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OBoard: Puerto Rico gov’t lacks right mix of people to deliver services

The government of Puerto Rico “does not have the right mix of people to respond capably to new challenges of delivering effective, efficient public services with limited resources, and in an environment of technological transformation and increasing public expectations,” according to research by the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico’s Research and Policy Department.

The conclusion comes after the division analyzed the characteristics of the 16,052 employees filling positions in government as of 2019, prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, “which may not reflect the current state of civil service.”

At the time of the analysis, the government had 27,169 positions available, according to data provided by the Office of the Administration and Transformation of Human Resources (OATRH, in Spanish), the government’s central personnel management agency.

Positions at 57 agencies were analyzed. The analysis excluded rank positions (i.e., police, firemen), school level positions (i.e., teachers, lunchroom staff) and public health employees at hospitals (i.e., doctors, nurses). The Department of Health, and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not provide information.

That means at the time of the data gathering, there was a vacancy rate of 37% in government jobs. However, the study also stated that “when compared to the position registry published by the Office of the Comptroller, the numbers don’t match. Therefore, it is difficult to know what is truly vacant or not, when the government doesn’t have an integrated HR management system, with electronic time and attendance and personnel records.”

Some of the key findings and insights of the analysis show how concerning the problem is for the Commonwealth workforce:

• 1/3 of the employees have a high school degree or less, compared to only 20% in the federal government. When compared to states, Puerto Rico has one of the highest proportions of employees with a high school degree or less (only six states have a higher proportion).

• Only 16% of the workforce has graduate degrees, compared to 30% in the federal government. When compared to states, Puerto Rico has one of the lowest ratios of graduate degrees in its workforce.

• The median age of the civil service workforce is more than 50 years old.

• Most workers have been in the government for more than 20 years.

• There is a significant wage discrepancy between employees in trust positions and career employees, even after taking into consideration differences in educational attainment, age, years of experience in the government, position hierarchy or union status between them. Trust employees earn, on average, 45% more than career employees after controlling for these factors.

• Government workers with a high school degree earn more than $25,000 a year, $3,000 less than the average salary in Puerto Rico ($28,437).

“These numbers reflect a dislocation of the civil service in Puerto Rico triggered by demographic trends, a growing skills gap, and what appears to be an excessive reliance on trust employees for critical agency functions,” according to the analysis done by Arnaldo Cruz and Emanuelle Alemar, of the OBoard’s research and policy department.

“The weakened state of the capacity of the government’s workforce and its organizational structures should be a cause for serious concern to everyone in Puerto Rico,” the experts said.

One of the concerns associated with the findings is that it shows that public sector employees are older than the private sector workforce, “with significantly fewer younger workers, which increases the seriousness of workforce challenges ahead.”

“For example, while 34% of the labor force in Puerto Rico is 35 or younger, only 9% in our government sample were in that age group. Even government workers with a graduate degree have a median age of 46 years,” Cruz and Alemar said in the analysis.

“One explanation for the absence of young professionals in the government of Puerto Rico workforce may be that that they simply do not want to work for government, due to a negative pre-conceived perception of the civil service as unduly political and old fashioned with no professional growth opportunities,” they said. “However, we think it also responds to the government’s current hiring policy, which is simply not designed to recruit a modern workforce.”

The analysis concluded that “we have a substandard civil service in Puerto Rico, not fit to meet existing needs, let alone changing needs of citizens in new complex environments fraught with expected and unforeseen risks and challenges.”

Author Details
Author Details
Business reporter with 29 years of experience writing for weekly and daily newspapers, as well as trade publications in Puerto Rico. My list of former employers includes Caribbean Business, The San Juan Star, and the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, among others. My areas of expertise include telecommunications, technology, retail, agriculture, tourism, banking and most other segments of Puerto Rico’s economy.

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