State struggles to fill job vacancies

Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- The state is scrambling to fill jobs that are usually in demand.

Positions for biologists, nurses, engineers and information technology experts are vacant for lack of qualified applicants, according to state recruiters. So are jobs for clerks, accountants, managers and administrative assistants.

Personnel division director Sharon Barton said the state is even thinking of ways to attract retired employees back to the work force to help fill the void. She's been looking for a manager for her division for 17 months now and simply can't find one, she said.

The state historically has had trouble finding employees for some positions, including nursing jobs, Barton said. But the problem has gotten worse in the past two years and now also includes clerical jobs.

The state doesn't track recruitment trends on a statewide basis, so Barton based her conclusions on anecdotal information from agencies that have come to her for help.

Barton put part of the blame for the tight labor market on the robust national economy, but says it goes deeper than that.

''Here in Alaska ... we're just not cranking out of our schools the engineers and the nurses and other job classes that we need within the state,'' she told the Juneau Empire.

Kevin Brooks of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said his agency, like many state departments, is having trouble finding administrative assistants and other office workers. It's also hurting for scientists. The vacancy rate for biologists and other professional jobs is four times higher than usual: Of 579 positions, 123 are vacant, Brooks said.

''That (20 percent) vacancy factor is quite high. We probably wouldn't expect more than 5 percent,'' said Brooks, the agency's director of administrative services.

Brooks put part of the blame on state salaries, which aren't as lucrative as those offered by the federal government. Now that the federal government has taken over management of some subsistence fisheries, it's hiring more biologists and competing with the state, which is struggling to keep the ones it has.

The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities struggled to fill about 100 engineering positions last year, according to Barton. But agency officials said the pool of applicants grew after after salaries were increased.

''As a result, we found we're having an easier time recruiting,'' said Kurt Parkan, deputy commissioner of the department. But Parkan is still concerned because a high number of his employees are approaching retirement, a problem facing all the agencies.

Barton said 25 percent of state workers will be eligible for retirement over the next five years, a nationwide phenomenon she calls the ''baby-boomer bubble'' in the work force demographics.

Barton said for now some employees are juggling more work. But she worries that state institutions that rely on nurses eventually could lose accreditation for lack of staff, or that the federal government will funnel fewer dollars to the state for transportation projects because the state doesn't have enough engineers.

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