As San Jose braces for what could be largest strike by employees in 40 years, an examination of the city’s 800 job vacancies reveals that only a fraction are open for applicants.
City officials say this is intentional and strategic – prioritizing the most important positions to fill first. But union leaders say some of the positions appear to be left purposely vacant, hinting that it’s a budgetary move so the dollars can be used elsewhere and there are no genuine plans to fill the roles.
“A lot of these positions have had no hiring process initiated for years and it appears that the department is probably using the funds for something else,” said Kristen Schumacher Nascimento, lead research specialist at IFPTE Local 21. “So I think that’s probably a big part of why the city is only hiring for a handful positions.”
Kelli Parmley, assistant director of human resources, disagreed with the unions claims, saying the 50 positions currently open for hire is a good indication that things are improving in city hall. In previous years, on average there would be 30 jobs listed on the website at any given time. But as the city has spent more time focusing on revisions to modernize the recruitment process it’s been able to hire more people at a faster rate, Parmley said.
The number of vacant positions has decreased by more than 100 in the last year, shrinking the vacancy rate from 14% to 12%. San Jose has also shifted to hiring externally to fill vacancies instead of just looking internally. While the proportion of internal hires is still higher than external—about 55% for the last nine months—that’s down from 60% over the last five years.
Retention efforts also appear to be paying off, Parmley said, with 100 less people having left from the previous year.
But Nascimento said the numbers don’t tell the whole story. In the last decade the city’s never had less than 700 vacancies, according to city data. Between 2018 and 2022, 4,359 employees left the city while only 3,657 new employees were hired—so the city’s hiring rate is not fast enough, she said. Some city positions have also been vacant for as far back as 2006 with no public listings, Nascimento said.
“This is not a problem that you’re going to fix by just advertising more or updating your hiring system,” Nascimento told San José Spotlight. “It’s something that is more systemic and has to do with wages and benefits.”
Onboarding has been a consistent issue the city blamed for growing the workforce at a consistent pace. Parmley said the central hiring team recently expanded to 20 people and now works closely across departments to identify critical positions that need immediate attention to help further prioritize hiring.
“Whether you’re public or private, not everybody posts all of their vacancies all at once,” Parmley told San José Spotlight. “It is strategic to not onboard too many people at one time, in part because we really want to make sure we’re retaining these folks.”
San Jose has also removed interview barriers, like tests, and streamlined the hiring process. It takes about 80 business days from the job posting being available to the start date for the role, Parmley said, and that the city is also switching over to a new application system that can better track applicants in the hiring pipeline.
Parmley noted that some of the 50 current listings represent several job openings—the city will have several park groundskeepers or police officers that have the same job description or qualifications—so there is only one listing. The city has a wastewater mechanic listing that actually represents seven vacancies and the role for a recreation program leader in the city’s parks department is for four positions.
Nascimento said modernization of the city’s application system and restructuring of the recruitment process is a good step, but it isn’t enough to make city jobs competitive.
A top priority for Nascimento and others in similar positions is paying workers more—a fight two of city’s largest unions are currently in. City workers say the high vacancy rates require them to do more work with less pay—and salaries are not enough for them to live in the city they serve.
Unions are poised to strike for three days starting Aug. 15, though the city is in negotiations to avoid 4,500 employees from walking out on the job. The strike can be called off at any time, but until unions see a deal they accept, they said workers are prepared to strike.
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misstated the number of people hired by San Jose in the past year.