Kentucky enacts pay raises in effort to halt "alarming turnover" - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Kentucky enacts pay raises in effort to halt "alarming turnover" among state transportation engineers

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – Facing an exodus of engineers to private firms, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is giving some employees a pay raise in hopes of keeping them in state government.

The move, which took effect last week, also seeks to reduce an increasing amount of money being spent on contracts with engineering and other companies for state road projects.

In 2014, the Kentucky General Assembly directed transportation officials to create a plan that would allow the salaries of state engineers to be competitive with those paid in other states and the private sector.

“We are losing engineers hand over fist and having to contract for most of the work that is done in-house,” Chuck Wolfe, a Transportation Cabinet spokesman, said in an interview.

The raises involve pay increases and setting a higher minimum salary for certain types of jobs. Among the affected positions are entry-level engineers who have a turnover rate much higher than the state average, according to Transportation Cabinet data.

For example, about 58 percent of employees considered “engineers-in-training” left state government last year, the data shows. Among “transportation engineers,” 44 percent departed during the same period.

The average turnover rate in state government in 2014 was 22 percent, according to the Transportation Cabinet.

“This alarming turnover – far greater than for state government as a whole – threatens our core engineering competencies,” Kentucky Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock said in a statement. “For taxpayers, it has the costly consequence of forcing the Cabinet to increasingly rely on private consultants, at premium rates.”

Indeed, the state entered into 259 professional service contracts worth $150.7 million last year, down from a 10-year high of $176.5 million the year before – but the second-highest amount in the past decade, according to Transportation Cabinet figures.

By comparison, 117 contracts totaling $57.1 million were awarded in 2005.

Hancock said private firms often lure away experienced state engineers to do “essentially the same work they were doing as KYTC employees, but now the cabinet is paying a consulting firm for a premium for their work – in some cases more than double the in-house cost.”

Outside firms now do 70 percent of design engineering work on projects overseen by the Cabinet, up from 30 percent in 2000, according to the state.

Before the salary hike, a state transportation engineer stood to make at least twice as much -- $77 per hour – at a private firm, according to figures compiled by the state engineer's office. The raises are meant to even the playing field, Wolfe said.

In all, he said, 550 workers in the state's merit system would be affected by the salary changes. Including benefits, the increase amounts to roughly $7.8 million a year.

The funds would come from savings on contracts that are currently signed with outside firms, Wolfe said.

Last week, Kentucky state Sen. Julian Carroll raised concerns about the impact of the high turnover rate, which he said has led to some Transportation Cabinet employees doing the work of “three to five” employees who have left.

Carroll, a former Democratic governor who represents Frankfort, noted during a meeting of the legislature's capital projects and bond oversight committee that lawmakers are constantly being asked to approve large engineering contracts.

Carroll said he has asked officials in the Frankfort district office about why the work isn't done by state employees.

“The district office is telling me the same thing they tell me at the Cabinet: ‘We don't have personnel here to do it. It has to be done outside.'”

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