New faces underscore demographic change underway in Kandiyohi County government
WILLMAR -- When Kandiyohi County department heads gather for a meeting, there are more than a few new faces around the table these days. In just the past eight months, the county has seen the departure of several high-level employees, from the He...
WILLMAR - When Kandiyohi County department heads gather for a meeting, there are more than a few new faces around the table these days.
In just the past eight months, the county has seen the departure of several high-level employees, from the Health and Human Services director and Community Corrections director to the sheriff and chief deputy. Most were retirements and virtually all were long-term employees. Another longtime department head is retiring this month.
County Administrator Larry Kleindl can't recall ever seeing this much turnover at the top level within such a short timeframe.
"It's never happened," he said. "These are major departments that we're talking about."
The changes visibly underscore the demographic shift underway as the large baby boom cohort reaches retirement age and the next generation takes their place.
Kandiyohi County is far from alone. "It's something I think everyone is looking at right now," said Connie Mort, human resources director.
And it will continue for at least the next few years, Kleindl said. "In the next five years we potentially have 27 department heads or supervisors eligible to leave."
It has prompted the county to look more closely at succession planning and how to better prepare for a new wave of workers and a new set of expectations by its 409 employees.
Resignations overall, including retirements, have remained consistent over the past four years, Mort said. But the recent changes have been more visible, both for the high-profile positions involved and the pace at which they're occurring.
Mort said there's a bubble of long-term Kandiyohi County employees, many with 30- or even 40-year careers, who rose through the ranks over the years to become supervisors or department heads and are now nearing retirement.
"I think we're seeing that bubble move through," she said.
Succession planning has become critical for Kandiyohi County, Kleindl said. "Who's going to be taking these spots? I don't think government has ever had to do that before."
Administrators have become more mindful of preparing for leadership transitions, he said. "That's something new. Who's the backup? We talk about it at department head meetings."
The county's ability to attract new workers will be an important part of the equation.
Some of the signs are positive. On a recent late January day, Mort had four job openings posted and received 13 applications.
A comparable worth study completed two years ago bumped up the pay for many general jobs, making them more competitive and drawing more applicants, Mort said. "That was beneficial," she said.
Hiring for some positions is more difficult, especially those that require specialized skills and training. "The more specialized the position is, the harder it is to recruit for it," Mort said.
These openings often draw candidates from across Minnesota and even out of state, however, which she sees as a good indicator. "That's encouraging that we've got the capability to be attractive to those applicants," she said.
It also will be important for Kandiyohi County to address changing workforce needs and expectations.
Workers still care about salaries and benefits but other factors increasingly matter too, Kleindl said.
More county employees commute from a distance and want opportunities for flexible hours or working from home, he said. They're accustomed to technology and expect it to be available in the workplace. They want a voice in decision-making, especially for issues that directly affect them.
"As an employer we have to be prepared to give them what they need," Kleindl said. "That's going to challenge us to meet those needs."
Creating opportunities for employees to move up the ladder also is part of the strategy as Kandiyohi County positions itself for the future, he said. "We're going to work harder at growing our own."
Over the past several months, training has been expanded to include more leadership and professional development. Sessions on resiliency and adapting to change were especially welcomed, Mort said. "It was so well-received by our employees. They really want that kind of training."
The exodus of several experienced department heads and supervisors has not been without impact.
Kandiyohi County is involved in multiple partnerships, many of them regional, and it takes time for new relationships to be formed, Kleindl said. "You lose some of the history."
Longtime employees also hold deep institutional knowledge that can't be replaced, he said. "A lot of it was never written down. When those people walk out the door, that's gone."
But new leaders also bring a new perspective and new energy, Mort said. "Sometimes there's a certain fearlessness. They're coming into an established department and they're asking questions and shaking the tree. That's good."
Knowing that retirements were pending by some long-tenured department heads and supervisors, Kandiyohi County was ready for it, she said. "I think we've been very fortunate in who we've been able to attract into those positions and who we've been able to transition."
"With our staff involvement, with our communication with our employees, we've been very well-prepared," Kleindl said. "But we don't take it for granted."