State's turnover rate at 12 percent

Unions: It's a sign that jobs are deteriorating; managers: It's natural and reflects retirements

Posted: Sunday, November 20, 2005

A study by the Alaska Division of Personnel shows the turnover rate for state employees was 12 percent between January and June.

Union leaders say that figure follows the erosion of the state's formerly enviable pay scale, relative to other states and employers. Managers say it is natural, and accounts for a growing number of retirements.

Some of those left behind say it increases their workloads.

In the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, employee Tabitha Anderson noticed after the Murkowski administration eliminated several positions that the abandoned workload is placed on the shoulders of the few remaining.

"You can walk around and see piles and piles of work on people's desks," Anderson said. "Some of them have families to go home to."

Many of the departed workers are entering the private sector for better pay and benefits, or less stressful working environments, state employees said.

Division of Personnel Director Mila Cosgrove said there has been no mass elimination of employees, though work experiences can vary in each department.

Cosgrove said the study of a half year of payroll records is the first of its kind for the state.

Jennifer Ditchario, an office manager in the Department of Law, said work conditions are satisfactory.

"I haven't lost anyone to the private sector," she said. With many law firms in the state not hiring, the Department of Law is a healthy option for those in the legal field looking for work, she said.

With half of the 12 percent of public workers leaving their positions for promotions and transfers to take other jobs with the state, division director Cosgrove said the glass is half full.

"Promotions are a part of turnover," Cosgrove said, adding that the statistic also includes employees leaving for retirement.

Cosgrove said that for workers in some state divisions the private sector does pay more for the same skills, and the state is struggling to compete.

For example, the Department of Health and Social Services is trying to keep nurses on the payroll, while Providence Health System in Anchorage pays on average about $2 more.

"That in particular is a real worry for us," said Janet Clarke, DHSS assistant commissioner.

The Department of Labor and Workforce Development estimates the demand for nurses in Alaska will grow by 30 percent in coming years.

Lower pay is one of the Alaska State Employee Association's chief complaints of the state as an employer. Alaska was tops in the nation in the 1970s and '80s when it came to salaries but is now ranked closer to the middle, according to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

"It's clear to us that the pay has not kept up with the cost of living," said Jim Duncan, the union's business director.

He said the union, which has 7,500 members, has seen a turnover rate of 20 percent, with many taking jobs elsewhere in Alaska in the private sector.

Turnover is high with technical positions and high-productivity jobs such as those working with data, but lower with those that are specialized and require advanced education, such as geologists and engineers, Cosgrove said.

The study showed the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities with the lowest turnover rate, at 8 percent. Cosgrove said it was because those jobs are specific to transportation so they cannot easily transfer to another department.

The departments of Administration and Law both had a rate of 20 percent. Cosgrove said most jobs in those departments are office-oriented and therefore employees transfer to other jobs with the state. The departments had voluntary separation rates of 7 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average turnover rate for all public employees is 20 percent; the average was not broken down into federal, state and municipal statistics.

The most alarming issue with state human resources are the number of workers set to retire soon and the difficulties the state faces in filling those spots, Cosgrove said.

More than a quarter, or 26.6 percent, of state employees are nearing retirement in five years or less. Within that number, 10.7 percent will retire in one year and 8.1 percent are expected to retire now.

The state also has fewer employees now than in years before, with 10 of 16 departments dropping in numbers in 2004, according to a Department of Administration report.

Cosgrove said the drop is due to difficulty in recruiting employees. While she said lower pay sometimes is a factor, older applicants are turning down the job because at the moment the state's retirement benefits are not portable.

"I think it's going to take a lot of creative solutions," she said.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com



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