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Contract Staff – The Cavalry to Support your Generals

When I chat with old friends in other fields, I marvel at how those who went the traditional corporate path started their careers very differently from local government staff. I’m entertained with stories of recruitment on their college campus from a Fortune 500 company, followed by a job offer followed by 3-6 months of training before they do any real work.

For those of us who started as permit technicians, case managers, budget analysts, or code enforcement officers, you had a different career kickoff – combing the open positions on municipal websites, then finally landing a job where you followed around a more senior colleague for a couple of weeks. Then, you were given your first stack of work, a code book with the pertinent regulations and policies, and a smile from your supervisor that said “Go get ‘em!”. You weren’t left alone by your supervisor, but it was clear you’d be learning on the job by doing.

This approach to cultivating a local government agency’s employee base worked for many years. It reinvigorated the agency with new, younger talent that could parlay that agency’s training investment into promotions with more and more senior status. The junior ranger from 15 years ago would eventually ascend to director of the agency, and sometimes beyond to the management office.

Despite the national exultations we hear about stock market gains and housing market rebounds, many Virginia jurisdictions are still dealing with the legacy of the Great Recession. Tax revenues which have remained stagnant have given agency directors annual budget challenges with funding key departmental services. Predictable salary increases and robust professional development became more challenging to guarantee each year. For many localities, these trends have caused the best and brightest workers to leave for senior positions at neighboring jurisdictions. The staff left behind need new training to grow into new roles while still doing their old work until a replacement can be hired. On-the-job training gets more complicated as management’s attention is split in more directions.

And then, something happens:

  • An underdog set of candidates win election to your Board of Supervisors, creating new alliances and new mandates for staff. The ability to hire additional staff to address the new needs is doubtful given years of flat budgets.

  • A new planning director discovers that annual reports due for federal and state grant monitoring have not been filed in the past three years. She learns that the reports, which had in the past been filed by a now retired former employee, must be immediately compiled with a full accounting to not jeopardize the locality’s funding status.

  • A routine zoning complaint snowballs into a series of violations related to zoning, building, property maintenance, and animal welfare regulations. The cases require immediate attention, and a multi-agency response to safeguard dozens of animals that need acute care. Inspections staff put off other complaints, but the crisis is an ongoing drain on staff.

  • A long-needed transportation project gets full state funding, which will upgrade the primary road connection from your town to a nearby, growing military installation. You’ve been used to budgeting for normal road maintenance and repairs each year, but don’t have a capable project manager on staff who can be the town’s point person for the road project.

The old model of hiring young, growing within, and promoting upward doesn’t lend itself to the full flexibility a locality needs to meet all of today’s needs. Virginia localities run lean, productive, hard working departments with capable staff and measured managers, but that structure leaves little room to do more than put out immediate fires and keep the existing work moving along.

I recently came upon the section in Paul Zucker’s landmark book “The ABZ’s of Planning Management” where he discusses the hybrid model of using contract staff to support public agencies. What had only been introduced to me a couple years back was something that Zucker had foreseen years ago as a new way for local government to maximize budget dollars and accomplish more. Contract staff have been used for years at the federal level in every agency, with some adoption in other states for local governments. In Virginia, the approach is relatively new despite being enabled in the Virginia Public Procurement Act. The state code even allows for the cooperative procurement of contract staff, excluding licensed professions like surveying and engineering.

Using contract staff as an extension of your current full-time staff, an agency can stay more flexible to changing trends across budget cycles and better respond to pressing needs:

  • Interim staff can be used when experienced staff members leave the agency, ensuring that permit reviews or inspection complaints are handled expeditiously without increasing individual workloads.

  • Special projects can be handled systematically without pulling away existing staff from their daily tasks.

  • Experienced contract staff members are chosen to perform your agency’s tasks at a high level, with minimal training, to make an immediate impact.

  • Staff members placed in your agency have the support and backup of their parent company, not just their own professional credentials.

  • Tasks assigned to contract staff are completed per the timelines agreed upon by the agency leadership and the contractor, with task orders scoped to meet your needs.

  • Contract staff are chosen to ensure an appropriate fit with your local workplace culture.

  • Contract staff can be brought aboard at a set price that does not exceed your budget.

The Berkley Group has provided contract staff services to numerous Virginia localities. These services can range from a few hours a week of off-site support to staff members placed on-site within the agency’s existing staff on a full-time basis. How can we help you with an extra set of hands to meet your needs?

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