City of Columbia prepares for rush of retirements

City seeks to establish program to train others as replacements
Tuesday, August 18, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:36 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Vic Winn, left, gives direction to two city employees at the top of a telephone pole while apprentice lineman Kyle Allinson feeds them wire Thursday, Aug. 13. Winn is a retired city utility employee who still works 2-3 days a week training apprentices.


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COLUMBIA — Ron Barrett knows where the city’s money is. In 1985, five years after starting work as an accountant for Columbia, he became the city’s comptroller, the head of the finance department’s accounting division. He’s been in that position for 24 city budgets, and, come November, he’ll have spent 29 years crunching numbers for Columbia.

Experienced employees such as Barrett, though, are fast approaching their golden years. Two years ago, Barrett’s age and years of service with the city combined to reach the magic number of 80, making him eligible for retirement. Losing Barrett scares Human Resources Director Margrace Buckler.

“He knows the payroll system better than anyone,” she said.

Luckily for the city, Barrett’s son is still in college, and Barrett enjoys his work, so he and his institutional knowledge won’t be leaving just yet.

“I hope I’m one of those people who will be there for a long time,” Barrett said. “I hope they come in one day and just find me hunched over my desk.”

But the city can’t count on all of its employees to keep working as long as Barrett. Over the next five years, more than half of the city’s roughly 200 supervisor-level employees will be eligible to retire, according to projections from the city’s Human Resources Department.

City Manager Bill Watkins identified the need for a succession and training program for city employees during his first State of the City address three years ago. But limited resources have forced him again and again to push back the development of a formal plan to prepare employees to fill their retiring supervisors’ positions. Although the city has been gathering data on employees eligible for retirement and soon will begin work on broadening job classifications and salary ranges, it still lacks a formal plan to deal with the coming onslaught of retiring baby boomers.

Buckler said some department staffs have good ideas about which workers are most likely to step up into supervisory roles. “But there’s nothing formal – at all.”

The city finally seems to be moving ahead with a plan to keep it from being crippled by retirements. Watkins asked for $50,000 in his proposed 2010 budget to fund a three-year program that would help prepare existing employees to fill upper-level positions. Before the end of the month, a screening committee should be recommending to him which of the 40 applicants should be appointed to a group that will guide that process.

The city has a window of opportunity now. The recession might be delaying some retirements, which Buckler said have been relatively low this year. But Watkins has indicated that when the economy picks up, the city could see a lot of people punch their timecards for good.

“If we work through this work force thing, the ultimate end may be that we have the ability to promote more people internally to those higher positions because they’ve been prepared,” Buckler said. “I think that’s the point.”

An employee-staffed committee will be in charge of surveying workers nearing retirement to find out when they plan to call it quits. The committee will use that data to identify the jobs in need of the most attention because of imminent retirements or a high level of required institutional knowledge. And finally, the committee will guide the development of the city's training curriculum, which probably will need the assistance of an outside consultant, Buckler said.

Daniel Turban, a professor in the management department of the MU School of Business, said Columbia’s problems aren’t unique.

“It’s not uncommon at all. It’s pretty typical,” he said. “The baby boomers are retiring, and there’s limited cohorts below them.”

It’s important for large organizations to have succession plans, he said, but a lot of them plan for talent loss in a haphazard manner. Those that do have formal plans in place aren’t so much changing their succession plans as they are making them a higher priority. The impending baby boomer retirements are prompting organizations to begin identifying and preparing more candidates for upper-level positions, he said.

One of the main problems in Columbia, Buckler said, is that the size of the city’s Human Resources Department has not kept up with the size of the city. While she suspects that may be typical of many municipal personnel staffs, which are mostly invisible to the public, it has kept her crew so busy with day-to-day responsibilities that they have had little time to devote to planning for the future.

But developing a formal plan is a necessity, she said.

“We have to do a better job of training; we just have to.”

The city’s larger departments are most at risk because there’s more potential there to lose lots of experienced workers. Buckler said her department recently made a list of city employees older than 55, and there were about 100 of them. Around 70 of those older employees are in Public Works, the largest department, and 50 of those are upper-level positions.

“You’re talking a whole bunch of people that are ready to go,” she said.

Buckler also said the Water and Light, and Parks and Recreation departments have high numbers of supervisors who are eligible for or nearing retirement. And the training budget, she said, is barely adequate.

Departments are compensating for that in an informal manner. Steve Saitta, Columbia’s park development superintendent, is 61 and has worked 35 years for the city. Although he has set no definite retirement date, he knows that the Parks and Recreation Department has a number of high-level people at retirement age and has been trying to pass on some of the knowledge he’s gained during the last three decades to younger employees.

“What we’re trying to do – I know I am on a day-to-day basis – we try to share what we’ve learned,” Saitta said. “You just try to minimize the impact of losing people.”

The Parks and Recreation Department already has started to feel the effects of retirement, Director Mike Hood said. Last year, two parks supervisors, each with about 25 years of experience, retired. Five or six more supervisors will become eligible for retirement in the next few years, he said.

“We started to see some turnover at the supervisory level four or five years ago,” said Hood, who’s eligible for retirement himself. “There was a real movement into the parks and recreation field in the early ’70s — not just here, but across the country. A lot of those people are my age, and most have spent their careers in Parks and Rec, and they’re rolling into retirement age.”

Although Hood said developing a succession plan makes absolute sense and will help, his department has managed without one. The two positions vacated last year, for instance, attracted excellent candidates, Hood said.

Buckler has also seen the ranks of applicants for city jobs swell recently. Opening a position for a lower-level job can garner 200 applications these days, she said. But if the economy recovers, it might become harder to find qualified applicants. Even so, she said the city’s benefit package has always been a strong pull on new employees.

And there are always those who are attracted to public service. Saitta said being a part of developing the city’s parks for the citizens of Columbia has been a rewarding career, and keeping that service level from declining is all about communication.

“What we try to do is communicate to some degree: ‘I’m going to be likely to retire in the next few years,’” Saitta said. “We don’t hide it.”

The city, however, only requires supervisor-level employees to give 30 days' notice before retiring, Buckler said.

“Some people will say, ‘I’m going to retire; let’s plan for this,’” she said. “Other people will say: ‘I’m retiring. Bye.’”

When Vic Winn, a veteran lineman for the Water and Light Department, retired four years ago, the department asked him if he’d be interested in coming back to teach new linemen the ropes. As the city has gradually shifted to underground power lines, fewer employees have experience working with overhead lines. So, the city has improvised by hiring Winn back part-time to train electric workers as apprentices.

“It was on-the-job training for me,” Winn said, who began working for the department in 1969 when he was 18. “But when I started, it was about 90 percent overhead and 10 percent underground. Now it’s like 80 percent underground and 20 percent overhead.”

Back around the time when he retired, Winn said there was about a five-year window when lots of electric crew supervisors who were about the same age and level of experience were retiring.

“We were kind of dropping like flies there for a while,” Winn said.

The crews that do work overhead lines don’t have much time to train new workers, he said, because they’re always on the job with deadlines. He works about two days a week and said that even though he only had about six months off before coming back to work, it’s not getting too much in the way of his retirement.

“There’s been a day or two when I thought I’d rather stay home,” he said.

“But I like it.”

Smaller departments are also facing the threat of brain drain, and while fewer positions may be opened, more knowledge can be lost. Over the past three years, Assistant City Manager Paula Hertwig-Hopkins has overseen interns charting city employees and their time until retirement eligibility. Almost all departments are at risk. For instance, Human Resources’ projections predict a potential loss of nearly half of supervisor-level positions in the Finance Department and two-thirds in the Law Department.

“For some departments, it could be critical,” Hertwig-Hopkins said. “For a smaller division with four or five people, and two are retiring, that’s critical.”

Another initiative just getting off the ground is reducing the number of job classifications and pay grades, Buckler said. After a four-year evaluation of the city’s various job classifications and descriptions, Buckler’s department hopes to reduce the 36 job classifications down to a manageable size before fiscal 2011. In personnel speak, it’s called broadbanding, and the idea is to give departments more flexibility in hiring.

By the beginning of 2010, her department hopes to have initial drafts of a succession plan and training curriculum. Until then, the city will have to depend on senior employees choosing to stay.

Barrett, for instance, said he’s not the kind of person who would enjoy sitting at home. He’s still in good health, and he’s not yet heard any feedback to indicate he’s senile, so he’s trying to pass on as much experience as he can to the next generation of city accountants.

“Sometimes it makes you feel old,” he said. “But usually it’s gratifying.”


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