Help wanted: State agencies ‘hemorrhaging talent and experience’

The Wyoming state government is struggling to attract and retain enough qualified employees to accomplish the state’s work and meet its obligations, according to recent reports by the Department of Administration and Information.

A WyoFile analysis of state data found that turnover rates at nearly half of Wyoming’s executive branch agencies at least doubled between 2010 and  2021. For seven of those agencies, fiscal year 2020-2021 brought their highest recorded turnover rates in over a decade. 

“We are hemorrhaging talent and experience,” Gov. Mark Gordon told the Joint Appropriations Committee in early December. Gordon is asking the Legislature to increase compensation for state workers who are paid, on average, 19.4% below market value. 

“If you want to run government more like a business, then I guess you have to run it more like a business,” Gordon told the committee.  

Wyoming’s private sector has long struggled to attract and keep workers. The data and testimony now suggest that once sought-after public sector jobs have also lost their competitive edge. Employee survey results overwhelmingly point to compensation as the culprit. And as Wyoming’s aging workforce nears the “retirement cliff”, the younger people the state is expecting to fill openings are the very ones the state is struggling to retain. 

When Electrical Trades Supervisor Damian Garibay entered the profession 23 years ago “state jobs were sought after by everybody,” he said. 

In early December, Garibay shared his story with the Joint Appropriations Committee as part of a budget presentation by the Department of Administration and Information. Garibay’s position is housed within that department, which also provides administrative, fiscal and human resource services to some of the state’s other agencies.   

Garibay described a changing reality to lawmakers. Two decades ago, he said, a job with the state as a tradesman was coveted because of the pay, benefits and retirement. Now, he said he and his colleagues feel “looked down upon and unappreciated.” He also said they’re underpaid, and as a result, his department has lost its ability to recruit talent. 

“It seems no one wants to work for the state anymore,” he told the committee, pointing to one electrical position opening that had not received a single application in the three months since it was posted. 

The Department of A&I has come to a similar conclusion as Garibay. In a report, it said that the state of Wyoming has long considered itself an “employer of choice,” and that the state “could rely on it’s stability and benefits to attract and keep top talent.” The A&I report attributed decreased interest in state jobs to “generational differences to some degree,” but more so “to other areas falling further behind, such as the compensation package.”

Garibay said during his testimony that to make ends meet all three of the electricians in his department do additional gigs on the side. They’re not an exception in the state employee pool, either. 

In August 2021, the state published the results of an employee survey. When asked if their current compensation plan supported them and/or their family, 39% of respondents said they had to have a second job, while 3% said they currently rely on some sort of public assistance, such as SNAP. 

The survey was developed as part of Gordon’s pandemic recovery plan, also known as Wyoming’s Strategy to Strive, Drive, and Thrive Initiative. Recognizing the ongoing retention issue, the survey was intended to “solicit feedback from employees who have stood by the State of Wyoming during tough times,” according to the Department of A&I, and to “help direct efforts as they relate to reshaping retention strategies and modernizing recruitment efforts.”

About 4,300 respondents participated in the anonymous survey, roughly half of the eligible workforce. Compensation issues were some of the most common and the most glaring — even when not asked directly about pay. For example, when asked about improving work-life balance, “many of the responses cited an increase in wages or more regular pay adjustments.” More specifically, some pointed to the amount of overtime needed to work to make ends meet, while others described, “the anxiety of not being able to pay bills on time.”

There were also questions related to finding other work. More than half of respondents said they are either casually or actively looking for employment elsewhere. The survey revealed this to be especially acute for less experienced state employees. Over 60% of respondents with 1-5 years experience responded that they are looking for employment elsewhere. The same was true for 66% of those with 5-10 years experience, and 62% of those with 10-20 years. The report pointed to these particular findings as a looming issue in the not so distant future. 

“The state has to start planning for succession as the retirement cliff draws near,” according to the report. “In fact those expected to fill these upcoming vacancies are looking for employment elsewhere.”

Each year, the Department of A&I puts together a Workforce Report, which details data points such as pay, employee counts, average pay rates by gender, and how long certain agencies take to fill vacancies. It also tracks turnover rates — the rate at which each agency loses employees. That is calculated by dividing the average number of employees over a fiscal year by the total amount of separations. 

Overall, employee turnover at the state of Wyoming has been on an upward trend for the last decade or so. In 2011, it was at a 10-year-low of 12.6%. It has since grown to a rate of 18.1%.

The annual reports track turnover rates at 53 state agencies under the executive branch. An analysis by WyoFile found that 22 of those agencies saw their turnover rates double or more between 2010 and fiscal year 2020-2021. Those included: The Department of Administration and Information, Attorney General, the Board of Geologists, Board of Parole, Cosmetology Board, Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, Department of Health, Department of Revenue and Taxation, the District Attorney of Laramie County, Military Department, Office of Administrative Hearing, Oil and Gas Commission, Pharmacy Board, Public Defender, Public Service Commission, Real Estate Commision, State Auditor’s Office, State Construction Department, State Engineer, State Parks and Cultural Resources, and Wyoming Retirement. 

The Attorney General, Cosmetology Board, Department of Revenue and Taxation, Office of Administrative Hearing, Pharmacy Board, Public Defender, and Real Estate Commission all experienced their highest turnover rates in more than a decade. 

A handful of other departments that did not experience exceptional highs because dysfunctionally high turnover had already become the norm. The Department of Corrections hovered between 18 to 20% for most of the last decade, while the Department of Health rose above 30% three times out of the last four years. At the State Treasurer’s Office, turnover rate was said to have contributed to incomplete forecasting data for this January’s CREG report. 

“Simply put, compensation is not competitive; no one wants these jobs at the current rate, including benefits,” according to a Compensation Facts report put together by the A&I Department at the request of the Joint Appropriation Committee. 

Gov. Gordon has made salary increases a high priority in his budget proposal, asking the Legislature for an additional $53 million for employee compensation. That would not just include pay adjustments for executive branch agencies, but also members of the judicial branch as well as educational positions. 

However, the request does not equate to raising employee pay across the board, or all at once. According to the Department of A&I, the state would need to spend almost $98 million a year in order to bring every classified employee in its workforce up to 2020 market rates. 

“Executive Branch pay has fallen so far behind that requesting a move to 2020 market rates for all employees has become unrealistic,” according to a Compensation Facts report prepared by the Department of A&I. 

As a result, Gordon has instead asked for a two-step process. First, it would adjust pay tables to 2020 market rates. That would not raise compensation rates immediately for all workers, but would change the range of pay the state has to work with when determining individual compensation. For about a quarter of employees, it would raise the minimum amount in their paytable. 

Secondly, Gordon’s plan would implement a market merit matrix, which is said to “reward high performers who are further behind the market and slow down those who are above market.”

Potential raises will come too late for the many workers that have left jobs, or the state entirely. That includes Eli Ellis, 30, who left his post as trooper for the Wyoming Highway Patrol in 2021. 

“I just went to another state to become a state trooper,” said Ellis, who now works in Maine. Part of he and his wife’s decision to leave Wyoming had to do with being closer to family as they were expecting their first child. But Ellis said if some things had been different at work — such as pay — that it would have encouraged him to stay in a state that was a good fit for his family. Ellis said they are dedicated hunters with two bird dogs, and a strong appetite for skiing and hiking. Plus, his wife is a teacher and the quality of the school system had also motivated the young family to come get jobs here about four years ago. 

“The people of Wyoming are probably some of the best people to serve and work with,” said Ellis. But the job came with challenges, too, a lot of which had to do with being short staffed. Ellis said his division in Gillette was only fully staffed for a few months of the four years he served as a state trooper. 

According to a letter from the Wyoming Highway Patrol Association, 178 troopers have left the agency since 2010, on account of retirement, seeking law enforcement positions elsewhere, and leaving the profession entirely. The letter also says Wyoming is struggling to attract applicants to fill those positions, since other states offer relocation allowances, sign-on bonuses, and more competitive compensation. 

“A lot of this is that their hands are kind of tied,” said Ellis. 

So while Gordon may be adamant about raising pay to attract and keep workers, lawmakers ultimately hold the purse strings and will make a decision in the upcoming budget session.