Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry
August 2007

Vol. 12, No. 34 Week of August 26, 2007

DNR in a losing battle for talent

Department of Natural Resources’ Kathy Sheehan-Dugan predicts serious problems for future project development if trend continues

Amy Spittler

Petroleum News

The number of positions open in the Alaska Department for Natural Resources are too numerous to list, but Kathy Sheehan-Dugan says that virtually all job classes have vacancies. With a 27 percent annual turnover rate and approximately 900 employees, that’s almost 250 positions a year.

The problem has intensified for Sheehan-Dugan, who recently took over as coordinator for DNR’s Public Information Center and Workforce Planning/Career Development Program.

“Many of our highly technical positions are very difficult to fill and can remain vacant for many months, sometimes years,” she says, acknowledging that the department is competing with a number of companies in the private sector for highly qualified professionals in specialized areas.

Positions needing to be filled at DNR currently include a forester, grants administrator, geologist, surveyor, natural resource specialists and managers, fire and resource technicians, habitat biologists, plus many others. Sheehan-Dugan emphasizes that “every day the advertised jobs change.”

There’s also a wide variety of support positions that get overlooked by potential candidates, not immediately recognized as natural resources jobs. Procurement positions, accountants, IT specialists, archaeologists, park rangers, economists, and food service jobs are all available.

With offices in 22 communities across the state, from Fairbanks to Ketchikan, DNR has both full-time and seasonal positions, and is always taking applications.

But unfortunately, those looking for a government job these days are few and far between.

“To be frank, it’s rather frightening,” Sheehan-Dugan says. According to the department’s most recent estimates, state government is looking at a 45 percent retirement rate through 2011, and the new generation of employees is 15 percent smaller than the retiring generation. “Almost all employers today are in competition for those people,” she conceded.

Planning ahead, DNR is taking into consideration the increase in resource development projects either already in progress or in the planning stages. But it’s barely able to keep up with its mission now. Sheehan-Dugan explains that “we’re losing our experienced industry expertise and our institutional knowledge. It seems we lost a generation of people going into the natural resource and science fields — development or regulatory.”

DNR employees are primarily very experienced and close to retirement, or relatively inexperienced, and few employees are ready to move up to replace the retirees.

Sheehan-Dugan offers one explanation for the change. “In the past, people employed by the state tended to remain with the state, and those employed by industry stayed with industry: The lines are much more blurred now. Many people move easily between the public and private sectors.”

This has, overall, been a benefit to resource management. “However, neither DNR nor the resource development industry can afford for DNR to be the training ground for the industry and for the majority of our employees to be inexperienced,” she explains.

Like many employers, Sheehan-Dugan is wary of large projects on the horizon. The mining, oil and gas industries have also recognized that a shortage of employees for the state, in particular DNR, adds a new spin on the planning for future projects.

“They’re just as interested as we are in seeing the department fully staffed with trained and experienced people,” she says. “The Alaska Miners’ Association recently wrote to the governor expressing their concern with DNR’s inability to fulfill its missions.” Echoing Sheehan-Dugan’s message, the letter went on to say that the problem “is keenly felt in DNR’s professional positions, such as geologists and engineers, and will only get worse when a gas pipeline contract is finalized and private-sector workforce demands increase.” Sheehan-Dugan is extremely satisfied to finally be on the same page as industry.

How DNR is tackling the problem

“The state’s making an effort to get more young people interested in resource fields,” Sheehan-Dugan assures. She mentions the PARW group, Putting Alaska’s Resources to Work, and commends them for recognizing that while there’s plenty of opportunity in the resource industry there aren’t enough people entering the fields. Other programs such as the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program are working on getting more Native students interested in science and engineering careers.

“Industry, including DNR, is aware that it needs to market itself more effectively to young people, and there will be more effort made to make younger people aware of the possibilities,” she says.

And the possibilities, according to Sheehan-Dugan, are numerous. “The resources are available to find positions.” She reasons that, if anything, “the options could be too overwhelming for someone making decisions about college or a career change.”

For anyone already in the workforce, Sheehan-Dugan asks that they don’t bypass DNR because their degree isn’t in natural resources. A candidate may have many other skills that will apply to the work DNR does, and all experience is valued.

To attract the next generation the department is beefing up its intern opportunities; from high school students to PhD candidates. High school students have the opportunity to learn soft skills and get an introduction to the variety of work the department does. Geology PhD candidates can work for the Division of Geological and Geophysical Survey in Fairbanks. In between, there are numerous options depending on a student’s interest and skill level.

“We’ve had tremendous success with our interns in that they’ve had good learning experiences and we’ve gained a number of full-time employees as a result,” says Sheehan-Dugan. Mark Myers, now the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, and formerly DNR’s director of the Division of Oil and Gas and a state geologist, was once an intern for DNR’s DGGS.

Perhaps the most lucrative benefit from providing internships is that it introduces the Department to people who have a genuine interest, or daresay a passion, for public service. Sheehan-Dugan admits that “they’re a special breed.”

But occasionally reality gets in the way, and even though wages are generally not the overriding factor that brings a person into public service or keeps them there, it has become an increasingly important factor. She understands that “public employees are no different than anyone else; they need to meet their financial and family obligations and need to have a job that enables them to do so.” So regardless of their career preferences, DNR loses people routinely to better paying jobs elsewhere.

Everyone’s futures may be at stake

Employers across the state seem to agree that there are a limited number of people in the private resource industry to develop future projects. And Sheehan-Dugan confirms that there aren’t enough people working in the public sector to review the studies or permits. If the current differentials between public and private sector wages and benefits aren’t addressed, many more people from DNR will leave for private industry.

“As we wait and hope for a gas pipeline contract, keep in mind that without DNR and other resource agency employees trained and in place, that project, and others, can’t move forward,” warns Sheehan-Dugan. She also hopes that as resource development industries recognize the value of experienced DNR employees, so will others in the private sector.

“To the degree private sector businesses expect their potential economic growth to increase as a result of a gas pipeline they should recognize that growth is tied to a functional state agency able to meet its mission in a timely manner,” she adds.

In this state a strong economy means industries are meeting the demands to maintain a healthy environment. And in the words of the Department, its mission includes permitting development projects in a manner that maintains the integrity of the land for Alaskans now and in the future.

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