Missouri uses job fair to tackle vacancy issues plaguing state agencies

He’s recovering from a back injury, but Brandon Owens still needs a job.

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And on Wednesday the Jefferson City resident joined dozens of others at a job fair intended to fill the thousands of open jobs in state government. Owens’ ideas for the kind of job were fairly vague – he’s generally done factory work in the past and has been a mechanic for 15 years.

He knows what kind of job he doesn’t want. 

“I’d like to stay as physical as possible,” he said. “I don’t necessarily want to be stuck behind a desk.”

It wasn’t long before Glen Farrow, a community development specialist in the Office of Workforce Development, was keying information about Owens into a screening form. The goal, Farrow said, is to direct applicants to jobs that fit their experience and interests.

“There are all different types of positions out there,” Owens said.

The four-hour event in Jefferson City’s Capital Mall featured booths for 22 agencies, including 17 state departments and three elected officials along with separate recruiting stations for the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Office of Public Defender.

State agencies spent Wednesday afternoon recruiting new employees at a job fair in Jefferson City. Several hundred people showed up to learn about jobs ranging from corrections officer to wildlife specialist (Rudi Keller/Missouri Indpendent).

In all, 252 people interested in possible state employment participated, Office of Administration spokesman Chris Moreland wrote in an email to The Independent.

The state budget for this year authorizes the equivalent of 53,358 full time employees, with 45% assigned to the Corrections, Mental Health and Social Services departments. But low pay, harsh working conditions in state institutions and private employers offering more and more incentives in a tight job market has meant massive turnover and long-term vacancies.

During fiscal 2022, one in eight budgeted jobs were unfilled. In the mental health department, the rate was one in six. In corrections, the number was one in five.

Among frontline Children’s Division staff — including child abuse and neglect investigators and foster care case managers — the turnover rate last year was 55%, according to data provided by DSS.

The result has been delays in services, employees stressed by overwork and major adjustments in state operational plans, such as when the Department of Mental Health canceled its project to shift all sex offender treatment to a single facility in Fulton.

To adjust state salaries to the job market, Gov. Mike Parson has requested and received two extraordinarily large pay raises and authority to set a $15 an hour base wage for state jobs. State employees have received raises totaling 16.2% since the start of January 2022 and the differential for night work in state institutions was increased to $2 per hour in March

A person willing to work a night shift in a state prison can start at $21.96 per hour, said Darin Gerke, talent acquisition officer for the corrections department. That is just under $46,000 a year.

Over the past two years, the Department of Corrections has reported turnover rates over 25%, with more than half of new corrections officers quitting within six months of completing their training.

The qualifications are simple – at least 18 years old and no felony convictions. The job does not require a high school diploma or a driver’s license.

The biggest staffing needs are in central Missouri, where the department operates prisons in Audrain, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Moniteau and Randolph counties, and northwest Missouri where populations are declining, Gerke said.

“We are working hard to find people to work up there,” he said.

At the Department of Labor, lead administrator Tatiana Lane was in search of 18 employees, ranging from claim center representatives to administrative leaders.

The qualifications for entry jobs are not difficult to meet, Lane said. 

“That is the message we are bringing to the people, that there is no bad candidate,” she said.

Bringing the agency recruiters together is a way to offer something for every interest and aptitude, Commissioner of Administration Ken Zellers said.

The economic inducements to work for the state aren’t just pay, he said. Recruiters emphasize job satisfaction in public service as well as other benefits – pension benefits equal to half-pay for 30 years work, 13 paid holidays, health insurance and three weeks of paid leave. 

The message they are delivering is simple, Zellers said.

“Whether you have a college degree or not, the state has lots of jobs and opportunities,” he said.

One of the biggest deficits in its workforce is in the Department of Social Services. Along with turnover and vacancies, the department is planning to add 100 employees in the Children’s Division to reduce child abuse caseloads.

The department is trying to hire about 600 people, said Robert Knodell, the agency’s acting director. The department needs everything from entry level employees to pharmacists and physicians.

The greatest difficulty in hiring, he said, is in the Interstate 70 corridor from St. Louis to Kansas City, where the state’s population is concentrated.

The qualifications for state employment range from a willingness to do the job, like corrections officer, all the way up to advanced professional degree. The state has far more of the former than the latter and wages play a big role in recruiting.

For the corrections department, Gerke said, raises are making jobs in the department attractive again.

“When they used to laugh at us,” he said, “they take us seriously now.”

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