PUBLISHED: 4:39 PM on Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Alaska, CBJ plan for waves of retiring baby boomers
Age well, retire earlier than your parents did, and count on hard-earned benefits to see you through your golden years. Starting in the 1950s American political leaders began promising their citizens some version of this rosy future. But today, as the generation raised under such ambitious promises begins to retire, state and local government leaders worry about a labor shortage.

In August, Gov. Sarah Palin created a cabinet-level working group to try to figure out how to recruit and retain workers who toil for the state.

The City and Borough of Juneau is also looking at how to manage a coming personnel shortage.

"Extreme vulnerability" is how Mila Cosgrove refers to areas where large numbers of municipal workers could retire in the next five years. Cosgrove is Juneau's human resources director. She said top administrative positions and blue-collar slots are at risk.

"In next five years, 42 percent of our officials and administrators are eligible for retirement," Cosgrove said.

Blue-collar workers include heavy equipment operators and water and waste water treatment specialists. Cosgrove said a retirement surge at the Juneau police department is finally coming to an end. Unfortunately, there's another on the horizon. Some municipal employees who plan to retire don't intend to stop working, but they want to take advantage of the Public Employee Retirement System benefits that make it attractive to leave after 20 years of service.

"There is incentive for them to retire out of PERS and move to a non- PERS employer. They get two paychecks then," Cosgrove said.

The city assessor provides a glimpse of the future. James Canary retired this summer to run a business. The city recently solicited applications for his slot and is now reviewing them.

Some economists argue that in a market economy, there's no such thing as a labor shortage. If employers want more of something, they pay more and get it. Cosgrove used to be the state's personnel director. She said the city's wages are competitive with local private sector employers and with the state. But the problem facing Juneau is occurring nationwide. Workers born during the baby boom are reaching retirement and there are fewer younger workers available to take their place. Certain professions have shortages for more than one reason. Cosgrove said there is a national shortage of engineers. Some studies have shown engineering schools are failing to turn out enough graduates to meet the country's needs. Juneau has three unfilled engineering positions. Information technology positions are also difficult to fill. The city has two open. Sitka, too, is looking for engineers and people to fill high-level public works jobs. Joe Buck is an engineer and runs Juneau's Public Works Division. People who report to him clean streets, and run water and wastewater systems. Buck said he's planning for the coming personnel shortage through extensive training of junior workers. Even so, he has a senior wastewater treatment job that's been open for a few years. It's difficult to fill because it is a supervisory position and requires several licenses. Buck said the city has advertised nationally for the position.

"After a certain period of time and trying to use the normal hiring protocols, we step it up and make the make the position more desirable, offer a signing bonus, and to pay for some moving costs. You keep sweetening the pot until someone said, 'I'd love to live in Alaska.'"

To gird against the future shortage the city is studying a formal system of knowledge transfer, or figuring out how retiring colleagues can teach more junior ones important aspects of their jobs. Officials say cross training, or creating overlap between positions, helps to protect against workforce gaps. And for all of those state and municipal workers eyeing retirement, there's a new book out that make the case for staying on the job.

In "Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life" (PublicAffairs Books; June, 2007), author Marc Freedman argues persuasively that 65 is the new 35. He suggests that those planning for an end to work, should develop a new vision for the second half of their life, one that swaps the old retirement dream of the "freedom from work" for one characterized as the "freedom to work"-on new terms, in new ways, to new ends.