This is our story of recovery and how Workforce Planning has played a central role in local government department’s promise to remember and learn from the past, to stay present, and to plan for our future.
Like so many local governments around the country, Snohomish County Planning and Development Services (PDS), located in Washington State, felt the tremendous crush of the Great Recession. Between 2008 and 2010, PDS laid off 60% of department personnel, resulting in staffing reductions from 250 originally to just 100 employees.
I was hired as the director in late summer 2010, just after the last of the layoffs took place. Moving from a much smaller, but similarly impacted county was quite frankly a little scary. I anticipated the employees at my new job were going to be shell shocked and demoralized after all they had been through and who could have blamed them! While still happy to be employed, so many of those laid off had seen close friends, many of whom had worked for the county for 10 or 20 years, walk out the door.
What I found in my new job, however, was an amazingly resilient department. While there were still hurdles to overcome, this was a group of people, a family, and a department, with a set of shared values, who bonded and came together through this difficult period of time. Very quickly, I knew my role, my opportunity, was to help lead PDS out of the recession and into the future. To make that happen, however, we needed a plan for success.
The term Workforce Planning entered our department’s vernacular in late 2010, two or three months into my new job. I remember walking into the office of one of my managers and sitting down. We were engaged in a lively discussion about the economy and how devastating the past few years had been. It was at that time, through conversation, that a very simple decision was made: We should do everything we can to not allow what happened before to happen again. We soon discovered that Workforce Planning was a tool that would help make our decision a reality.
Our Foundation for Success
While our Workforce Plan would ultimately be our vehicle for change, we first had to build a solid foundation for this project. Remember, this group had just been through tremendous change. Without a well thought-out process, Workforce Planning would have just been another top-down management effort with a lot of talk and very little action. This process had to be about rebuilding our department AND rebuilding our future–an event we could all rally around.
Looking back, I understand our Workforce Planning effort would not have been successful and sustainable without key elements being present from the outset and throughout this process. Our foundation for success has relied on getting buy-in, a set of shared values, communication, and follow-through.
Buy-in and Values
Getting buy-in for the journey we were about to undertake was twofold. First, in order to be successful, our management team had to believe the department was more important than the division they managed. If our team didn’t honestly share that core belief, there was no way we could write a plan that was critically dependent upon us working together. Further, it isn’t possible or right to ask your staff to believe in a system or process that you don’t believe will work. We achieved and continue to have buy-in at the management level because we have focused heavily on communication and clarity. We communicate through time spent on defining the roles and responsibilities of each management team member and recognize that a path forward often comes through vigorous conversations. To put it another way, we trust each other and that trust has enabled us to overcome the hurdles in managing through this process.
The second element of buy-in was needed from the overall department. To earn the trust and respect from staff, we had to show that we were not only going to take on this project, but see it through. We began trust building in early 2011 by conducting an employee empowerment survey. Staff developed the survey (you will find this is a trend) and the survey simply asked what they needed to excel and be proud of our work environment. Feedback ranged from a larger training budget to cleaning the chairs! Survey results were posted on the wall and management followed through with each item on the list. There wasn’t necessarily a watershed buy-in moment during this process, but rather a positive message that said, “We want you here, we need you here, and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep you here.”
In addition to getting buy-in, a process dependent upon so many working together requires a set of shared beliefs and values. While the Workforce Plan is ultimately the tool we use for guidance, it rests on core beliefs. Prior to our Workforce Planning effort, PDS recommitted to our management partnership agreement, and our department completely reworked our mission, values, and philosophy statements. This exercise was led by a team of individuals from throughout the department. This event, like many others within the department, showed that we had a plan and were going to follow through on it.
An enormous amount of communication surrounded the buy-in and value-setting process at all levels–and I mean constant communication on what we said we would do! I cannot overstate the importance of constantly communicating ideas, plans, and results. One of my managers has said many times that a lack of communication creates gaps and cracks and it’s within those areas where we find our problems. How true that is!
As touched on earlier, the creation and implementation of our plan had meaning well beyond putting words on paper. It was also an opportunity for our management team to show how much we trusted and believed in our staff, and to show staff they had a stake in our department’s future.
Nothing against consultants, but the plan needed to be created by us for us. We put together a small team, with representatives from each division within the department. We bought copies of a popular workforce planning book for each team member, and for three months we met bi-weekly to gather and share ideas. Two managers and I took the team’s ideas and information and put together a department workforce plan. Ultimately, we ended up with a five-year plan that helped us to understand past successes and failures in decision making so we could learn, giving us a better sense of our current circumstances while providing an action plan to ensure we were prepared for the future. The core of the Workforce Plan was very simple: to be successful we need to focus on retaining our valued employees and recruiting the very best to be a part of the PDS family. A plan was now in place that would enable us to do everything possible so that PDS could avoid the same tragedies they went through during the Great Recession.
This plan focused on three primary areas: department demographics, projects dealing with those issues, and analytics that would show the return on investment by making our employees our top priority. What we discovered through workforce planning was simply incredible–and I know that if we hadn’t put pen to paper, we would be setting ourselves up to walk past paths again. While the plan covers a number of areas, the realization is that our department is going to see a tremendous amount of knowledge loss and turnover through retirements and attrition during the next five years and that our bench strength will be incredibly weak in several areas.
Between 2011 and 2016, PDS has forecasted an attrition rate between 29-41%, and thus far our actual rate of attrition has closely matched the forecast. Of great concern is the knowledge loss that will occur during this time period. Over the next five to seven years, we will lose a significant amount of the 1,585 combined years of service within PDS. This loss has an effect on our department bench strength and illustrates how important it is to focus on succession planning and developing our talent pipeline. Now that we understand our departmental strengths and weaknesses, we have started projects geared toward recruitment and retention which will enable us to be prepared.
In the fall of 2012, I spoke at the Washington State Association of Regional and County Planning Directors conference about our workforce planning efforts. One of my primary messages to the group of 80 planning directors was that we saw them as competition when it came to recruitment and that we were working hard to ensure the best and brightest come to our county government to work. This concept is rather foreign in local government but if we have to make up for a significant loss of knowledge during the next few years, we must be proactive.
Since mid-2011, we have engaged in several projects aimed at giving us a competitive advantage over other local governments–from adopting a recruitment and hiring policy that ensures we make smart hiring choices, to an expanded on-boarding checklist so that we make a good first impression on new employees. We also have begun reworking our job descriptions to ensure they align with our future business needs to ensure we have the right people in the right place with the right skills at the right time. To ensure the facilitation and buy-in at the project level, each project has and continues to be staff driven.
It may seem like a small thing, but people at PDS say thank you. They open the door for you when your hands are full, believe strongly in supporting local charities, and are always there for one another in good and bad times. This is a special place to work because of the people, and retaining our employees doesn’t just make good economic sense, it makes common sense.
Our focus on retention is based on the premise that employees can do anything if they set their mind to it. If they want to gear up for a management position, switch career paths, or engage in succession planning, it can happen. The job of management isn’t to do the work for employees, but to provide the tools necessary to make these goals a reality. I simply want this to be the best work environment possible and for our staff to know that they are wanted here.
Employee engagement is a vital piece of our department culture. In a recent survey of department staff, more than two-thirds stated that they had received recognition or praise in the previous seven days and nearly 90% said they believed a supervisor or someone at work cares about them as a person. One recent success has been our new training database. This project allows staff to customize their own annual training program. If an employee, for instance, wants to focus on becoming a supervisor in five years, this program allows us to develop a clear and calculated career path training plan. Instead of just simply training to their current job needs, we can also develop our talent pipeline for the future. This project has also allowed training information from 11 different sources to be retained in one location allowing for increased ability to determine training deficits and opportunities. .
The remarkable thing about workforce planning is that the return on investment from investing in your employees is enormous! Analytics are the newest addition to our Workforce plan, and human capital metrics are providing us with necessary information for analysis and decision-making. Already we’ve gleaned insights from a just few simple metrics. We’ve always intuitively known that training increases productivity and improves business results. However, a 2011-2012 year-over-year comparison shows that while revenue per FTE increased 1.87%, the total cost of our workforce (including training) increased only .05%. Our surplus/FTE increased 22%, and our human capital ROI grew 1.59%. With this data, we can show our elected officials how effectively we are using public funds.
We are also collaborating with the planning departments from four other Washington counties to share and compare analytics, discoveries, and best practices. Although they are our competition, we are already seeing benefits of joint benchmarking.
Looking back over the past two and a half years, I am amazed at the distance we have come and am excited about the journey ahead of us. We have moved beyond the past and are focused solely on our future. Since mid-2012, we have begun to rehire employees and our value structure and Workforce Plan are guiding us to do it in the best possible way. I truly believe that our success can be contributed to having a team that decided to move forward together. I am simply blessed to get to be a part of the wonderful place we call PDS.