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How Pennsylvania Is Helping New Hires Get to Work Faster

Pennsylvania is saving $1 million a year and getting rid of the lag time when people start new jobs.

In 2010, the state of Pennsylvania centralized its human resources functions for executive branch departments, creating a one-stop shop for all employee transactions from the moment they're hired to the moment they stop working for the state. Rather than maintaining an HR function in each department, this single office completes all employee services, including benefits, payroll and health care.  

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As part of this centralization, the state set up an online onboarding program for all new hires. Today, new workers (about 200 each month) receive a login and password about two weeks before their start date from the HR department to a website where they can fill out paperwork, enroll in benefits, learn about office policies and explore their new jobs. Not only does the program lead to an estimated $1 million in annual savings from increased productivity and reduced workload, it means that new employees are prepared to start their new jobs on day one.

I spoke with James Honchar, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary for human resources, to find out how the state and employees benefit from the program. His responses have been edited for clarity and length.

What do employees think about the system?

It's something that's been very well received. Overwhelmingly, they love the idea of having time on their own before they start to go over the policies and think about their benefit choices. Under the old system, on the first day on the job, employees were more apt to feel like they just want to get started, and they would overlook important onboarding points. 

What about new hires that don't have access to a home computer? Do you recommend locations they can use?

Yes, we do. In fact, one of our largest populations is in our corrections facilities, and the typical corrections officer trainee comes right out of high school or the military. Most do not have education beyond high school, and a lot don't have access to computers. Part of that is also because when they're in the prison facilities, there aren't computers there for security reasons. Others without access to computers include equipment operators for the Department of Transportation. But the number of people without access is dwindling. If someone doesn't have access to a computer, we invite them to actually go into their agency if they want to utilize one of their computers. 

Have managers noticed a benefit under the new system?

They really feel that the employee can focus, and they love the fact that the employee can start on day one -- they have email, they have access to the necessary systems, they don't have to take time out of their day to call the HR services center. 

Has the new program alleviated any pressure on the HR services center?

Yes and no. It has definitely saved man hours. On one hand, the employee might be very adept at following the tour and can go through entirely on their own. On the other hand, you might have folks who need help with the technology and might call the service center more. Some people just need someone sitting with them walking through the actual information.

Do you have any plans to add new features to the system?

We're now doing the second wave of onboarding, which allows agencies to create a welcome video to introduce specific training, policies and procedures specific to their agency. We are working with three agencies right now to customize that. Some pieces of phase two are up and running now. 

When I started in government 27 years ago, the type of orientation I had -- the piles of books and manuals -- you never had the opportunity to go through and understand what the mission of the agency was. With phase two, the agencies want to explain their mission and vision and help employees understand their position. It gives the employee time so they can really focus once they start. It really does help employees connect to the organization.

What other states are running or considering similar programs?

As far as I know, we are pretty far ahead as far as the onboarding piece. Michigan is kind of looking at doing it. Michigan and Pennsylvania have been good partners in doing things in different sequence -- they were the first to do the service center, while we were developing an electronic request, then they borrowed that process and we went ahead with onboarding, and they are just getting to that now. But I'm not aware of any other state that has done as much as we have done with the onboarding program.

Heather Kerrigan is a GOVERNING contributor. She pens the monthly Public Workforce column and contributes to the print magazine.
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