Cost of Living Making Municipal Jobs Uncompetitive?

Wilmington, NC – Wilmington's biggest enemy as it tries to recruit professional employees may be an online calculator.

Cost-of-living tools at websites like and make it easy for potential job applicants to calculate how far Port City salaries go compared to their current towns. And often that's not very far, according to the city's Human Resources Director Al McKenzie.

In a presentation to City Council earlier this week McKenzie said the city is losing desirable applicants when they figure out how much life on the Cape Fear can cost.

"Who could turn down beautiful Wilmington? " McKenzie joked afterward, but went on to say, "Many times we find that candidates for jobs we have available here look on the internet or do their research and determine that the cost of living would be problematic for them in terms of relocating here."

The Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce recently released survey numbers showing Wilmington as the most expensive city in the state. A quick look at job postings on the city's website shows the starting annual salary for a fire battalion chief at $42,522, a crime scene technician at $27,856, and a capital projects engineer up to $46,872.

According to McKenzie, those that do get job offers often bargain their way into salaries higher than the more experienced professionals they replace, leading to inequities in departments.

The city's getting "real time data" on these problems, as McKenzie puts it, because many of its top executives are nearing retirement age, including McKenzie himself.

Pay concerns aren't confined to new employees. McKenzie's department has requested the city fund a compensation study to see how Wilmington's wages and benefits stack up to other comperable cities. Overall, McKenzie says there's a "pervasive feeling, at least among our employees, that they're not being paid a competitive wage."

Whether the study bears out those impressions or not, McKenzie says the perception is causing some morale problems among staffers. But he cautioned that even if the survey does find that some salaries need to be raised, this won't be a windfall for all employees.

Several factors might be driving down the competitiveness of Wilmington's wages. Wilmington's HR department is watching to see if the $1-an-hour increase in North Carolina's minimum wage will at all thin the applicant pool for the city's own lowest-paid positions. McKenzie also blames the cost of housing, which he says has contributed to two-thirds of Wilmington's current employees making their homes outside city limits.

If the city council does approve a salary survey this year, any recommended pay changes could be implemented in time for next year's budget. The city did its last compensation study seven years ago and McKenzie says those recommendations were fully funded.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd love to hear you thoughts: