Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Oregon prisons face worker shortages as retirements loom

By Whitney Woodworth (Salem) Statesman Journal

SALEM, Ore. – With a staff of 4,700, the Oregon Department of Corrections is struggling to attract new employees as almost one-fifth of its workforce becomes retirement eligible in 2018.

Officials with the state’s second-largest agency said part of the blame rests on the region’s flourishing economy.

The employee market is similar to the stock market – it goes up, it goes down, said Steve Cox, workforce planning administrator with the corrections department.

When the economy is bad, people tend to flock toward jobs in law enforcement and corrections.

“Right now, the economy is very strong, which makes it more difficult for public safety agencies to hire,” he said. “We have a shortfall because there’s just not the inventory of qualified applicants out there.”

DOC spokeswoman Betty Bernt said the department has about 330 job vacancies.

Oregon is not the only state grappling with an employee shortfall. Agencies across the country are struggling to find qualified applicants. Prisons face the additional challenge of trying to overcome the negative perception people have of public safety jobs.

As employees become eligible for retirement, the shortfall could worsen.

“If you went to an elementary school and you interviewed a bunch of fifth graders, you would have some that say ‘I want to be a police officer,’ ‘I want to be a fireman,’ ‘I want to be a ballerina,’” Cox said. “It’s not often you hear someone say, ‘I want to be a correctional officer because it’s just not a very recognized profession.”

The number of Oregon corrections retirements has climbed steadily since 2014 when 98 employees retired. By the third quarter of 2017, 178 employees retired.

Almost 20 percent of the staff is eligible to retire today, Cox said. And in the next five years, more than one-third of the workforce could retire.

“If they all decide to file their paperwork today … we could be in a world of hurt,” he said.

Thankfully, he added, many have chosen not to retire because they enjoy their work, feel like part of a family or believe in the agency’s mission.

The operations divisions, which include 2,549 security staff, could see the most retirements. Just under 300 correctional officers are eligible to retire this year. Within five years, that number will almost double.

The department is also facing a shortage of medical professionals, especially nurses.

Officials have changed their tactics to draw in a new generation of employees and retain the ones they have, Cox said.

The department offers good health benefits and retirement benefits. Although they struggle to compete with private sector pay and hiring bonuses, especially when it comes to nursing jobs, wages are still decent.

Many jobs, like correctional officers, do not require a college degree and come with great benefits, Cox said.

But security jobs are only a fraction of what the department offers.

Each prison is like a small town, needing maintenance, public safety, medical, psychological, food service, electrical and transportation officials.

“Anything that is in a small city, we pretty much have those same jobs,” Cox said.

Each prison faces different hiring struggles and employee markets. Snake River Correctional Institution, with its proximity to the Boise metro area, draws in applicants from Idaho because of its higher wages.

Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville and Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla struggle the most with attracting new hires.

Turnover rates also vary, with Snake River reporting a turnover of about 4 percent and Two Rivers logging a rate of more than 12 percent.

As part of its 10-year mission plan, the agency has made mental and physical wellness a priority.

“The focus we have as an agency toward work-life balance and focusing on our staff and their families, I think is one thing that does help retain employees,” Cox said. “I’ve seen other law enforcement agencies where that focus isn’t there as much.”

While older generations might disparage millennials as lazy or short-sighted, Cox said his staff has worked to understand the younger generation’s strengths and priorities.

“I think the millennials actually have some wisdom when it comes to work-life balance,” he said. “A lot of them watched their parents put many years in and watched the economy crash and realized they didn’t come out so well.”

They realize the importance of putting family first and having a supportive work environment, Cox said. But millennials often shy away from shift work and government jobs.

They also tend to not stay in positions for very long – a trait that DOC could turn into a positive by offering cross-training and room for advancement.

Recruiters have doubled down on technology-based hiring. Gone are the days when you could just post a “help wanted” billboard and wait for applicants to stream in, Cox said. Now, a social media recruiter focuses on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Craigslist.

They also host virtual career fairs and have streamlined the hiring process into one-day recruiting events, where applicants can tour facilities, take proficiency tests and undergo interviews. Cox said the once eight-month ordeal is now condensed into one day plus a medical exam and background check.

Cox said one of the biggest draws for him has been the tight-knit, supportive atmosphere.

“DOC is definitely a family,” he said. “It may not look on the outside like that, but when one of our own is in trouble – a severe illness or something going on – this team rallies around them. They help carry that person through that difficult time.”