State short on workers

Recruiters may try to bring back retirees to deal with dearth

Posted: Friday, November 24, 2000

Employment recruiters are scrambling to fill state government jobs that are usually coveted.

Jobs for engineers, information technology experts, biologists and nurses are going unfilled for lack of qualified applicants, as are positions for accountants, clerks, managers and administrative assistants office jobs people have snapped up before, said Sharon Barton, director of the state's Division of Personnel. She said the state is even thinking about ways to attract retirees back into the work force to fill the void.

"I have been looking for a ... manager for the Division of Personnel for 17 months now and simply cannot find one," Barton said. "A lot of expertise is sitting out there in retirees and some of them might be willing to come back."

Barton said the state historically has had trouble finding employees for some positions, including nursing jobs, but the problem has grown more critical the past two years and expanded to include clerical jobs. The state doesn't track recruitment trends on a statewide basis, so Barton is basing her conclusions on anecdotal information from agencies that have come to her for help.

She puts part of the blame for the tight labor market on the robust national economy, but she said it goes deeper than that.

"Here in Alaska ... we're just not cranking out of our schools the engineers and the nurses and other job classes that we need within the state," she said.

Kevin Brooks of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said his agency, like many state

departments, is having trouble finding administrative assistants and other office workers, but he said it's also hurting for scientists. The vacancy rate for biologists and other professional jobs is four times higher than usual: Of 579 positions, 123 are vacant, he said.

"That (20 percent) vacancy factor is quite high. We probably wouldn't expect more than 5 percent," said Brooks, the agency's director of administrative services.

Brooks puts part of the blame on state salaries, which he said aren't as lucrative as those offered by the federal government. He said now that the federal government has taken over management of some subsistence fisheries, it is hiring more biologists and competing with the state, which is struggling to keep the ones it has.

"Our biggest competition is the federal government," which pays up to 25 percent more than the state for the same position, said Brooks. "The salary and benefits package for state employees in Alaska isn't the Cadillac it used to be."

Barton of Personnel said the Department of Transportation & Public Facilities was having trouble filling about 100 engineering positions last year. But a top official with the agency said after they increased salaries, the pool of applicants grew.

"As a result, we found we're having an easier time recruiting," said Kurt Parkan, deputy commissioner of the department.

But Parkan is still concerned because a high number of his employees are approaching retirement, a problem facing all the agencies. Barton said 25 percent of state workers will be eligible for retirement over the next five years, a nationwide phenomenon she calls the "baby-boomer bubble in the work force demographics."

"The current job market coupled with our demographics make this a long-term problem," Barton said.

Barton said for now some employees are juggling more work, but she's concerned the Alaska Psychiatric Institute and other state institutions that rely on nurses eventually could lose accreditation for lack of staff, or that the federal government will funnel fewer dollars to it for transportation projects because it doesn't have enough engineers. Brooks of Fish and Game said fewer biologists in the field could ultimately mean more conservative management of resources, meaning more restrictions on fishermen and hunters.

In response, the state has launched the Workforce Planning Project, a multi-agency advisory group set up in summer to figure out ways to attract qualified employees. One of its tasks is to gather data on how many jobs statewide remain vacant despite repeated recruitment efforts something the state hasn't tracked before. Barton said the project also is experimenting with ways to advertise job openings at colleges, job fairs and on the Internet.

The group also wants to develop internship programs for college students with the hope they'll make their careers in state government, and offer more training programs for the younger generation, which is more interested in opportunities to grow professionally, she said.

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