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Published January 31, 2014, 11:36 AM

Impending wave of retirements puts squeeze on city workforce

Rae Ann Burger began working for the City of Grand Forks 45 years ago.

By: Brandi Jewett, Grand Forks Herald

Rae Ann Burger began working for the City of Grand Forks 45 years ago.

The compensation and benefit administrator started in the information technology department back when, she said, key punch cards were used instead of computer software to keep track of utilities.

“Information technology was a little different back then,” she said.

Now, Burger is one of 10 employees who have four decades of city service under their belt.

That experience and the knowledge that group and the rest of the city’s workforce have is vital to keep the city running smoothly.

Maintaining that knowledge could become more challenging as the city faces a wave of retirements from Baby Boomers — a situation further exacerbated by a tight labor market, according to Human Resources Director Daryl Hovland.

As of now, 75 employees of various employment lengths — about 16 percent of the city’s 479-member workforce — are eligible to retire with more set to join their ranks in the next few years.

Not all have been with the city as long as Burger and her associates, though about 30 percent of the workforce has logged more than 20 years.

The median length of employment for current city workers is actually closer to 14 years.

So what’s the reason Burger and other have stayed so long?

“Nobody else would hire us,” joked City Assessor John Herz, who will be notching his 41st year with the city this year.

In all seriousness, Herz, Burger and others agreed it was the people they worked with and the enjoyment their jobs brought that kept them with the city.

“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t like it,” 41-year veteran Fire Chief Peter O’Neill said.

Revamping recruiting

No matter how long they have worked for the city, replacing retirees in the short term won’t be as easy as picking through a long list of job candidates.

“Right now, we don’t have the labor force to replace them,” Hovland said.

In December 2013, North Dakota posted the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 2.6 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The latest numbers put the unemployment rate for Grand Forks County at 2.5 percent in November 2013.

Candidates’ experiences also have the potential to narrow an already small pool.

Gone are the days when some could work fulltime for the city right out of high school, Hovland said. Degrees and certificates are now preferred for a number of jobs including secretaries, firefighters and police officers.

Lindsey Steinke, a human resources generalist for the city, added candidates with a lack of work experience often need to compensate with education.

Tight competition among employers both in the region and in the state’s Oil Patch and the city’s demand for experienced workers has Hovland’s department refining its recruiting methods.

A notice in the newspaper used to suffice, but now Steinke and Hovland say the city’s help wanted ads also are posted on websites and social media platforms.

Despite the transition to online job notices, city employees still remain successful recruiters.

“The number of candidates we get through word of mouth is still very high,” Hovland said.

A city salary plan that incorporates both market rates and employee performance in determining pay raises also serves as a lure for potential employees.

In other pay systems, salary is determined by length of employment, which leaves employees without motivation, according to Hovland. He added more municipalities are adopting systems like Grand Forks, which has operated in its current form for more than 10 years.

“We’re very fortunate to be very ahead of our time,” Hovland said.

Investment in training

In addition to new recruiting methods, the city has also expanding training opportunities for current employees partly as a means of preparing for the mass of retirements.

One of these efforts is a leadership academy, which allows enrollees to attend sessions focusing on ethics, teambuilding and other topics.

The academy isn’t meant as a means of replacing department directors and is open to every employee at any level, Hovland said.

Steinke, who joined the city last year, graduated from the academy’s fall 2013 class. She’s one of 60 employees who have completed the training.

Mayor Mike Brown has pushed for more training initiatives and spending since taking office, according to Hovland, who agrees with the move.

“You don’t want to cut training money first,” he said. “It should be one of the last things you cut out of a budget.”

Brown also implemented a policy of attrition, meaning city jobs are not removed until the employee leaves the position.

Critics say the policy allows people whose job is no longer necessary stay on and collect a paycheck. Proponents such as Hovland say the job’s requirements are changed to ensure the individual has work to do.

“Despite what some may say, we don’t have people sitting around waiting to retire,” Hovland said.

He added an attrition policy can be seen as gesture of compassion from employer to employees and has proven to be a powerful recruiting tool.

By the numbers

479: Number of Grand Forks city employees.

75: Estimated number of city employees eligible for retirement in 2014.

47: Average age of a city employee.

13.6: Median length of employment in years for city employees.

136: Number of employees working for the city for more than 20 years.

10: Number of employees working for the city for more than 40 years.

50: Most years of work by current employee. The distinction is held by City Clerk Alice Fontaine.

235: Combined years of experience among the city’s 12 department heads.

6,553: Combined years of experience among all city employees.

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