Jobs banner hangs on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (Getty)
McLean, VA (written by Dennis Cauchon/USA Today) -- In a rare bright sign for the job market, state and local governments are hiring at the fastest pace in four years.
States, cities, counties and school districts hired 828,000 workers in the first four months of the year, up 20% from a year earlier, and the most since 2008, according to a USA TODAY analysis of the government's Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. The number of job openings at state and local governments also hit a four-year high.
This lift in government hiring shows how state budget problems have eased in recent months as tax collections have improved. Total revenue is flat because extra federal aid is drying up. But tax money revenue generally is spent on workers, especially at the local level, while federal aid is often dedicated to outside vendors, such as health care providers in the Medicaid program and highway contractors.
"We're hiring as many as we can," says Tucson police recruitment officer Liz Skeenes. "In the last few years, we haven't hired as many officers as we needed because of financial problems. Now we're going back to full force, and we're happy about that."
Tucson - like other state and local governments - still expects to live with a smaller workforce than the 2008 peak.
What's happening: Governments are filling jobs that had been left vacant to save money. State and local governments employ 19.6 million, down 3% from the peak.
The recent jump in hiring is an early signal that job growth may be on the way, at least in government. It takes six months to a year for a boost in hiring to create a bigger workforce.
Reason for the lag: Government workers are quitting for new jobs and retiring in greater numbers. Voluntary departures are another sign of an improving job market. When times are tough, workers hang on to their jobs. The "don't-leave" phenomenon - not more hiring - is what caused government payrolls to swell to record numbers during the recession while private employment collapsed.
Private companies are hiring a little more, too, up 4% in the first four months of 2012 from a year earlier. That's a weak rebound when measured against hiring declines every year from 2006 to 2009, including a 20% hiring drop in 2009.
The hiring turnaround has been most dramatic, starting last August, in the nation's state and local governments. These 89,500 cities, park districts, sewer systems and other governments are a backbone of working-class America, employing millions of low-profile truck drivers, health care aides and motor vehicle clerks with decent pay, good benefits and exceptional job security.
Among those hiring:
•California. The state is opening homes to care for indigent veterans, many suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and has 60 openings for physical therapists, office technicians, groundskeepers and others.
•Delaware. The city of Dover is hiring a trash truck driver, a mechanic for the sewer system and a water plant operator.
•Texas. El Paso lifted a hiring freeze this year and is hiring 31, including a veterinarian for the animal shelter.
•Florida. The state's website lists 592 job openings, including a bilingual customer service representative for Medicaid and a public relations person to promote Florida citrus.
"The state had 4,000 vacant positions. As the budget gets worked out and we see it's not as severe as when we took huge revenue hits in '08 and '09, we can start to hire for some vacant positions," says Kristopher Purcell of the Florida Department of Management Services.