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Workforce-Retention a Concern in State Gov’t, But Pay Revamp Unlikely Anytime Soon: Haslam

The governor say’s he’s interested exploring ways for government to attract and keep high quality professionals. Meanwhile the Department of Human Resources is looking to overhaul state worker evaluations.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has been hinting that he’s interested in finding a way to keep quality employees from leaving state government jobs, but that’s unlikely to make it into next year’s budget, he said Thursday.

The governor began signaling last month that he’s interested in finding ways to incentivize good employees after several commissioners complained during a series of budget hearings last month that they struggle to retain quality workers. Meanwhile the Department of Human Resources is looking to overhaul state employee evaluations and about 16 percent of workers will qualify for retirement in the next five years.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us to get ready to do our homework, to be ready for where do we have those looming retirements and what can we do to make certain we hire really good people to take their place,” Haslam told reporters after addressing the Donelson-Hermitage Chamber of Commerce Thursday at the Gaylord Springs Golf Club in Nashville.

“If you talk to our commissioners, that’s one of the constant refrains you’ll hear,” he said.

Haslam has had a lot of discussion within his administration about those issues, including planning ahead for as many as 6,800 workers who are within five years of retirement age to leave state government.

The governor is charged with drafting a roughly $30 billion budget in the next few months. As he crafts a state spending plan, he expects to cut as much as $400 million from the budget to compensate for increased costs in expenses like education, TennCare and pensions.

Over the last four budget periods, the state has shaved almost 10 percent of its workers from the payroll, according to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

The newspaper reports that the state had 47,102 full-time positions in the 2007-08 budget year. That number has fallen to an expected 42,856 in the 2012 spending plan that kicked in July 1.

Haslam has said cuts have forced departments to be more creative to find better ways to conduct government business and deliver services. Going into next year, the governor is expected to reveal how reorganizing state agencies with the outcomes of their “top to bottom reviews” will reshuffle workers.

“Our focus is on producing results, and one of the things you have to look at is what is the best way to do that. So I actually think the state services of Tennessee have not fallen off. As a matter of fact, our commitment is to make them better,” he told reporters Monday.

The Tennessee State Employees Association says it has anecdotal evidence that state services are suffering now that fewer workers are on the state payrol, such as social workers complaining that mounting case loads cause delays. However, the group says it has not formally studied whether services have suffered.

“We have forced a very much smaller work force to do the job that it ought to take more people to do reasonably,” said Robert O’Connell, executive director of the TSEA. “You need to take off the heavy burden of people who are doing two or three jobs at any given time.”

Commissioner Rebecca Hunter said her department is light on employees after it was “a little hard on itself” when the state embraced a hiring freeze during the economic recession. She said 22 percent of the department’s positions are vacant, and it’s beginning to take a toll on the agency.

“We do realize continuing with our vacancy rate at this level is not sustainable in the long term, and we’re making strategic decisions now about mission-critical positions we need to fill immediately,” she told the governor during a Nov. 4 budget hearing.

The situation has prompted the agency to find new ways to be efficient with the staff that it has, she said, which has helped streamline sick leave practices and how the state separates from departing employees.

Human Resources also proposed an $11.6 million budget, which is the same as the current year’s spending plan. However, the department is now an “internal service fund agency” which means it bills other departments for services like employee trainings instead of drawing from the state’s general fund. This practice is expected to save Tennessee $1.5 million a year, according to Hunter.

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