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By Scott D. Grayson, CAE, Chief Executive Officer of the American Public Works Association
(KCSAE Board Secretary)

In January 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that over 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs. How is this even possible? How are these 4.5 million people paying their rent, mortgages, grocery, and health care bills? No one has an exact answer to this, but the phenomenon is growing each day. Research shows that all industries, including the association industry, are struggling to retain and hire new staff as more and more people resign.

In March 2020, when the world pandemic emerged, no one knew what to expect. Some companies went out of business due to a variety of reasons, while others had to cut staff. During the first year of the pandemic, APWA was fortunate enough to be able to keep our staff employed and none left. At least during that period, there was workforce stability. We were all thankful to just have a job not knowing what would happen next.

Fast forward 682 days since the pandemic started, and nearly 20 percent of our staff has resigned over the past year. As an employer we had to question, what are we doing wrong? As I speak with colleagues in all industries, including the association industry, I have found that everyone is experiencing this same phenomenon.

As I began to research why our staff was suddenly leaving, I reflected upon what I heard and read in their exit interviews. For the most part, those who left were not necessarily unhappy. Some of the reasons for leaving that they provided were:

  • Better opportunity elsewhere
  • Remote work opportunities with higher paying jobs in other cities
  • Rethinking career choice during this pandemic
  • A desire to follow their true passion
  • Needed new experience
  • Opportunity to move to a new state or country

In a January 21, 2022 New York Times article entitled, “I quit. You quit. We quit. And it is not a coincidence,” psychologists say that quitting is contagious. People see what is happening around them and follow others. During almost two years of a pandemic, political divisiveness, and social unrest, I believe that people are becoming more introspective and considering what they really want out of life.

If this is the case, then how do we attempt to make our associations the employer of choice?

At APWA, we are looking at the Great Resignation as a Great Opportunity. We have begun to address issues that we can no longer keep on the back burner such as culture, diversity, equity and inclusion, salaries, benefits, flexible remote work schedules, and work life balance. We want to create a culture and environment where our staff understand the mission of the organization, and feel respected by their peers, supervisors, and members. We want to make sure that our staff have the tools, training, and education they need to do their best work. We want our staff to find meaning in their work. No organization is perfect, but it is important to not bury our heads in the sand, and identify areas of challenges and potential shortcomings, while recognizing opportunities for growth and continuous improvement. Once the organization identifies these challenges, then it is important that the entire staff play a role in helping to overcome these challenges and create action plans to do so.

But, identification and the creation of action plans are not enough. We have to measure and celebrate success. We have begun to have conversations about whether APWA has an identifiable culture or not. We have asked our staff whether the culture should be created by leadership or whether it emerges organically. During a recent video conference, I asked our staff to text in three words to an online word cloud that they thought described APWA’s current culture. Following is the word cloud that was developed:

(Taken directly from, a live website that allows people to text words from their phone and build a real-time word cloud)

I had no preconceived expectations. I actually expected much more negativity due to living through nearly two years of a pandemic with uncertainty, cancelled meetings, potential for member loss, remote work for 15 months, and juggling work and homelife. For the most part, the words texted were very positive. I shared with my staff at a recent meeting that we are all experiencing the Great Resignation, and that I will do everything in my power to keep them at APWA—because I appreciate them and their work. I said that I wanted to create an experience where they woke up each morning and were excited to go to work, either physically or remotely.

As a result, we have commissioned a compensation study to make sure that we are providing competitive salaries and benefits in this emerging market. I want to create a culture where everyone feels comfortable, respected, and valued at work. Equally important is for staff to know where they fit in the organization and why their contribution matters.

The Great Resignation has given us an opportunity to look at the way we do work—building a culture that we all want as an organization. I don’t think we are too far from building a strong culture that attracts and retains passionate, entrepreneurial, and a skilled workforce, but we will be more intentional about making it happen as quickly as possible.

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