With strong economy, state jobs go unfilled
SALEM — Amid a strong economy and a tightening labor market, private employers across Oregon are struggling to fill job openings.
And while state officials say there's no definitive data on the subject, anecdotal evidence suggests that state government is having similar problems.
"We are definitely seeing the same thing as the private sector." said Steve Cox, workforce planning administrator at the Oregon Department of Corrections.
Using data reported by the state's businesses, the Oregon Employment Department says about 64 percent of vacant positions in the private sector are "difficult to fill."
About 30 percent of difficult-to-fill vacancies were hard to fill due to a lack of applicants. About 17 percent did not attract qualified applicants, and 14 percent were hard to fill, employers said, because of unfavorable working conditions.
State government had more than 5,800 job vacancies as of July 18, according to data provided by the state's Department of Administrative Services.
For context, as of June, there were 40,285 paid state workers, including full-time, part-time, seasonal and temporary workers.
However, there are a number of circumstances that would cause a state job to remain vacant, says DAS spokeswoman Liz Craig.
Vacancies may mean that the agency is holding the position unfilled to save money, or that it's recruiting for the position but haven't hired yet. Alternatively, the position may be being re-classified, or another employee is doing some of the position's work as a rotation or development assignment.
It may be more useful to look at open positions the state is actively recruiting for: as of July 18, the state had nearly 400 active job postings, and about 60 internal job openings, according to DAS.
Recruitment is top of mind for the Oregon Department of Corrections: the agency has created a recruiting team, increased its social media presence and held special one-day recruiting events in an effort to shepherd job applicants through the process more quickly.
The state's corrections department has about 200 vacancies, says Steve Cox, the agency's workforce planning administrator.
"With Department of Corrections, we have 14 institutions in the state, and each of those is like a small little city, so we're hiring everybody from administrative personnel to doctors, dentists and nurses," Cox said Tuesday.
Cox says it's hardest to fill openings for nurses, doctors and correctional officers, especially when the agency has to deal with negative public perceptions about working in corrections. It's also competing against county-level law enforcement agencies and private sector employers, such as Amazon, which is opening several new centers in the state this year and plans to hire thousands of workers.
The Oregon Department of Transportation is also working to attract employees, setting up a specific ODOT jobs account on Twitter, sending postcards to recent graduates, attending job fairs and advertising online.
It's hardest to fill positions for engineers, land surveyors and electricians, says Kevin Beckstrom, a public information officer for the department. He says it's especially challenging to hire for licensed professions in the midst of a construction boom.
"We're competing against other (departments of transportation), and against consultants, so it's just difficult to grab that top talent," Beckstrom said. He said that "compensation and location" are usually significant factors in causing applicants to choose other opportunities.
The Oregon Department of Human Services, meanwhile, has 91 positions posted for recruitment.
A spokeswoman for DHS, Christy Sinatra, says the majority of its vacant positions are in the Child Welfare and Self Sufficiency programs.
"The Oregon economy is doing very well right now and that can affect the size of the applicant pool," Sinatra wrote in an email. "This can be especially true in rural areas of Oregon."
In the coming years, there may be more openings in state government. About 35 percent of current state employees are eligible to retire, according to DAS.
In anticipation of this change, DAS has set up a succession planning guide for state agency managers, which includes ways to help agencies identify critical positions and competencies.
But right now, Craig, the DAS spokeswoman, says, the number of vacancies due to retirements is still smaller than the number of vacancies due to people leaving a position for other reasons, whether for another job in the agency or leaving state government altogether, by a 12-to-1 ratio.