HELENA - Even in times of a tight job market nationally, Montana government employees are exiting their jobs more often than in the past, retiring after many years or deciding to seek out higher pay elsewhere.

Over the last year, some 1,455 workers left state government, about a 6 percent or 90-employee increase over the same period a year ago. The number of employees leaving state work continues to increase each year, with turnover rates currently hovering around 12 percent.

Some state agencies are having more difficulty than others. In particular, departments hardest hit with high turnover are those with large numbers of longtime employees ready for retirement or those relying heavily on technical or specialty fields. The departments of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Environmental Quality and the State Workers Compensation Fund have the largest turnover, while Corrections and Public Health and Human Services are losing fewer workers than in the past.

John McEwen, administrator of the state Personnel Division, says Montana has an aging work force and as a result more state government employees are reaching retirement age. And, he noted, the state often can't pay salaries that are competitive with other states and the private sector.

McEwen expects this trend to continue during the next four to seven years as the average age of the state's 12,000 employees continues to increase and more retire. Currently, the average employee is 44 years old, and 20 percent of the state work force has more than 20 years of service.

"I don't think it's a serious problem, but I think it certainly will be a challenge for agencies," said McEwen.

Departments already are feeling the crunch and worrying about the future.

Jan Sensibaugh, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, says her agency is essentially becoming a training ground for young workers who leave for better pay and benefits elsewhere. Her department is losing highly regarded engineers and scientists.

What's more, she said, her agency is having difficulty attracting applicants for jobs because the pay is far below what the private sector can offer.

"I used to not have people qualified for the jobs apply," she said. "Now I get no applications at all."

The story is the same across the way in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Director Jeff Hagener says his agency suffers because it offers a lower pay scale than surrounding states and simply can't compete. His department also is seeing jumps in the number of workers who are retiring, noting that in the next two years 48 people will be eligible to retire and in the next four years 78 employees will be eligible.

"What's at stake," he said, "is we're losing very qualified people. We've basically become a training ground for getting people qualified to do their job in this state and then they become much more attractive to other places to recruit them."

At Montana's largest agency, Public Health and Human Services, turnover rates are unreasonably high and climbing. In the last year, 412 employees voluntarily left, citing personal reasons, retirement or pay.

Personnel officer Beth McLaughlin said her agency is having trouble keeping and hiring all types of employees from highly trained public health specialists to social workers to lower level health-care professionals.

"We just can't compete," McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said some employees can make more and experience less stress working in the service sector than in state government. And, she said, some employees stay for three to five years, gather the experience and leave for another job.

In some agencies, officials are trying to offer new incentives to keep and attract workers. McLaughlin said the Public Health Department it is offering flexible work hours and some pay exceptions to offer more money.

McEwen said those efforts, coupled with state governmentwide initiatives, should help slow the trend in departing employees. For instance, he said, the 2001 Legislature offered a 4 percent annual pay raise for state employees and extended benefits for retirement-age workers.

Sensibaugh hopes those programs help, since the reputation of her agency and others will diminish because of the government's inability to get the job done. Her agency also is working on an pay program to allow for faster promotions and salary increases for quality employees.

"I'm very concerned we won't be able to hire and retain people to keep our credibility," she said. "Hopefully, the alternative pay system will allow us to recruit and retain people again. If it doesn't, I'm very worried about what happens."

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