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Catch and retain
By Sarah Etter, News Reporter
Published: 06/11/2007

Career Staffing shortages tops the list as one of the biggest problems in corrections today. Agencies know the importance of hiring and retaining excellent employees, but overcoming the challenges leading to this can be difficult.

Corrections staffing consultant, Bill Naber, decided to examine the factors behind this employment quandary by surveying state and local facilities. He went through their hiring processes and what he found was dismal for both employees and agencies.

“We need to look at some realities,” says Naber, Vice President of Naber Technical Enterprise. “The hiring process in corrections is long and complex. To get one qualified employee agencies typically have to screen 100 applicants. That’s a national average. You’re paying to research 99 candidates to find one.”

He also found that from the time an agency advertises a position, it takes an average of three years before that position is filled. With the inmate population projected to consistently increase over the next 10 years, the time it takes to hire someone assures that many departments will be understaffed.

Corrections.com spoke with Naber about his research and the best ways to increase great hires without a lengthy hiring process – and how to make sure your staff sticks around for the long haul.

Corrections.com: What is causing this shortage for corrections agencies?

Naber: In the public safety arena, we’re all competing against each other. If a highly qualified person comes into a facility and says “What can you offer me?” some agencies offer relocation fees, better pay and bonuses. It gets very competitive in terms of that.

Another phenomenon, since 2000, is the Iraq war. We have a number of public safety people in the reserves being called out. That creates an artificial vacancy that cannot be filled because you can’t take their jobs away from them while they are deployed. Additionally, the type of people that would go into law enforcement and corrections are the same that would go into the military. And the military will pay a $20,000 signing bonus. Corrections cannot compete with that. We also have many experienced people going into retirement. I can tell you, this is like a sieve.

CC:The lengthy hiring process is also impacting the staffing shortage. What are some ways to curtail that process?

Naber: There is a lot of bureaucracy around this process, and that is hard to get around. Most of the hiring is done by one personnel department that handles hiring for an entire city or state. Then there is a screening process. That can take six months.

Most agencies have open applications now, and they wait until they get about 20 applicants and start the process. Once we get past the basic intellectual stuff, we get into the integrity or background investigation. That’s the most important part of the entire process and that takes some time too.

But we can get this down to less than six months if we work as teams across departments. Additionally, I advise that agencies sit down and project out so that we’re three to five years ahead of the actual need. Living year-to-year on fixed budgets and staffs isn’t going to help break this cycle. You have to think ahead.

CC:It looks like another challenge is retention.

Naber: Overwhelmingly, I found that people quit their jobs in corrections not because of pay but because they felt underappreciated. Things like getting time off are a big deal to corrections staff, especially with these shortages. People have to call in sick to get a day off with their family, and then they are disciplined for that when they return to work. Officers will only put up with that so many times before they just say “I don’t need this job.”

Most folks are now working 10 and 12-hour shifts and they are only allowed one meal because they cannot leave the facility. Agencies are deducting money from their pay if they eat two meals a day. That tells someone that you don’t care about them. They try to get fifteen minutes for a break and they are refused due to staffing problems.

Working conditions were another big reason for leaving. It wasn’t the physical ambiance of the facility, but it was really about whether they felt safe or not. We consulted with one agency that had an officer driving inmates to court in a van. The officer subsequently got into a car accident because the van wasn’t being maintained correctly. It turned out the officers had been complaining about the vehicles for some time, and their complaints weren’t dealt with. Understandably, they didn’t feel safe or as if they were being taken seriously.

Another issue is a new era in family earnings. Typically, we think that men earn the most in a household. Now, women are earning more money and often men leave their jobs in corrections to move to a place where their wife will make more money. It’s something else to consider.

CC:What can agencies do to retain these employees?

Naber: It comes down to leadership rather than management, and genuinely caring about staff. The issue is that if you are a leader in an agency, you must deal with day-to-day issues. But do you take a few days a year to sit down with everyone at the agency to talk about current problems and prospective solutions? Are you taking time out to really plan, think through, what you’re trying to do here, as a staff?

Having meetings like this will keep staff connected and show that you care about them. So many corrections people feel they are forgotten about. You might not be able to make every change that staff wants to see but you can at least hear them out. That’s such a huge step.

Related resources:

Inquiring when hiring, 5/14/07

Information about Naber Technical Enterprise and correctional training


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