Escambia and Santa Rosa county governments are working to deal with an abundance of job vacancies.
The dilemma is at least two-fold — anyone who does business with the counties and who might be able to fill a position and the various positions that are open needing people with those specific skills.
“There are currently about 400 vacancies in Escambia County. That includes all departments,” said Escambia County Administrator Wes Moreno, who adds that certain departments are hurting more than others.
“Right now, the Public Works Department is really struggling to hire folks,” he said. “You have to have a commercial driver’s license (CDL), and so we’re just not getting very many applications from folks that have that credential. And part of that reason, I believe, is our hourly rate.”
That rate first went from $12.19 an hour to $16.25. But that hasn’t had the desired effect on recruiting and hiring, so plans are to raise it further to $18.81 an hour. Moreno says other factors are also at play, including COVID-19.
“Places were shut down, and people were staying home and working from home,” Moreno said. “That’s a big thing, too, that we’re competing with. Businesses in our area that will hire people at a competitive wage and let them work from home.”
Along with raising the hourly pay, Moreno says they have a few other tricks up their sleeves in attracting new workers, such as the county’s benefits package.
“We have great insurance, we have annual leave, and sick leave and retirement,” he said. “We have college tuition reimbursement. If you want to get your college degree, we will absolutely pay for that. We’ve been trying to do better at communicating those things. We’ve held a ‘career extravaganza’, advertising … being aggressive.”
And in Santa Rosa County, departments are working with smaller crews in critical departments, said DeVann Cook, county administrator.
“We started out with 40-plus vacancies in several of our critical departments; — 28 specifically in just our Road and Bridge Department. And then several in our Building Inspections and other departments,” said Cook.
Reasons for the shortage are a combination of issues, he says, beginning with the pandemic.
“In our case, we felt like it was primarily salary issues, some of it is availability,” he said. “Building inspectors and those type positions are a little more complicated to fill because there’s such a demand in the construction community right now, which is where most of those people would come from.”
The county is trying a number of approaches to fill the jobs. For example, a new position — road maintenance technician — has been created within the Roads and Bridges Department, along with scrapping the CDL requirement in some instances.
“You’re not required to have one of those to mow with a bush hog, which is what a lot of our summer work is,” said Cook. “We just felt like we needed manpower, so we modified that position. And that’s helped tremendously. We’ve actually hired six to eight in those positions.
Santa Rosa is working with some temp agencies, who he adds have also struggled in the search for workers. As far as projects that had to be delayed or hindered, one department — again, roads and bridges — comes to mind.
“Our crews are normally seven-man crews,” said Cook. “We’ve been running five-man crews and during certain periods, we’ve actually had to pull two crews together just to make one. Whenever that happens, obviously we’re not getting as much done with our drainage work, our ditch cleaning, and those kinds of things.”
Escambia County’s Wes Moreno earlier outlined their incentives to lure workers to that county’s payroll. Santa Rosa’s DeVann Cook’s pitch is somewhat similar.
“We have increased our base starting pay; great health insurance plan,” Cook said. “If you work for Santa Rosa County you’re building a retirement into the Florida Retirement System. We have an educational program where we will assist with tuition after you’ve been here for over a year. And a great leave program.”
Another approach back to Escambia, says Wes Moreno, is contracting out the maintenance of the county’s 650 holding ponds.
“Part of that maintenance is the mowing of the ponds,” he said. “So what we did this year — the first time we’ve ever done it — we put bid packages together for 300 of those ponds, we bid it out, and we just signed the contract to the low bidder, and got a really good prices.”
The remaining ponds will be broken up into lots of about 50 each, with individual bids to be sought for each of those.