DelDOT Secretary: Agency Struggling With Job Vacancies

Wed March 09, 2005 - Northeast Edition

DOVER, DE (AP) Delaware’s Department of Transportation (DelDOT) has become increasingly reliant on consultants for project management and other critical tasks because of problems in hiring and retaining professional employees, the head of the agency told lawmakers Feb. 22.

DOT Secretary Nathan Hayward III said consultants now account for more than 16 percent of agency spending, or roughly $75 million last year, compared to 10 percent, or $30 million, in 1996.

Hayward said the department, which currently has more than 11 percent of its 2,550 positions vacant, has been steadily losing civil engineers and other highly skilled professionals to the private sector in recent years. The number of civil engineers with more than 25 years of experience has fallen from 21 in 1999 to six last year, he noted.

The shortage of experienced engineers and project directors has resulted in more projects not being completed on time, Hayward said. Only 55 percent of projects were completed as advertised in fiscal 2004, compared to 86 percent in 2001.

With the number of employees eligible for retirement projected to increase steadily over the next decade, the problem could get worse, Hayward warned.

“This is very troublesome,” he said. “… With all of our vacancies, we now have consultants helping manage consultants.”

Hayward attributed the problem to a lack of competitive salaries, an inability to attract and retain well-qualified workers, and a lack of career opportunities because of “rigidity” within the system.

“We’re competing with the private sector in a very hot economy,” he said.

Meanwhile, low wages have made it hard for DOT to fill lower-ranking jobs such equipment operator.

“You’re in the same bag Corrections is in,” said Sen. James Vaughn, D-Clayton, drawing comparisons between the DOT’s problem and severe staffing shortages in the Department of Correction. “Your pay grades are too damn low.”

Hayward told members of the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee that possible solutions to the staffing problem include adjusting the select market levels used to set salaries, adjusting pay scales, paying signing bonuses, reimbursing college tuition in exchange for service commitments from new hires, and hiring back retirees to work on critical projects.

“I think he made a good case,” said committee co-chair Rep. Joseph DiPinto, R-Wilmington, who said he looked forward to hearing more details on DOT’s plans to address the problem.