Bills for Skills

Riverside County, Calif., ups the ante to attract and keep quality staff.

by / April 16, 2002
Wanted: Application Developer
Balancing life and career is a challenge we all face. Finding a personally rewarding career in information technology that allows you to maximize your potential and receive recognition for your own talents can be even more challenging.
If you would like to be a member of a team devoted to technical innovation, excellence and enjoying time with their families, then the Application Development Division is for you.
This ad is not typical of your standard government agency help wanted ad. Nor is it typical to dangle pay increases for learned skills. But then again, neither is the fact that this agency has been known to tender an offer to a potential hire within two weeks of receiving a resume. And we'll get to the "quirky perk" later.
Not typical stuff, but necessary for a government agency that is striving for a good workforce development program - one that will compete with the private sector for IT professionals and retain quality staff. The Riverside County IT Department has done just that through some innovative initiatives.
The department, like government agencies everywhere, found itself under the gun to deliver more government services more efficiently, but was juggling IT workers like hot potatoes. It had nearly 120 IT job classifications, many of which were outdated, and a lot of which couldn't be filled with qualified personnel anyway because the county didn't offer competitive pay, according to Jim Berger, Riverside County senior human relations analyst.
"They'd look at the top range of pay and go, 'Okay, now let's negotiate,' and we'd say, 'We don't have any room to negotiate above the range, only within it,' and they would leave," Berger said. But that was only part of the problem. The pay structure left employees with no incentive for developing new skills. So the agency overhauled the whole process.
The IT Department developed a plan that would consolidate the IT classifications into 10 positions or "concepts," streamline the recruiting process to attract the best possible candidates and keep the hires smiling with perks, flexible schedules, continued skills training and extra pay for learning those skills. It took quite a bit of arm-twisting but the program finally took off in April 2000, two years after initial meetings.

Competency-Based Pay
After a 1998 study pointed to the need for changes, the department formed the Information Technology Managers Group, comprised of a Riverside County human resources study team and leaders of technology organizations throughout the county. The group came up with a competency-based pay program that scrapped the standard 5 percent cost-of-living increase and instead rewards continued education and training. It serves as both a motivational tool and a hook to get qualified people in the door.
The competency-based pay program consists of 25 "hot skills" within the 10 classifications, and attaches a pay increase to each skill. Employees are paid a base salary, but build on it by exhibiting proficiency in one or more of the skills that fall under their job classifications. The program is voluntary, but more than 90 percent of the county's IT employees have bought into it.
The new pay scale is attracting qualified personnel who previously wouldn't have considered going to work for a county agency. "That's a huge selling tool for us," said Melanie Hanisco, a recruiter who left the private sector in June 2000 to help Riverside County fill its many vacancies. "It puts them in charge of their own destiny and allows them the power to say, 'I want this money and I'm willing to do this to get there.'"
Hanisco brought with her a private-sector mentality that has changed the process of applying for and accepting work with the county dramatically. First, Hanisco began advertising in a non-traditional way. Instead of putting an ad in the Los Angeles Times, which was standard, she found out what the potential applicants might be reading, taking advantage of both the Internet and print media.
Applicants who complete a resume on the county's Web site can expect to hear from Hanisco in a couple of days. The lucky one who shines through the process might receive an offer within a couple of weeks, a far cry from the two to three months it took previously. "In this industry, that's just not acceptable," said Steve Reneker, county CIO. "People have already accepted jobs within a week or two if they're decent."
Hanisco nabbed 16 of the first 17 people to whom she offered positions, and has filled nearly all of the 300 core IT positions. Not bad for an agency that previously had classifications unfilled for nearly two years at a time.

Family Oriented Workplace
The department facilitates skills learning by budgeting for at least two weeks of training per employee at a cost of $2,000 to $10,000 per individual. That resonates with applicants, Hanisco said. "A lot of applicants I've spoken with have said, 'Gosh, my employer could care less about my learning and development and me developing as an individual.'"
From the earliest planning stages, employees were kept abreast of the plan and what it would entail. By the time the IT Managers Group was ready to submit the plan for approval, most of the agency's managers and employees were already sold on it. But that was only the first hurdle. Next, the Executive Office had to sign off on it, the Board of Supervisors had to approve it and two major unions had to go along with it. The fact that most of the employees thought it was a good deal was key to getting the unions onboard.
But the agency knew it couldn't rely completely on the new pay scale to compete with the private sector for recruits. "We can't pay 120K for one database person," Berger said. "But we can at least pay enough to attract talented people and hold onto them."
The agency has been able to hold on to them in part because of the skills-based pay, the training programs and because of its focus on family. Riverside County IT workers get every other Friday off (or another day of their choice), working eight nine-hour days and one eight-hour day during a 10-day period. They can negotiate flexible work schedules that allow them to leave midday to take care of child-care issues. Employees get polo shirts, compete for Employee of the Month awards and, oh yeah, the "quirky perk," as Hanisco calls it, is an allowance for $350 that each employee can use toward personal development. Most use the money for magazine subscriptions, training materials, PDA's and the like. "Things that would enhance their work lives, maybe indirectly," Hanisco said.
All this adds up to a package that helps the county compete with the private sector. Now when Hanisco sits down and writes an advertisement for an IT job opening, it doesn't read like your typical county agency help wanted ad, because the Riverside County IT Department has developed into anything but your typical county agency.