Spate of Retirements Sends W.Va. DNR Reeling

Charleston Gazette
2 January 2015
By John McCoy, Staff writer

In the past year, more than 20 senior biologists, managers, technicians and clerical workers have retired or resigned from the Division of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Section, leaving gaps that DNR administrators are still scrambling to fill.

“That’s more than 20 people out of a staff of 200,” said Curtis Taylor, chief of the section. “A lot of knowledge and institutional memory walked out the door over a relatively short time period. It’s having an impact.”

Taylor said the remaining employees had to pick up the missing employees’ work while replacements were recruited and shepherded through the state’s time-consuming hiring process.“And it’s still going on,” he added. “We’re not through the process yet. We still have openings to be filled, and if we fill those from within the agency, it creates a domino effect and we have to fill the positions people leave when they move up.”

The problem isn’t unique to West Virginia. Taylor said fish and wildlife agencies across the country are experiencing the same phenomenon.

“It’s the Baby Boomer generation heading into retirement,” he explained. “These are people who were hired in the 1970s. Like most folks in natural-resources fields, they stayed at their jobs for 25, 30 or 35 years because they liked what they were doing.”

The DNR has experienced similar exoduses — most notably in the mid-1990s, when employees hired in the early 1960s decided to retire. “That brain drain was significant, but the one we’ve experienced this year is the biggest I can remember,” Taylor said.

Replacing this year’s retirees hasn’t been easy for a couple of reasons: The state’s complicated hiring process takes time, and the salaries West Virginia can pay are low. “When I got hired full-time in 1979, the process was simple,” Taylor said. “I was a part-time employee at the time, and I was sitting in a room at the McClintic Wildlife Station skinning muskrats. Jim Ruckel [the DNR’s former assistant wildlife chief] came into the building and asked me if I wanted a full-time job.

“I told him I did. He said, ‘You’re hired.’ Just like that, I was the new wildlife manager at the R.D. Bailey Wildlife Management Area.”

Taylor said it isn’t nearly that simple now.

“Now when we need to fill a vacant position, the request goes from me to our staffing person within the DNR. Then it goes to the DNR director, to the Secretary of Commerce, and then to the state Division of Personnel.

“The people at the Division of Personnel then determine what the position requires. We might ask for a Biologist III, but they might think the job calls for a Biologist II. So then we have to go back and forth with them about it. Once we agree, the job has to be advertised and people have to be brought in for interviews. The average time to fill a vacancy is at least a month, if not longer.”

And then there’s the issue of pay. Taylor said West Virginia’s salary structure makes it difficult to recruit top-caliber biologists and managers.

“In the 1960s, West Virginia’s salaries for fish and game employees were among the best in the nation, and the state was able to recruit the best and the brightest people,” he said. “Now our salaries are among the lowest.

“I recently sat down with some people from the American Fisheries Society. They looked at our starting salaries for district fisheries biologists, who are required to have at least a master’s degree. They said, ‘Are you kidding?’ I said, ‘No.’ And they said, ‘Well, you’re not getting anyone at that rate.’”

Taylor summed the situation up rather bluntly: “People don’t come here to work here unless they’re from West Virginia, or unless the job holds a particular interest for them.”Still, he added, the DNR has managed to attract high-quality applicants despite the relatively low pay.

“We’ve been extremely lucky. We have some of the best new employees I’ve seen. They signed on with us because they want to work in this state, they want to work with the resource, they like the way we do business and they want to work with the public. But it’s getting harder and harder to recruit those kinds of folks; I lost two last week to other agencies because their salaries were higher.”

Hiring might be easier — and employees might be easier to retain — if the DNR were able to grant merit raises, Taylor said.

“When I took this job, the agency’s accountant said I needed to do one thing — to give half our people a merit raise every year. I took that to heart and did it. Then that tool got taken away from us,” he added.

Shortly after Gov. Joe Manchin took office in January 2005, he put a freeze on merit raises for all state employees. The DNR’s wildlife and law enforcement sections got included in the freeze even though they’re funded through hunting- and fishing-license fees instead of state tax money.

“Before the freeze, we were able to give merit raises and still operate within our budget,” Taylor said. “But for the last 10 years, the only salary adjustments our employees received were the same ones given to state employees paid by taxpayer dollars.”

Even with the retirements and hiring difficulties, Taylor expects the wildlife section to be “in great shape” a year from now.“The folks we’ve hired have an opportunity to learn from people who are experienced within the agency,” he said. “They have the benefit of learning from people who have been there, done that and got the t-shirt. Combine that knowledge with the fresh ideas the new folks bring, and you have a real formula for success.” -

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