimately, some elements of our mission are taking longer than we would prefer. The department has sought to limit any impacts through the strategic use of contracted services and labor, where feasible.”

“While some of these hiring issues are more recent in nature, certain positions, such as engineers, mechanics, and CDL operators have existed for a while, within many localities.  We continue to work with City Administration and Human Resources to fill these difficult positions and strive continuously to provide the level of service that our citizens have come to expect.”

Heath Covey, a spokesperson for the City of Chesapeake, issued the following information:

  • 498 total positions in Public Works; 104 vacant positions, a vacancy rate of nearly 21%.
  • There are 30 vacancies of 79 funded Equipment Operator positions, a vacancy rate of nearly 38%
  • There are 28 vacancies of 64 Waste Management positions (various classifications), a vacancy rate of nearly 44%

Covey continued: “Vacancies in key Public Works positions, including Waste Management Workers and Operators, and Equipment Operators, have resulted in impacts to service delivery in Chesapeake, as well as an increased reliance on contract support, which comes at higher costs.

“For example, due to staffing shortages in the Waste Management Division, Public Works recently suspended the scheduled collection of bulk waste in order to prioritize collection of residential trash can collection, which is the Department’s most critical line of business.

“Though we have since reinstated bulk waste collection, the City will continue to monitor staffing levels and make appropriate operational changes to ensure we can deliver our most important core services to residents.

“Additionally. staffing shortages in our Operations Division, which includes Streets & Highways and Stormwater maintenance functions, have forced the increased reliance on contractors to perform some maintenance functions (i.e. roadway repairs, drainage ditch maintenance, etc.).”

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