Just Who Are You Going To Replace Them With?

There have been a number of times over my working life where I had to change careers, or change responsibilities.  There were various reasons for that, but in general I’ve been in the technical or managerial side.  What I do know is that each time I made the change, despite the education and training, it always took a while to “get comfortable” with the new job.   The amount of time it took depended on just how much of what I knew from my academic background or skills I’d acquired matched up with what what the new job required.  The greater the difference, the longer it took to settle in and get good at the job.   I mention this because I’ve seen the idea from conservative commenters on some blogs that “government workers” can be let go and easily replaced at a later time “if necessary.”  Which shows either  a lack of reference to their own experience, a lack of understanding about what government employees do, or a combination of both.  The basic idea is that you can plug almost anyone into a  given slot – that it’s the equivalent of “plug and play” – and that there are plenty of candidates.    Which really isn’t the case.

A while ago, there was a story in the Albany paper about the shuffling that was going on in various departments, as the previous governor’s personnel cuts were being implemented.  One of the things that happens is “bumping.”  That is, if an employee has their position cut, they can transfer to another position and push a person with less seniority out – “bump them.”   One of the people they highlighted was an environmental chemist who was having to move across the state.  He’d been bumped from his position, so he was having to bump someone else, and literally move across the state.  What was interesting was what he said – that it was going to take him almost 6 months to get up to speed in the new position.   Now, I don’t think he was incompetent, unskilled, or inexperienced.  But, if you think about it, it would make sense.  Not only did he have to learn all the technical differences in the new position, but he also had learn the territory where he had to go for various monitoring sites.

This is just one example, but it points out that even when the job title is the same, there’s still a lot to learn.  Speaking from my own experience working at different places in one field, even though the job was technically the same at each place I worked at,  it took time to learn where everything was, learn what was expected from the new supervisor, and get to know my co-workers and start developing a good working relationship with them.   Mind you, that was with my already knowing – and being experienced in – the job.   The first time through took a lot longer to get to that point.

Which is why there are a lot of positions which are not “plug and play.”  You can’t just take a college graduate,  put them into a position and expect them to be immediately productive.  Many  positions require even more training and experience, particularly the regulatory monitoring and enforcement positions.  I read the “position requirements” for one job title, and while the basic starting point was a specific college degree, there then followed a 6 page list of skills that they had to develop and certifications they needed to acquire within the first two years.  The people with those capabilities don’t just happen to be sitting around waiting for some government agency to hire them.

This even applies to what many think of as “low skill” positions or those not needing a college education.  Do you think the people working on the state roads are only required to have a strong back?  Think again.  Most have had to have heavy equipment operator training, and often a CDL license.  All of which take a while to get (and it’s not cheap), and that’s just the entry requirements.  Then there’s the additional training and experience that is required or gets picked up.

Even aside from the skills issue, there’s the experience loss.  There’s a story in Tuesday’s paper about state retirements, and one of the people they talked to was a perfect example of that.

Wildlife biologist Al Hicks retired last year after 34 years at the Department of Environmental Conservation, where he was studying widespread deaths of hibernating bats in New York.

He took an early retirement, and with that, the state lost a huge amount of expertise and experience.  Which often gets discounted, but matters.  If his position is ever filled, that person is likely to have to come in “cold,” that is, work to catch up.  Speaking as someone who’s had to do that, it’s not fun.  It’s much nicer when you have a transition period where you’re working with experienced people to get you up to speed.  He’s still trying to help, though.

Hicks, the retired biologist, is still trying to help solve the white-nose syndrome that’s killing bats. He started a consulting business, volunteers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and almost daily talks to his former DEC colleagues who now have the work with one fewer biologist.

“In terms of the future of the bat, it’s a huge issue. That’s why I’m still in it,” Hicks said. “You can’t spend a career working on it and walk out because your last day of employment is up.”

Emphasis mine.  In other words, he’s still available for his colleagues, but the workload they have is much higher.  If they ever decide to fill his slot,  that person is going to have to catch up, and that is going to take time.  That’s why the idea that “government workers” are easily replaced is so often wrong.  Whether it’s the idea that later on you’ll hire new people to fill open slots or the idea that you can get rid of the current ones and replace them with lower-paid ones.   It’s not just that those people may not be available, it’s also that they need to get up to speed , and that takes time.  Think you can always do without or replace them easily?  You may – and likely will – find out that you can’t.  People always seem to have to learn that lesson the hard way.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Just Who Are You Going To Replace Them With?

  1. Norbrook, do you think the gist of your article also applies to the economic situation, where individuals were enraged because Tim Geitner was appointed to a top position in the Obama administration.

    On the one hand, the anger and frustration about the meltdown caused by the recklessness of Wall Street was understandable, but on the other hand I believe that Geitner’s knowledge and experience in the field made him the logical choice to help unravel the mess–or at least attempt to because it’s a very complex situation.

  2. Alan Scott

    Norbrook,

    I don’t know how you can single out government workers as anything special. Any worker in any industry can be vital, and not easily replaced. Having been through more than one blood bath in the private sector, it sucks. But either you have the money or you don’t to staff everything you would like.

    And with all due respects if things get really bad and government can only do what it must, bat research is not vital . I know, I know it’s important and should be funded. I am only talking about extreme funding conditions.

    • It’s a critical function, because bats are important in controlling insect populations as well as in some cases acting as pollinators. By removing them, you end up with a lot of other problems. I used him as an example of a general trend.

      That trend has been to cut government services and shed employees. Sounds good? Except that some departments have been totally gutted by it. Loss of years of experience and training, just out the door. We’re talking food inspectors, public health, environmental personnel. Add in hiring freezes, and you don’t have the new people coming in – and no, they’re not likely to. The “two year training and certification” requirement was for a dairy products inspector, btw. There’s similar requirements for food inspectors, and so on. So the next time there’s a food poisoning outbreak, don’t complain.

      I’ve also been through private industry bloodbaths. It’s why I have a very low opinion of most modern business executives. Many times those companies end up in worse shape after the bloodbath than they were before they started it.

  3. Dancer

    Take a look back at how many paragraphs it took you to present your thoughtful and reasoned examination of this ONE issue. Now think about the society we live in which increasingly wants only INSTANT, BRIEF, Bumper sticker quality “debates/discussions/conversations”. Just another reason why I’m glad I’m old…we continue to do a great disservice to our next generations when we do not exhibit and credit the value of people such as yourself who want to actually engage in a dialogue that makes people think and wrestle with the various serious issues that face us all. THANK YOU!

    • You’re welcome. I miss the days when William F. Buckley was on, because it was debate not, as is now the case, a couple of people yelling slogans at each other.

      What we’re seeing now is a sequel to what happened in the private sector some time back. The idea percolated through various management schools and business magazines that the way to “efficiency” and “increased profits” was to cut personnel, and either outsource or replace them with “cheaper” workers. The basic idea was that workers were a disposable commodity. Which, as it happened, often wasn’t the case. That’s why I said to Alan that many of these companies came out in worse shape after these “efficiency measures” than they were before they started them. The only ones who didn’t seem to be hurt by it was the management.

      • Dancer

        I’m old enough to have watched Buckley but couldn’t stand him…love Bill Moyers, though as he had real CONVERSATIONS with people, was prepared and curious! Here’s my show idea…I think each media tv outlet MUST have one hour of just fact-checking daily…and/or programming when people spewing opposing positions must wear lie detectors that zap them when they LIE!! Now, that would be informative AND entertaining! MSNBC could easily give up one hour of Matthews as no one gets to speak on his shows but him anyhow…

        • I didn’t agree with him, but I found it fascinating to listen the discussions he had with his guests, because he was actually discussing with them. Most of the hosts today seem to be more enamored of talking at the guest, and not letting a discussion develop.

  4. Alan Scott

    Norbrook,

    ” It’s a critical function, because bats are important in controlling insect populations as well as in some cases acting as pollinators. ”

    With all due respect again, bat research is not critical. Very important is not critical. Critical is the very top priority . Law enforcement is critical. Food inspection is semi critical. Bat research is lower on the food chain .

    • It’s critical when you consider that you’re losing – even threatening extinction – of something that plays a major role in the ecosystem, including economic impacts due to increased insect control measures and loss of crops.

      Food inspection semi-critical? Hmm.. I guess the 29 people who died in a recent outbreak would not have agreed. Then again, I might also point out that since many state and local governments are cutting back their police forces, they disagree with you on law enforcement being critical.

      The point being is that the idea that “cuts” are temporary is a mistaken one. It’s not just the loss of the expertise or what you may think of as “unnecessary.” It’s that you’re not going to replace it quickly, easily, or cheaply, and anyone who is telling you that is lying.

  5. Alan Scott

    Norbrook,

    Critical is when your organization is ready to fold and you are doing only what has to be done. Critical is keeping the lights on, keeping the doors open .You said you were also through private sector cutbacks. I was in a room when out of the blue, a big honcho I hardly knew walked in and said congratulations to me. I said for what, you still have a job. Everyone else in the room was laid off. I desperately needed the job, but I still felt like crap for all of my friends.

    Those of us who survived went through a tough couple of years and we learned what critical really meant .

    Your example of the retiring biologist leaves me one response. At least he was allowed to make it to retirement. I assume his pension is enough to let him live comfortably. You get handed the pink slip in your 40s or 50s, chances are your skill set on the open market ain’t worth jack .

    You know better than me what New York State’s monetary condition is. What are the other options to the cutback of services ? Or is it a battle of what service is critical ? Chances are politics will trump need .

    • My point is that many of these cutbacks are “shotgunned,” that is, they’re not targeted, they’re simply “cut X” people, and often the determination of “critical” is often wrong. For example, in the past Nor’easter that hit, there were a lot of complaints abut DOT not having equipment ready or in place. Interestingly, DOT has had a lot of personnel cuts over the past three years, and many of those cuts were people who used to do things like get equipment ready or plan for things like this. The same thing after Irene, where there were a lot of hazardous spills and cleanups which had to be done. Except that DEC had cut those people down to just a few small teams.

      I can even top your story. Imagine walking into work one morning, and being told as you get in the door that “there’s a meeting, now.” Where it is announced that your entire department is now fired. We weren’t the only ones, two other departments got canned at the same time. I’m not talking a few people, I’m talking almost 90 people. What it turned out was that management thought they could replace us with a “cheaper” outsourcing company to help them cut costs. I take a great deal of vindictive pleasure in what happened – it was a total disaster for them, and cost them a fortune. Oh, and the “cheaper” company they chose went bankrupt half-way through the contract.

      What my point is, is not just that there are cuts – and yes, we can argue critical to the cows come home – but the conservatives insistence that they’re “unnecessary” and that they can be replaced easily. If it takes two years for someone to become “fully certified,” or you’re asking for people with a set of qualifications that makes them highly employable to begin with (CDL’s generally are), you’re not going to get “easily.”