When Boomers Retire

A number of states are looking to career-building programs to grow their workforces of the future.
September 2006
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

The press is full of reports on the lack of good schools, roads and housing for the poor. But what alarms us most is the fast-leaking pool of people to actually repair the roads, teach in the schools and develop housing. There's a "personnel tornado" on the horizon: An alarming number of state and local employees--more than 40 percent in some states--will be at retirement age in five to 10 years.

What's to be done? Workforce planning is key. Better recruitment is critical and persuading people to work a little later in life can help. But one intriguing way to address this issue is for human resource departments to help employees build careers for the future-- not just find them a sensible job for this month. This can help cut turnover and more. "It is a good recruiting tool," says Sally Selden, associate professor of management at Lynchburg College. "People can see the benefits of a career--not just a job--in state government." Virginia's Human Resource Department opened a so-called Career Center about five years ago. It provides career development assistance to current employees as well as people interested in joining state government. Through the Career Center, employees get assistance in developing a career path and a concrete plan to reach individual goals. This starts with short-term action plans for the next year or so. Along the way, the Career Center is available for guidance and cheerleading.

Counselors don't just help these folks dream. "We need to determine what is realistic for that individual, not just find out what they desire," says Patricia Waller, human resource analyst in Virginia. So, a 35-year-old administrative assistant who aspires to be a college president might be convinced that there's another opportunity in the state university system that should be explored.

Illinois has gone somewhat further. Its Upward Mobility program is a partnership between the state and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. The program initially gives employees an opportunity to advance to more challenging jobs by providing individual counseling, guidance in developing career plans and opportunities to take proficiency exams. All this leads to a solid understanding of the kind of training it will take to turn, say, a relatively low-level mental health technician into a trained nurse.

Once an employee has been accepted into Upward Mobility--and almost 13,000 Illinois employees have been, so far--the state pays tuition costs for necessary training at public institutions and up to $365 per credit hour at private schools. As for the labor side of the program, the major unions have agreed, says Ann Pufundt, executive director of Upward Mobility, to allow people who qualify for better jobs to take them, even if that means moving to another bargaining unit or even leaving the union entirely.

But what if a state employee takes those newly acquired skills and moves on to a job in the more lushly remunerated private sector? The program addresses that issue: When employees leave the state within two years of taking their last course, they have to pay back the tuition and a 7 percent interest rate is applied to the amount of money owed.

"It's a calculated gamble," says Paul Campbell, director of the Illinois Department of Central Management. "You have to say to employees that you want them to grow, and if you're not willing to do that, then the message is that we want you to stay stagnant because we don't value you."

Of course, such employee-growth efforts have challenges. Florida, for example, had grand plans for a program a few years ago, but problems with its integrated HR technology system has pretty much choked the life out of the plans for the time being. North Carolina, meanwhile, has pursued the means to allow people to receive pay adjustments when they develop new skills that are needed on the job. For reasons unclear to the human resource people who nurtured this effort, the legislature has doubts, has suspended implementation beyond the current modest effort and intends to create a commission for more study. Meanwhile, further progress is limited.

Painful as these roadblocks may be, states and cities must move ahead or give up an important tool to provide an adequate workforce in the future.