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Columbia government bracing for onslaught of retirements

Saturday, June 6, 2009 | 6:48 p.m. CDT; updated 11:40 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 6, 2009

LAKE OF THE OZARKS — The city of Columbia expects as many as 200 employees to retire in the next five years, according to a report compiled by the Human Resources Department

The issue was one of many discussed at the Columbia City Council's annual retreat at the Lake of the Ozarks.

Figuring out how to fill those jobs is one of City Manager Bill Watkins’ top priorities in the upcoming budget. The issue has been brought up the last three years as a priority, he said, but has been pushed back due to budgetary and time constraints.

“I’m as guilty as everyone,” Watkins said. “I identified this four years ago and said we’ve got to do this. We ain’t done it. This time we’ve got to.”

At the heart of the problem is the high number of employees in managerial positions expected to retire soon. For instance, in the next five years the Water and Light Department and the Finance Department could lose almost half of their managerial staff to retirements, according to projections compiled by the Human Resources Department. The Law Department could lose as much as two thirds of its management staff. Ninety-seven city employees are eligible for retirement now.

The city has conducted numerous work force studies and hired a graduate student intern tasked solely with looking at the issue, Watkins said.

Human Resources Director Margrace Buckler said there is currently some money available in the budget to conduct a survey of employees to see if the recession is causing them to postpone their retirement. In the meantime, the city needs to identify employees in the departments capable of being trained to fill the vacated positions.

“We’re losing experience, and we’re losing institutional knowledge,” she said.

To figure out the city’s future job needs, Watkins said the department will create a map showing all the city employees nearing retirement age, then it will be possible to identify the positions that need to be filled.

Sometimes the city will have people to fill the positions internally, but some will require some searching, he said.

Only recently has Columbia completed its survey of employee salaries and job descriptions, a process that started four years ago, Buckler said.

“We’re at a point where ... now what?” she said. “We need to move on to the next step.”

That step is identifying the internal employees who can be trained to fill the positions vacated by their superiors and finding the areas within departments that are vulnerable to many simultaneous retirements. Buckler used electric line workers as an example.

“If you have line workers eligible for retirement, line supervisors eligible for retirement, and it goes all the way up the chain, you’ve got a problem,” she said.

One of the ways to help departments find new employees is to broaden the job classifications, she said. For instance, the city has too many technician job classifications, Buckler said, such as human relations technicians, administrative technicians and many others. Classifying them all as technicians reduces the number of classifications and gives departments more flexibility in hiring.

“We have way too many job classifications for an organization our size,” she said.

The Human Resources Department estimated it would cost $107,000 to hire outside consultants to conduct a talent analysis and develop a training curriculum to fill vacated supervisor positions.

The department also asked the council for direction on a pay range for city employees, and the council decided on a range of 60 to 70 percent above market value.

The city has come a long way in the last decade, Buckler said. When she started, the employee salary range was 20 percent below market value.

The department presentation said that if the economy improves, it could be harder to fill empty positions.

The city needs to act soon, Watkins said. “As soon as the economy recovers, we got a bunch of people who are going to retire."


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