San Jose permit process affected by job vacancies
Construction continues on a development in San Jose. File photo.

One of San Jose’s fundamental departments that drives the city’s economy is filling job vacancies, but still has several open positions.

Staffing vacancies remain numerous throughout the city. The problem has resulted in long delays in the permitting process and building approvals. Some employees say low wages and unmanageable workloads—exacerbated by the pandemic—are also to blame. The increased workloads have driven people to leave and seek employment elsewhere. But there have been some wins.

This week, officials with the city’s Planning, Building and Code Enforcement Department said nine jobs have been filled since February, to help clear the backlog of construction projects. Twenty-seven positions in the department are still vacant.

“We have absolutely made hiring a priority within the department,” Director Chris Burton said. “As a result, we have made some gains.”

The city’s planning permit center has managed to fill its two vacancies,  decreasing its backlog by 53% in the past six months.

“This is a new low since we started measuring this backlog 10 months ago,” said Deputy Planning Director Robert Manford.

Although the backlog clearance has helped, the approval process is still longer than it was a year ago, department data shows. It used to take about 25 days to issue a permit, but now it takes almost a year, on average. City officials said they have asked for additional funding for fiscal year 2022-23 to fill two development review team positions.

Staffing shortages also plague the building plan review team, which reviews architectural plans before issuing permits. The team has eight vacancies. The building inspection team has 14 vacancies, a 21% vacancy rate which has a direct impact on the actual construction of projects, Burton said.

“Inspection is really the key indicator on actual construction activity on the ground,” Burton added, noting vacancies in that team really slow the process. “Finding qualified candidates that are a good fit for an inspection process continues to be challenging, and so it’s something that we’re working on.”

The inspection team ramped up in March of this year, inspecting on Saturdays, data showed. However, city officials said it did little to offset the demand and time it took to conduct an inspection. Currently, 77% of inspections are available within 24 hours, which is just below the 80% target.

City officials said if they could not fill the positions, the department may stop inspecting projects from more reliable contractors and instead randomly inspect them.

Services go online

To take pressure off the planning team, the department is moving simpler projects to online services. This will allow for a quick review of plans during intake and the ability to approve permits during an appointment. The goal is to have four specialists staffed on the building permit team through funding in the upcoming fiscal year.

Bob Staedler, a land use consultant and columnist for San José Spotlight, said processes have become more efficient since the start of this year—partly because of the move to online services. But staffing still remains the department’s top problem.

“They need to pay the staff more so they stay,” Staedler told San José Spotlight. “All these other cities are booming and I constantly see people kind of bouncing away to other cities that are much, much smaller. That is what San Jose is competing against.”

Erik Schoennauer, a prolific land use consultant who works closely with the city’s planning department, said the department’s biggest issues are systemic. He noted until major changes are made in how employees are hired and paid, San Jose is always going to struggle with staffing and efficiency in construction.

“It’s a perpetual 15-20% vacancy rate. As soon as they hire new people, other people leave,” Schoennauer told San José Spotlight. “Hiring nine people is good, but what organization can function with 27 vacancies?”

He said the problems are clear. Planners in other cities like Santa Clara, Palo Alto and Cupertino make about 30% more in pay and have 40% less of a workload, according to Schoennauer.

“A typical planner in San Jose has 60 to 80 projects. A typical planner in Saratoga has 30 projects,” he said. “One of San Jose’s most effective planners has 82 projects. Thats a recipe for burning out.”

The other problem is San Jose’s hiring process takes months and that needs to change to remain competitive.

“A qualified candidate is just not going to wait that long in this competitive employment market,” Schoennauer said.

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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