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Austin Energy troubled by hiring concerns

Friday, April 20, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

City jobs are notorious for having a prolonged hiring process. However, at Austin Energy, the process has become excruciatingly long, even by its own standards, and it’s starting to have repercussions.

At the April 16 Electric Utility Commission meeting, Mark Dombroski, who is the chief financial officer of Austin Energy, distilled the issue down into numbers for the commission. “Our budget authorizes 1,749 full-time equivalents,” he said, but the vacancy rate for most of the past year stood at 8.3 percent. Within the last four months though, “we’ve been able to get that down to 4.1 percent,” he said.

Nevertheless, Dombroski did not express relief that the numbers had gone down. In fact, he explained that hiring now is essential in preparation for the aging of the current Austin Energy workforce, as “464 of our employees are eligible to retire within the next seven years,” he said. That is 27 percent of today’s employees.

According to him, keeping pace with the retirement of employees may prove difficult based on the current hiring trends that Austin Energy is experiencing. Particularly for critical positions, Austin Energy is not even receiving enough qualified applicants.

Dombroski attributed the utility’s hiring struggles in part to below-market salaries in critical positions. “If you don’t have the salaries, it’s hard to attract them,” noted Dombroski.

Other reasons he cited for the utility’s difficulties in hiring quality candidates are Travis County’s low unemployment rate of 2.6 percent, a bureaucratic process that can discourage potential candidates since Austin Energy competes more with the private sector rather than with other municipalities, and a paper-based documentation during the hiring process.

Austin Energy confirmed that although much of the paperwork is literally done on paper during the interview process, the initial application process is online. However, there is no planned timeline to bring the Austin Energy hiring process into an electronic workflow. According to Chair Cary Ferchill, this change would have to be approved at a City Council level, and he therefore recommended that all the commissioners speak to their respective Council members about the critical nature of this issue.

“To help us overcome some of these challenges, we’re working closely with city of Austin Human Resources,” said Dombroski. One of the first steps they are taking besides transitioning the hiring process online is to try and implement more competitive compensation.

Another challenge that Austin Energy is working to overcome is the pay gap between the genders. According to Dombroski, Austin Energy only tracks male and female identifications at this time. There is no option for any other self-identification. Austin Energy currently employs a workforce of 68 percent males and 32 percent females. On average men earn a median salary of $86,778, while women earn a median salary of $66,706.

“We remain keenly aware (of) addressing gender equity within our workforce,” said Dombroski. He attributed the pay gap to the different roles that males and females perform at the utility. More males are employed in the critical, physical jobs that offer higher pay.

While Austin Energy works to fully staff its departments, Dombroski noted, “in many cases, even if the position is not filled, the work still has to get done.” He explained that this is a more costly avenue to complete everyday tasks since it means the utility has to do so through paying overtime wages and hiring external contractors who charge more than an internal employee who is compensated at market wages.

Ferchill expressed his hope that the concerns associated with Austin Energy’s hiring process could be rectified as quickly as possible. “We have to have people to make this thing work, and if we can’t hire them, we’re in a world of hurt,” he said.

Photo by Niklas Bildhauer (who also is user gerolsteiner91. Originally posted to Flickr as folder) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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