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State steps up efforts to keep, find workers

One-third of state's professional staff will retire in five years

Posted: Friday, October 05, 2007

State administrators are trying to figure out how to recruit and retain state employees without breaking the bank.

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The first obvious answer, more money, probably isn't going to be possible, said Annette Kreitzer, commissioner of the Department of Administration.

"It's a balancing act, trying to figure out what we can afford," she said.

Record-high oil prices have been a boon to the state in recent years, but the long-term outlook is for revenue to fall as oil production drops.

Gov. Sarah Palin in August issued an administrative order creating the "Executive Branch Working Group" to look for new ways to deal with growing recruitment and retention problems.

It comes at a time when an aging work force means that more than a quarter of the state's executive branch employees will be eligible to retire in five years, as will more than one-third of its professional staff.

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The plan has raised some concerns, but not outright opposition, from union and legislative leaders.

Alaska State Employees Association Business Manager Jim Duncan said he was "very concerned" about Palin's administrative order when it first came out.

After assurances from Kreitzer, he said he now considers Palin's effort "a step in the right direction."

Kreitzer said she assured Duncan that the recruitment and retention effort was not an attempt to bypass the union, and anything that came out of the process would be negotiated with the union.

The working group, established in August, is expected to report its recommended strategies to the governor by Nov. 1, Kreitzer said.

Among the solutions they're looking at, she said, is doing away with unnecessary job requirements that make recruiting difficult.

For example, a computer tech job might require a bachelor's degree and certification from Microsoft or Cisco that they can do the work. While the degree may be desirable, certification may be all that is required, Kreitzer said.

If the degree requirement is removed, the state may get a better pool of applicants. Then, if hiring managers had to choose between two equally qualified people, they'd have the option of giving extra weight to the additional certification.

Nearly 40 percent of the state job openings did not have enough qualified candidates applying, according to the governor's office. For each of these jobs, they had fewer than five qualified and eligible applicants.

Recruitment and retention problems have taken different forms in various departments.

The Department of Revenue has been unable to hire qualified tax auditors to enforce oil tax rules, while the Department of Corrections says it is managing to get the people it needs.

The Department of Corrections has about 800 budgeted positions, of which 750 are filled, said spokesman Richard Schmitz.

"That doesn't mean that we're looking for 50 people," he said.

Some positions are being held open without being filled, such as when a state employee is on National Guard duty.

At Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau, there are 55 budgeted positions, with 51 currently filled. They're currently looking to hire three correctional officers, he said.

Kevin Brew, special assistant to Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt, said the department puts a great deal of effort into recruiting. Advertising, job fairs and other efforts have enabled them to fill all their positions, even in Juneau's tight labor market.

"State employment seems still to have some attraction," Brew said. "I don't know about retention down the road, with the retirement changes."

State Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said he was glad to see the governor addressing the issue, but last year's controversial changes to the state retirement system have become part of the problem.

"Contrary to what Alaskans were led to believe, the new retirement system is riskier to the employee, and doesn't save us money," Elton said.

The state recently concluded contract negotiations with several unions, offering what Kreitzer and some union officials call the best deals in years.

At the same time, the state's largest union, Alaska State Employees Association, is in the middle of an employee vote on whether to accept an offer of 4 percent raises this year, followed by 3 percent in each of the next two years.

Other unions, including those that represent supervisors and ferry workers, are still at the bargaining table.

• Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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