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Connecticut recently saw thousands of state employees retire in response to benefit changes. Now, some see the rehiring process as a major opportunity to close equity gaps with race, ethnicity and gender at state agencies.
Close to 5,000 Connecticut state employees retired on June 30, an exodus that presents a once-in-a-generation chance to build a workforce that is reflective of the state's population.
"We have this opportunity, as we're going on these massive recruitment efforts, to take a look at our workforce and see where we [are] deficient in terms of gender, in terms of racial and ethnic diversity and strategically plan how to address that,'' said state Comptroller Natalie Braswell.
A report completed last year by the Governor's Council on Women and Girls examined workforce demographic data for the more than 30,000 employees of executive branch agencies, a broad category that includes state police, child protection workers, traffic engineers, education officials, correctional officers and a host of other positions.
White employees hold a disproportionate share of the jobs, the report found. Meanwhile, Hispanic men and women are significantly underrepresented: they make up almost 17% of the state’s overall population, according to U.S. Census figures, but constituted just 7.7% of the state workforce.
Black residents comprise about 12% of the population and close to 13% of the workforce. But Black men are underrepresented, making up less than 5% of the state workforce. And Asian employees, particularly women, are also underrepresented.
The report also documented a persistent gender gap within state agencies traditionally dominated by men. The ranks of the state police, for example, are almost 80% male, and the state Department of Transportation's Highway Operations division is 93% male.
Moreover, female employees were far more likely to hold administrative support positions: the report found that 87% of those jobs were filled by women.
Having a diverse workforce is essential to building trust, Braswell said.
“At its most basic level, diversity is good for business,’’ Braswell said. “People are finding out that representation matters.
Our workforce needs to look like and be representative of the communities in which we live.’’
'You Don't Often Get an Opportunity Like This'
A lack of diversity among the public sector workforce isn’t unique to Connecticut: many agencies at all levels of government are struggling to hire workers who reflect the communities they serve.
Some state and local governments are looking to address the issue. The Southern California Association of Governments and the RAND Corporation, with support from the Volcker Alliance, recently conducted a study on ways to recruit and hire a diverse public sector workforce.
The study looked at barriers to attracting diverse candidates, including lengthy and complicated government hiring processes and negative perceptions about public sector work.
Internships and mentoring programs, a campaign to highlight the benefits of a public sector career and clear job titles and descriptions are some of the recommendations proposed by the study’s authors “to increase the flow of talented and underrepresented workers into public-sector careers.”
Connecticut is taking on a similar assessment as it embarks on efforts to fill the positions left empty by a tsunami of retirements.
With the roughly 5,000 people who have left state employment, their departures were triggered largely by changes in employee pension and retirement benefits that took effect on July 1 and provided a retirement incentive for many employees in a workforce that skews older. (In an average year, between 2,000 and 3,000 people leave.)
“The public sector tends to hold on to its employees for a very long time and you don't often get an opportunity like this,” said Assistant Comptroller Tara Downes, a co-author of the report.
In preparation for the retirement wave, the state legislature in Connecticut formed a task force to come up with a plan to fill the newly open positions with more women and people of color.
The task force recommended a number of steps, including appointing a chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer to monitor recruitment goals and expand the number of employees who can unionize.
The legislature did not approve the task force’s recommendations but Braswell said the state is taking other steps to increase diversity, including writing job postings that are more inclusive and casting a wide net when recruiting.
“It’s not enough to assume that folks are just going to log on to the [state government employment] website and look for a job and apply,’’ Braswell said.
The state is also looking for ways to support its existing employees, particularly women and people of color.
“If someone can find the secret doors to climb the ladder, they can climb them, but we need a much more targeted effort to develop and level up the people who are in [the] workforce already,’’ Downes said.
Braswell said the historic opportunity to remake Connecticut's state workforce shouldn’t be squandered.
“If we don’t change the way we’re doing things,” she added, “we’re just going to end up with the same numbers over and over again.’’