By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – “Help Wanted” signs hanging in business windows are as common these days as overcast Northwest skies in November. Drive down any business district street and you will run across companies looking to hire employees.
And as is the case with the local McDonald’s or Safeway, Kitsap County is also looking to fill open positions.
“As we are seeing nationwide, Kitsap County is experiencing labor shortages,” Denise Greer, the county’s human resources director, said.
“The county is actively recruiting for 76 open positions,” she said. That means nearly 7% of the county’s 1,100 positions are unfilled.
“That is higher than normal,” Greer said.
“It’s fair to say [the staffing shortage] is causing more work for everyone else. When you have vacancies, existing staff has to pick up the work,” the HR director explained.
Fewer staffers impact not only government employees who have to carry the workload but also residents.
For example, most road repairs are considered discretionary work and do not require immediate action, Greer said. With fewer road repair crews available, street maintenance has to be put off, resulting in drivers having to deal with more potholes, she said.
Reduced staffing is also putting a strain on department budgets.
“With non-discretionary work such as staffing the jail, we can’t say, ‘We are not going to staff the jail today.’ And, having fewer corrections officers can lead to more mandatory overtime. Budgets are definitely impacted because when we have people doing overtime, we are paying a premium,” she said.
Retirements are happening at a higher rate than normal and are the leading reason behind county employees leaving, Greer explained.
“There is a whole variety of reasons why people leave, but retirement has been one of the largest reasons for people exiting,” she said.
COVID-19 seems to be the reason driving the higher-than-normal retirement rate, Greer surmised.
“It seems to me if people in essential worker positions who have to stay on the front lines and otherwise be at higher risk of exposure [to COVID] are at an age they could retire, they might be looking at that option to not deal with that type of risk,” she said.
Essential workers with the county include sheriff’s deputies, corrections officers, human service workers who are dealing with people in crisis, and Department of Emergency Management employees who address COVID emergency response needs, Greer said.
More typically, though, employees leave the county payroll to seek other career opportunities, return to school, start a family, or care for a loved one, she added.
Solving the shortage
To fill open positions, the county is taking the usual steps — and some new ones.
For example, Kitsap County is making a concerted effort to target students as potential future employees.
The county’s internship program has been revamped to reach college students, she said. A student success program is being formulated to enable local high-school students to work with the county and earn credits.
“The hope is students stay with us after they graduate,” Greer said.
Employment opportunities are also being placed on the county website and social media sites such as Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter, she said. While attempting to obtain new job applicants, county officials also hope to attract a more diverse pool of applicants. To promote diversity, the county has hired a consultant to assist with diversity outreach.
Government officials are also taking proactive steps to prevent job burnout and encourage current employees to remain on the county payroll.
The county has established a wellness program “where we encourage employees to take care of themselves and their body and minds,” and an employee assistance program to connect workers with counseling services they may require, the human resources director said.
“Where we can, we also promote and encourage employees to telecommute because we want the employees to have a happy work/life balance. Telecommuting can go a long way in achieving that,” Greer said.