"It's not an easy job being a jailer," says Captain Hunter Petray, who works in the sheriff's office in Benton County, Arkansas. Few would dispute him on that. The work is stressful, there are safety concerns and the clientele can be downright unpleasant.
There are compensations for the ordeal: Employment at the local jail is often a stepping stone for inexperienced workers looking to break into a career in law enforcement. The problem for local authorities is that as soon as the stepping stone is in place, everyone wants to step over it. With some training under their belt and a new chit on their résumé, they are off to seek other opportunities. Not long ago, Petray was losing half of his employees within one year of hiring them, a workforce churn so demanding that he kept a permanent "help wanted" ad in the local newspaper.
But it isn't just the indignities of being a local jailer that have created a public employee turnover problem. Nationwide, states have been losing more than 20 percent of their new hires every year.
Now the recession has altered the state and local job market--furloughs and layoffs are more common than hiring calls. When the economy picks up, though, managers will once again face the challenge of holding on to new employees.
The costs of losing a new hire can be enormous. Recruitment, interviews, background searches and training, among other expenses, can add up to one-third of the salary of each new employee--and as much as twice the salary of professional staff. In many places, it takes at least 12 weeks to replace a worker. That means three months of stopgap solutions, overtime pay and extra work for everyone else each time a newbie walks out the door.
What's the main cause of early exodus? The one you might expect--salary. "States that pay better tend to retain better," says Sally Selden, a professor of human resource management at Lynchburg College. "Benefits matter, but the relationship isn't nearly as strong."
Georgia, which had been losing new hires at a rate of 27 percent a year, revamped its workforce management two years ago and boosted entry-level salaries to bring them close to private-sector rates. State personnel director Steve Stevenson reports that the move helped the state recruit better candidates and keep them.
But money isn't the whole story. One survey of what makes workers want to stay and work productively found orientation and training topped the list: Employees stick by employers who help them feel at home and make them successful.
Job previews can help weed out applicants not cut out for particular jobs by giving them a taste of some "What the heck did I get myself into?" moments. There's no better job preview than an internship, of course, but many places also have found success using videos to show would-be applicants difficult situations they might encounter in their work. When Indiana's Department of Child Services had to double the ranks of family case managers, its pre-screen interview emphasized the challenging and difficult work environment. During training, the DCS reduced time in the classroom and increased the number of days recruits spent in local offices getting on-the-job training. Of course, more training also can make the loss of those who leave more expensive, which is part of the reason why Indiana combined training with special orientation (called on-boarding) and other introductory techniques. Mentors were paired with trainees to offer day-to-day guidance, and supervisory staff was directed to provide more hands-on support.
To keep their new hires, governments can brand themselves as employers with a range of opportunities so that when employees get restless, they can move within the organization. Georgia's Stevenson says his pitch to prospective employees is this: "There is not a company in the state of Georgia that can give you as much opportunity as we can. If you see something else in the state that interests you, we'll train you for that also."
Peter Cappelli applauds that tactic. Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, believes that governments could better situate themselves as stable, development-oriented employers by augmenting the vast training and advancement opportunities at their disposal. The potential for employee advancement, he says, ought to be fast, well-advertised and not driven by seniority.
He also recommends exit interviews conducted by independent third parties, so as to elicit what people might not tell a former boss. Compensation, for example, isn't always the cause for leaving, but it can be used as a harmless rationale, just as politicians say, "I am quitting to spend more time with my family." An outside interview can often cut through this.
The irony for many public employers is that now might be the best time to bolster their workforce with top new talent. "It's a good time to hire," says Selden. "States could attract people now whom they could never hire when the market is booming." Unfortunately, most states aren't in a good enough fiscal position to make maximum use of that opportunity.