Seventeen Scott County government employees retired in 2013. The next year, the number was the same. But in the first two months of 2015 alone, there have been 15 retirements — and more are on the way.
Baby-boomer employees have been loyal to the county, but many are reaching the end of their working lives. A quarter of Scott County government workers are 55 or older. Though county leaders have anticipated the upcoming exodus, they say there are some things — namely, the massive loss of experience and institutional memory — they just can’t prepare for.
“There are things that you just know because you’ve been there for 30 years,” said County Administrator Gary Shelton, who’s anticipating both his own retirement and those of much of his senior leadership team. “There’s what you learn in the book, and then there’s life.”
The county has started actively preparing younger employees — through training and mentoring — for more responsibilities and life without their more-experienced colleagues. Some retiring leaders plan to phase out their work slowly in order to offer their successors additional guidance.
Judith Brumfield, the county’s health and human services director, has spent her three years on the job getting her colleagues ready for when she retires later this year.
“It’s a conscious effort to make sure there are people who have the skills and the ability to not just do the job but do a better job because they will come with new, fresh ideas,” she said.
Though Scott County is actively working on succession planning, there’s a lot more to be done, said Employee Relations Director Lori Huss. Throughout her 17 years with the county, she said, that training has occurred in “fits and starts.”
“I think we try and stay in front of it, and then other things come in where we don’t stay on it as much as we would like to,” she said. “But I do think because of the demographics that we’re looking at, as well as the unemployment rate, we’re saying, ‘We better get in front of this and try and capture some of this knowledge that is leaving us.’ ”
Much of the public sector is in a similar bind, said Jay Kiedrowski, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Baby boomers stayed loyal to government jobs in part because of the good pensions, he said — and now, they’re all getting ready to claim those pensions at the same time.
The public sector hasn’t prepared for this sea change in the way that the more-flexible private and nonprofit sectors have, Kiedrowski said. And as these longtime employees are replaced, it’s not clear if and how the nature of the public sector workforce might change.
“It remains to be seen whether millennials, for instance — who we know as a generation are used to job-hopping — if they’ll be motivated by those defined benefit pension plans to stay with employers longer,” he said.
The next generation
As Scott County scrambles to train its newer and younger employees, it’s also preparing to lose them.
“It’s definitely a challenge in trying to attract the younger generation to the systems and processes that government has had in place for so long,” Huss said.
Jake Grussing, 32, became Scott County’s library director in January 2014, succeeding a woman who had been in the position for a decade.
Grussing is hesitant to say how long he might stay in the job. When he talks to people his age, he said, they seem less concerned about job titles than they are about the impact of their work.
“I’m going to work from 22 to mid- to late-60s, probably,” he said. “I’m going to want that to be really meaningful.”
During this first year, Grussing said, he’s gotten a lot of help from the longtime employees he manages — most of whom are older than him.
“My approach has been, ‘I’m new. I’m pretty green in the library world and I’m certainly new as a director and as a leader, and I’m going to rely on you to help me do this job better,’ ” he said.
Brumfield is going to retire in phases, so she’ll be available to her successor for at least a year. Still, only so much preparation is possible. Human services is an area where the need for real-world experience is particularly acute, Shelton said, and Brumfield will take with her a deep knowledge of how the department works not only in Scott County but across the state, as well.
“It’s a very, very complicated area,” Brumfield said. “There’s only so much knowledge I can put into paper.”
The “brain drain” that this slew of retirements will bring is a widespread concern, Huss said.
County jobs demand a lot of institutional memory, particularly when employees are working with the County Board. Commissioners often ask for history on a particular topic, and younger employees may not be immediately prepared to give it.
“They have to learn to say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Kiedrowski said. “That they’re not the experts, but that they solicit knowledge wherever they can find it.”
The commissioners also have their own institutional memory that can help guide newer employees, Shelton said.
Among the five commissioners, the average age is 59.