Three-quarters of Philadelphia’s 30,000 city employees will reach retirement age in the next 15 years. That means thousands of municipal positions will be opening up, 81 percent of which will be civil service jobs such as mechanics, building inspectors, nurses, librarians, and police officers.
People hired for these positions will play an important role in delivering the services on which almost 1.6 million city residents depend. But while these jobs will be available, they won’t necessarily be easy to obtain: About 73,000 people submit applications each year, and only 1,500 are hired.
The Pew Charitable Trusts’ 2018 report on the topic cites numerous city officials who said that Philadelphia’s hiring system can be challenging to navigate. With that in mind, the following are some key takeaways on the process.
Philadelphia’s charter states that “vacancies shall be filled by promotion wherever possible.” This means that the city almost always fills middle- and upper-level civil service jobs with current city employees.
The Office of Human Resources posts open positions on phila.gov/personnel, where they remain for two weeks. Individuals interested in civil service positions can start by looking for “open competitive” listings on the website and then submitting applications and resumes online. During job fairs, candidates can submit their resumes in person but still need to apply online.
For candidates who meet the minimum job qualifications, the next step is to take an exam. That’s because Philadelphia—more than other major cities—relies heavily on exams rather than other methods of assessing a candidate’s qualifications. The exams are by invitation only and, as shown in the table below, can take several forms: written, oral, performance, or training and experience. Most positions require written tests.
Applicants who pass the exam are given the opportunity to add bonus points to their scores. Compared with most other cities, Philadelphia offers more ways to add bonus points, including language fluency, advanced degrees, AmeriCorps or Peace Corps service, and having a parent or grandparent who was killed in the line of duty as a police officer or firefighter in Philadelphia. And, like most cities, Philadelphia also gives preference to veterans.
An applicant’s exam score, plus any bonus points, results in a precise numerical rating that determines the applicant’s rank on the list. Applicants are informed of their initial position on the list, which remains active for two years. Under Philadelphia’s Rule of Two, city hiring managers must first interview the top two candidates on a list. Other applicants may be considered (in numerical order) if one of the top two contenders is no longer available. In such cases, managers will work their way down the list in numerical order, so anyone with a low ranking may wait a long time for a response or may not hear back.
Once an eligibility list is generated, it’s used by other city departments that want to fill vacancies within the same job classification, until it expires. For example, if the health department wants to hire a new administrative assistant and there is an active eligibility list for that job classification, the department must choose candidates from the existing list—until the pool has been exhausted—even if it was created by a different department. The same goes for any other department wanting to hire an administrative assistant in the next two years. Applicants who have not been hired within two years must wait for a new opening to be posted and restart the process.
From 2013 to 2015, the median time between submitting an application and getting selected for a position was 360 days.
Nineteen percent of city jobs are exempt from the civil service hiring and employment regulations. For these positions, applicants submit their resumes and are called for interviews at the department’s discretion. There are no exams, bonus points, or eligibility lists for these vacancies, and hiring is done by each department in partnership with the Office of Human Resources. These positions are “at will”; they are not unionized, and employees can be dismissed at any time.
City government remains the second-largest employer in Philadelphia, behind only the federal government. While officials acknowledge challenges with the current system, they’ve also said that attracting a talented and diverse workforce is one of their top priorities and will remain so in the years ahead.
For more information on the civil service hiring system and how it came to be, visit pewtrusts.org/philaresearch.
Larry Eichel directs Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative, and Katie Martin and Michelle Schmitt are researchers on the team and co-authors of the report “Hiring and Employment in Philadelphia City Government.”