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Public entities struggle to attract, keep employees in jobs no longer as desirable

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Once respected jobs like law enforcement are seeing a turn in public opinion — and the number of job applicants — as the economy stays strong and unemployment low. A strong economy — coupled with a society that no longer values low-gloss, moderate-pay, high-benefit public sector jobs like firefighting, teaching and law enforcement — is leading to a hiring challenge for many public entities.

Sometimes that means a low number of qualified applicants, which can lead to open positions for longer periods of time, or applicants who pivot to more lucrative private sector jobs. Our grandparents' generation may have had great respect for careers in public service, seeing them as a great family-wage option for those without college degrees or advanced career training. But today's workforce wants more cash in hand and a job without high levels of stress or public opinion stains.

Not in it for the money

While the West Linn-Wilsonville School District has no shortage of qualified educators, WL-WV Education Association President Lane Johnson said that there is an anticipated shortage of educators throughout Oregon in the near future.

"We're not graduating enough people in teacher prep schools to fill the number.of positions that we have in Oregon," Johnson said. "It's not that we're currently having problems but we all anticipate problems in the next years to come."

Johnson said some of the reasons there are fewer people participating in teacher preparation programs are due to low salaries, student debt and competitive salaries in other states, like Washington, which recently received money from its Legislature to dramatically increase educator salaries this year.

On average, Oregon teachers earned a minimum starting salary of $36,097 for teachers with bachelor degrees during 2016-17, according to the Oregon School Boards Association. Teachers with master degrees had an average minimum starting salary of $40,136.

"It's an incredibly difficult job and salaries are about, according to The Oregonian, 9 percent less for teachers than they are in the private sector," Johnson said, adding that becoming a public educator is not as attractive as it once was. "It's rewarding; it's a thing to do if you really feel strongly about serving the community and the next generation but when people are graduating with incredible amounts of student debt, it's a difficult decision to make."

Johnson said the school district has a continual ebb and flow of teachers who retire and for the last few years it tends to be between 10 and 20 people. Though he hasn't seen specific demographic information, he said the teaching population in the WL-WV School District has gotten younger over the years.

"Older people, like me, leave and the younger generation comes in so it's a continual process," Johnson said. "I don't think we have a substantially larger number of educators who are either at or approaching the age that they can retire than any other district."

In Johnson's 30 years of teaching experience, he said as the economy improves, Johnson has seen fewer teachers coming through the pipeline because more opportunities exist outside of the teaching realm.

In general, Johnson said science and math are tougher subjects to fill because salaries are much higher in the private sector for those subjects. Oregon schools, including the WL-WV School District, are also always in need of dual-language teachers and special education staff. "It's a highly sought out specialty," Johnson said, adding that there is competition between districts for these types of teachers because they are few and far between.

Johnson believes that the WL-WV School District has a solid reputation — high graduation rates, the ability to pass bonds and a supportive and caring community — and seems to fill the necessarily positions. He also hasn't seen certain teaching positions open for long periods of time in the district.

"Anybody who thinks that it's easy (teaching) should try it," Johnson said. "People don't do it for the money."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Nationally, school bus companies are feeling the sting of a strong economy but in the WL-WV School District there is no shortage this year — but they are always looking for drivers.

Plenty of jobs to choose from

The national school bus driver shortage that seemed to plague the West Linn-Wilsonville School District last school year has since smoothed out.

"We're at a full complement of drivers at this particular time," said Jay Brock, First Student spokesman, about the WL-WV School District.

At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, the district added 12 bus routes and First Student increased hourly wages by $1 an hour for entry pay to rest at $18.25. First Student also increased drivers' signing bonuses for driving in the district.

"We have this bonus structure that's out there. (It's) $2,500 if you already have a CDL (Commercial Driver's License) or $2,000 if you don't have a CDL," Brock said.

Though the district isn't having a current bus driver shortage, Brock said First Student is always looking for drivers. They even have people in the pipeline right now, as it takes four to six weeks to get someone through the hiring pipeline. Training includes 50 hours of behind-the-wheel training, background checks and licensure.

Brock said the challenge of hiring bus drivers depends on the school district and the region, and that there are some areas experiencing challenges.

"We are doing everything we can do to address those. The unemployment rate is under 4 percent right now. The unemployment rate is at an all-time low. Jobs are plentiful. There are a lower number of people out there that are looking for work," he said. "If anyone is looking for a great opportunity we would love for them to apply."

A negative stigma

While not as dire as "The Big One" — a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that scientists say could desomate the Oregon Coast —  police departments across the state are preparing for another ominously titled event — "the Silver Tsunami."

By 2020, 478 police officers across Oregon are eligible to retire — potentially opening a gaping void for departments to fill.

"In the early '90s a lot of departments were adding staff," Wilsonville Police Chief Rob Wurpes said regarding the hiring bump 25-odd years ago. "A lot of folks are coming up on retirement eligibility. As we project forward we have to work really hard to get over the curve."

To make up for the loss, Eriks Gabliks, the director of the state's Public Safety Standards and Training, said police departments simply need to hire more officers.

But there's one problem: Gabliks said departments are attracting much fewer and less qualified applicants than even five years ago.

"Five years ago agencies would have told you they had twice as many applicants applying for jobs," Gabliks said. "(Now) we're all working harder to get people to not only apply but also to take the job."

Gabliks first cited the nationwide low unemployment rate, which has steadily dropped from over 10 percent at the height of the financial crisis to 3.7 percent in October — one of the lowest rates in the last 50 years.

"Everybody is scrambling to hire people because unemployment has never been so low and there's never been so many opportunities," Gabliks said.

But beyond that, Gabliks said an increasingly negative stigma around policing, which he said is fueled by news coverage of questionable police behavior and the documentation of incidents via phones or police body cameras, has wiped the shine off of the once heralded profession.

"We work in a 24-7 news market where any person on the street can film someone on an iPhone and post (videos of) police officers online and employees online," Gabliks said. "We have great men and women applying but we also know there are people who don't want their life changed overnight because a video goes viral."

Wurpes said police officers endure more public scrutiny than other profession.

"There's a lot of scrutiny of what we do that you don't see in any other profession. I could submit anything about you," Wurpes said. "You can (record) footage. That can be scrutinized by district attorneys, the public, and there's no other profession like that."

Wurpes and Gabliks also surmised the demands of the job — officers work nights, weekends and holidays — and robust benefits package might be less appealing to today's applicants.

"We try to attract people with the full package, benefits and retirement," Gabliks said. "Some people aren't interested in that. They're looking at how much cash they'll make."

Because of these factors potentially weighing against them, departments have focused more in recent years on public relations, outreach and interacting with youth at an earlier age.  Gabliks cited the police presence at high school and college job fairs, veterans career fairs, outreach events with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and camps for high school students. And he said departments are attempting more spontaneous recruiting. For example, Gabliks said the Beaverton Police Department recruited an officer after he was observed using particularly good customer service skills at his job in a coffee shop.

"(Someone with a) multi-tasking background, customer service, communication. It could be a barista, a mechanic, person in the military, a banker," Gabliks said about a quality applicant. "People who have the overall skills to help others."

"I don't think they (applicants) are gonna come to us anymore," Gabliks said. "We're going to have to come to them."

Gabliks noted that many police department jobs, such as working in labs, examining crime scenes and analyzing data, don't require a badge or a gun. However, he said interpersonal skills are a key component of law enforcement and has noticed that recent applicants aren't quite as adept in that area as previous generations.

"Interpersonal communication is a very big part (of the job)," Gabliks said. "One of biggest challenges we're seeing is the young generation is good at social media and texting. They're not so keen on talking to people verbally."

Wurpes isn't quite as concerned about the decline in applicants as Gabliks. But he believes the "Silver Tsunami" could create challenges.

For one, he said the process from handing in an application to becoming an acclimated member of the police force takes about 18 months. This is because budding officers have to complete police academy training and spots often aren't immediately available. Then, after graduation, new officers go through a three-to-four month training program conducted by departments, Wurpes said. So if a gaggle of officers retire at once, police departments could be left hamstrung for the better part of a year. To alleviate this issue, Wurpes suggested local municipalities proactively hire more officers than needed.

"If we know that an officer or deputy is gonna retire in six months, we may over-hire by six months," Wurpes said.

"That's a very good practice," Gabliks added. "A lot of communities are able to do but again it requires money."

In his experience, Wurpes said the decline in applicants hasn't affected the quality of police services. However, he is worried about the institutional knowledge that will be lost when a slew of baby boomers retire in the coming years.

"That's a big deal. You have that at all levels: street officer, detectives, administration," Wurpes said. "When people leave us they leave us with a lot of background and a lot of information. Those things can only be developed over time and experience."

For more information about police jobs, visit Oregonpolicejobs.com.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Oregon's corrections system has more jobs than qualified applicants to fill them but is working hard to publicize the benefits to the careers they offer.

More jobs than applicants

Steve Cox, the workforce planning administrator for the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), views each prison as a city.

And while that might not be a perfect analogy, the workforce within a prison is more varied than most institutions. There's corrections officers, doctors, psychiatrists, technical support staff, truck drivers, electricians, communications officials and much more. Cox views this diversity as an advantage for employees: A worker can begin their career in one field and switch to a completely different occupation without changing employers.

"We've had people start out as nurses end up as the superintendent," Cox said.

But for those responsible for hiring personnel, such a wide diversity poses challenges.

"Our applicant pool is not great," Cox said. "There's way more jobs than people to fill."

Cox said that prisons especially struggle to find qualified nurses, doctors, correctional officers, information technology positions and food service coordinators, and filling a position can take a few months in some instances and over a year in others. Cox said the unemployment rate goes a long way in determining the application pool and the current abnormally low rate has made hiring that much harder.

Also, when people think of a medical services or technology job, they often don't first imagine working in a prison. Plus, the private sector can typically offer higher salaries.

"Trying to compete with private sector pay-wise is extremely difficult for us and the state," Cox said.

Cox added that unlike more rural prisons like Warner Creek Correctional Facility in Lakeview, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville has the advantage of being located in a densely populated region. However, he said Coffee Creek has lost prospective and former employees to county jails.

"They pay more. They have signing bonuses. Clackamas County offers lifetime health insurance if you retire there as a deputy," Cox said. "That's extremely difficult to compete with."

Along with pay, Cox said many potential employees don't apply because they think prisons are unsafe, which he said is untrue in Oregon.

"For corrections, people watch movies that portray prisons in a way that's not accurate," Cox said. "They portray prisons that are dangerous and in Oregon that's not the case at all."

"Safety for us is a big deal and we are one of the safest correctional departments in the country," ODOC Communications Manager Jennifer Black said.

Cox said the ODOC received 630 job applications in the month of November, but that many applicants don't meet basic requirements, such as passing a background check and meeting medical requirements.

"Those processes do eliminate quite a bit of people," Cox said.

Like the police, Cox said the ODOC has struggled to attract millenials, but that it has increased its presence on social media, joined virtual career fairs, hired recruiters to deliver presentations at community colleges, job fairs and careers fairs and is recruiting more through texting.

"Those are things we are trying to do to connect with millenials," Cox said.

Cox said hiring struggles aren't confined to prisons and that public safety institutions are generally having a hard time finding quality workers.

Public perception, he said, is the root of the problem.

"Public safety is struggling largely in part because of the economy and public safety doesn't always get a positive (portrayal)," he said. "The media coverage is not good."

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