This year, the state has offered the best union contracts in 15 years. What else can the state do to attract and retain professional, well-qualified employees?
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I have been listening to government employees, commissioners, legislators, union representatives, directors in my own department and private citizens. I've had conversations on airplanes, in elevators and at the grocery store. I have 17 years of experience as a state employee, as well.
First, we need to quit impeding our own progress in our recruitment efforts. We will not get a new pool of applicants when a requirement for an accountant is that the applicant have five years of experience using the state's accounting system. We all want the experienced employee - that's why for at least the last six or seven years, departments have pilfered good employees from one another. The message has now gone out through the Division of Personnel that we are in a situation where we need to train new employees. Current or past state service is important experience, but it cannot continue to be the major requirement in a recruitment.
I believe we need to critically look at the education and skills necessary for a job. For example, does the job really require an Engineer III or a combination of skills which could be done by a less seasoned employee? If an applicant has certification from Cisco or Microsoft, isn't it more important that the employee possesses the technical knowledge to keep computer systems up and running rather than whether the applicant has a college degree? Higher education is important, but we need to look at the skills, education and experience the job actually requires. There is a difference between "dumbing down" requirements and ensuring that requirements reflect the skills necessary for the job.
There is some concern that the state's defined contribution pension plan has had an impact on recruitment. Let's look at some facts. The average stay of an employee with the state right now is about 10 years, and the average age of that employee is about 45. The average age of a new hire is 38 years of age. We are told by the people who track such things, that the millennium generation trend is to stay in a job around five years. I believe there are factors that could change that for any individual, but I'll accept that we will be looking at fewer employees spending less time as state employees.
Under the defined contribution plan, their contributions are portable - they can take it with them to invest elsewhere. The evidence does not support the claim that the defined contribution plan has had a negative impact on recruitment. It depends on who you talk to whether you see the defined contribution plan as a recruitment or retention problem. When counselors with our retirement and benefits section meet with new employees or prospective employees to explain the defined contribution plan, most are satisfied with the plan.
I remember hearing from my dad, a union steward, about the auto industry's pension problems in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There was discontent over newer employees making less and their benefits structured differently than older employees. There are parallels between the American auto industry's challenges and the state's challenges to maintain current pension obligations, but also needing to change to a more affordable, fair model.
Our challenge is with a labor shortage that has taken almost 10 years to develop. Our commitment is to ensure that there are clear career ladders with increasing experience and responsibility; that good employees are recognized and retained; and that we provide a work environment conducive to responsive, ethical government. We will get there through fair union contracts, matching salaries to skills and understanding that we cannot sustain the large workforce we currently have.
Annette Kreitzer is the Alaska commissioner of Administration and a Juneau resident.