Cultivating a qualified staff
When Monterey County, Calif., began its search for a senior engineer, recruiters had little to do but wait. “It took us over two years to fill that position, essentially because we could not find the people who had the qualifications that we were setting,” says G. H. Nichols, deputy public works director for the county.
The story was similar in Coconino County, Ariz. There, the public works department advertised an engineering position for a year-and-a-half before finding the right person for the job. “It’s not that we didn’t have a whole lot of applicants for it; it’s just that we had a hard time finding one that we were willing to accept,” says Jim Stalnaker, the county’s public works director.
Most local public works departments could tell comparable stories. In the last five years, in particular, the booming economy and breakneck construction pace have placed engineers in high demand. Even those departments that were able to hire without difficulty began losing employees to the private sector, where pay was substantially higher.
To compete with the private sector, some local governments are incorporating monetary incentives into their hiring packages. Others are partnering with schools to build interest in public works or establishing their own training academies. All of their efforts are designed to attract and retain qualified public works employees.
‘Trans’migration in California
For Monterey County, the problem hit quickly. “As recently as five years ago, we had no trouble filling positions,” Nichols says. He remembers that, in 1996, the public works department received more than 55 applications for two engineering technician positions.
“Of those 55 applicants, 13 of them had college degrees, and nine were engineers in training (EITs),” he notes. “They were people right out of school and were not able to find jobs. We wound up hiring EITs to fill what were essentially high school level technician positions.”
That changed three years ago, when CalTrans, the state transportation agency, began a hiring blitz that sucked the engineering market dry. “There were some lawsuits by the engineers’ union at CalTrans regarding [the agency’s] hiring and consulting practices,” Nichols explains. “As a result, CalTrans had to discharge its consultants and hire permanent staff to [replace them]. I think they’ve hired, in the last three years, over 3,000 people statewide.”
Throughout California, cities and counties have watched their public works employees move to better-paying jobs with CalTrans. Even private consultants have struggled to retain engineers, Nichols says.
In addition to a lack of candidates, Monterey County — like most local governments — is finding that its salary structure handicaps its hiring opportunities. “I’m currently filling civil engineering vacancies, and I anticipate trouble,” Nichols says. “I don’t think we pay what the market’s paying for that position. We’re competitive with the other counties along the coast, but that doesn’t mean the counties are competitive with the marketplace.”
Additionally, housing costs in coastal counties have skyrocketed, while salaries have remained level. “That’s a big issue: trying to keep salaries commensurate with housing costs,” Nichols says. “People will come over and look at our jobs and look at the community; then they check out the housing and say, ‘We can’t afford to leave where [we live now].’”
There is little possibility that the salary structure will change. In Monterey County, the public works budget is funded primarily by a gas tax, and there is no other source of money for salaries.
However, the county’s board of supervisors recently implemented hiring policies that could help offset the salary problem and expand the pool of prospective employees. The policies include:
Hiring bonuses. A bonus up to $5,000 can be paid to new, permanent employees hired into “difficult-to-fill positions,” as determined by the county administrative officer.
Referral bonuses. A bonus up to $2,000 can be paid to permanent employees who refer candidates who are hired into difficult-to-fill positions.
Relocation allowances. The county administrative officer can approve reimbursement of relocation expenses for newly hired employees, except those appointed by the board of supervisors.
Perks are a plus
Although bonuses are generally regarded as private sector perks, they have long been a benefit in Greensboro, N.C. There, the local government pays a service bonus to enhance employee retention.
“The city rewards people for tenure,” says Keith Pugh, manager of Greensboro’s facilities engineering division. “If you’ve got five years of credited service on June 30, you’re given a check on Dec. 30. It’s a percentage of your salary, and, the longer you’re here, the [higher the percentage received].”
Because of the bonus, the city has a high retention rate for employees with five years or more of service, Pugh says. However, with new employees, turnover is hefty.
“On our engineering staff, we’ve had significant turnover with design drafters, CAD technicians and right-of-way technicians,” Pugh says. “We’ve wrestled with this for the last three or four years at least.”
Typically, the new hires are jumping ship for more money, leaving Pugh feeling like a resident trainer. “We have to hire some folks who have limited experience working [with GIS and CAD-related mapping],” he explains. “We wind up training them on those systems; they work for six to 18 months, and somebody outside our organization realizes what we’ve got, and they come and get them.”
Occasionally, the employees return to the public sector. “They jump out there and chase the dollar and then realize what they had here and come back,” Pugh notes. “I think they come back for the benefits the city has to offer on insurance, retirement plans, deferred compensation and those sorts of things.”
That is exactly what they come back for, according to Stalnaker, who notes that benefits remain a strong draw for Coconino County. “The private sector usually gets the young guys because it pays a lot more per hour,” Stalnaker says. “But when those folks get a little older and start raising families, they realize how important benefits are. Usually, we get them back when they’re somewhere in their mid-30s or early 40s.”
Grow your own
Although low salaries hinder public works hiring, they are not the only obstacle to successful staffing. Even in communities where salaries are satisfactory, departments often are faced with a pool of unqualified candidates.
To address that problem, Pinellas County, Fla., in partnership with the Florida chapter of APWA and the Pinellas County Board of Education, established the Public Works Academy. Open since the late 1980s, the school trains students in all aspects of public works, places them in jobs throughout the county and assists them in defining a career track.
“There are 24 municipal governments in this county, and a lot of us were experiencing problems with getting quality staff into our organizations,” says Robert Brotherton, director of public works and utilities for Dunedin, Fla. “We felt that we needed to attract people and get them to stay. But not just stay; we wanted them to look at their jobs as careers, with long-term possibilities of moving up in the organization.
“We also recognized that we weren’t getting any more money to hire new people,” Brotherton notes. “These days, we are expected to do more with the same number of staff or even reduced staffs. We had to start thinking about training our employees to do a multitude of jobs.”
The academy’s Cadet Program is its core offering. Three to four times a year, the school accepts up to 18 high school graduates (or GED recipients), or “cadets,” for 14 weeks of broad-based training in public works.
During that period, the students are placed in entry-level public works positions throughout the county. They spend half a day in the classroom and half a day on the job.
Classes, which are taught by senior public works personnel and local educators, meet in schools and local government facilities throughout the county. The curriculum includes solid waste, water treatment and distribution, stormwater management, wastewater treatment and collection, traffic safety, equipment operation, first aid, computer literacy and customer service.
The first cadet class graduated in 1987, and, since then, the school has graduated approximately 450 students. All of the graduates have been placed in permanent jobs within Pinellas County. Well over 90 percent remain in the public workforce.
“It’s been very, very successful,” Brotherton says. “We have a wonderful pool of employees to find at the entry level positions, and our people are highly trained and motivated to move up in their careers.”
Graduates of the Cadet Program can take advantage of the academy’s Apprenticeship Program, which offers advanced training in the public works field. Students who complete that track gain up to 26 hours of college credit toward an Associate’s degree in industrial engineering.
“Finishing up one year of college will give them a two-year degree and allow them to move into a foreman position,” Brotherton says. “Most of the cities also provide tuition reimbursement for those who want to go on to college and move up into management.”
Training expenses for the Public Works Academy are funded by the Pinellas County school system, and student fees (to cover uniforms, for example) go to the academy’s board of trustees. The board, in turn, uses those funds to provide grants to students who cannot afford to pay their fees.
Encouraged by the results in Pinellas County, several other Florida counties have followed suit. Lee, Hillsborough, Orange and Sarasota counties all have academies in their communities.
Who doesn’t have problems?
There are exceptions to every trend, and Clark County, Nev., is one of them. Blessed with a community that is a veritable population magnet and a capital project that is an engineer’s playground, the county has had no difficulty hiring public works personnel.
“The local environment is one that is attractive to a lot of people,” says Marty Manning, public works director for the county. “We have a pretty decent quality of life. There are always the features that exist around the Las Vegas strip, but the environment is generally pretty positive. So we have a lot of opportunities to find very qualified people.”
In 1990, the county began planning a beltway that will span 53 miles. (Twenty-seven miles are now operable.) Manning estimates that, even when the freeway is complete in 2003, access roads and interchange work to accommodate the county’s booming population could add 20 years to the county’s transportation plan.
“We’re building a road system that [will represent a billion-and-a-half dollar investment] when it’s done,” Manning says. “So there’s a lot of transportation experience that you can acquire here, and that’s very attractive to beginning engineers. It might take them years to get that experience in the private sector (where large construction jobs are rare), but, here, they get immediate exposure.”
Despite its status as an engineer’s Mecca, Clark County does not rely solely on that feature to ensure future staffing. It also nurtures an ongoing relationship with the area’s schools.
For elementary school students, the public works department sponsors an annual contest, in which students form teams to design ideal cities. The event, begun by Clark County three years ago, is based on a model developed by the National Society of Professional Engineers, Alexandria, Va.
The program is designed to acquaint children with the makings of an urban area, Manning says. The students decide what they want in their city, run their ideas on a software model and create a physical model for presentation to the contest judges.
“Something like 65 different grammar schools were represented in the last one, and [participation] is almost doubling every year,” Manning says. “The students demonstrate a growing knowledge of infrastructure and an understanding of the things you really need to make urban areas.”
In addition to sponsoring that program, the department offers summer jobs for up to 20 high school students each year. It also employs 10 to 15 college students on a part-time basis and invites graduate students to contribute to field projects.
“Our involvement goes all the way up the educational scale, and there’s an element of mentoring all the way through,” Manning says. “A number of our best engineers have grown up in this process.”
And several of them have continued to grow with the county. Manning reports that some employees have taken advantage of the county’s tuition reimbursement program to advance from technician to professional engineer to manager.
All of those elements have helped the department retain its employees. “A lot of these young people have hung with us and been an important part of our program,” Manning says.
Most cities and counties do not have the budgets to compete with the salaries offered in the private sector. For now, public works departments are forced to look beyond the pay scale. Through bonuses, educational partnerships and career mentoring, some are enhancing their offerings, as well as their chances to attract and keep good employees.