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.