California state workers' collective image has taken a beating the last few years, but new job application numbers show that plenty of people would love to join them.
As of last week, more than 203,000 people were on eligibility lists from which the state draws candidates from outside government to fill vacancies, according to a first-ever tally by the State Personnel Board.
Many of the job seekers applied for more than one of 1,400 job classifications tracked by the panel, a sign that the public is banging hard on the state's door to grab a job in one of the few employment sectors that still offers relative security and good benefits.
Hiring on with the state can be a long, difficult slog through the bureaucracy, especially now. Budget cuts and dwindling revenue are squeezing government spending, and the number of state workers has declined in recent years.
State jobs range from book binders and electrical engineers to custodians and firefighters. Nearly 20,000 names were on the Caltrans highway maintenance worker list earlier this month. With pay ranging from $2,873 to $3,120 per month, it's the state's most sought-after job.
State human resources officials say several of the most popular positions share common characteristics: They're entry-level, require only a high school diploma, some college education or applicable work experience and offer the prospect of launching a lifetime career.
"There's a lot of stability in these positions," said Lori Dimberg, office chief of Caltrans' Human Resources division.
The government's statewide presence also attracts applicants. The DMV, for example, operates 169 field offices staffed by 4,500 employees.
"They're operating in every county," said economist Jeff Michael of the University of the Pacific. "And for the Caltrans job, there's not a huge higher education requirement, so a lot of people qualified for it."
Those kinds of jobs are a "port of entry for a lot of first-time state employees," said DMV spokesman Mike Marando, explaining why more than 6,100 people are on the list for the department's field office jobs. "They can learn a good work ethic and good customer service skills, and advance or explore other options."
Remote locales, budget cuts and last year's hiring freeze tamped down interest for other positions.
Some 524 jobs had just 10 or fewer eligible applicants, many of them for professional jobs that often pay better in the private sector, such as psychiatrists and lawyers.
Several state prison teaching and vocational instruction jobs had fewer than a dozen qualified applicants. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has deeply cut money for those programs in the last few years and has axed hundreds of related jobs.
Gov. Jerry Brown's realignment plan, which is shrinking the state's prison inmate population through attrition, has also curbed hiring. The state hasn't run a training academy for correctional officers since last summer.
Department spokesman Brian Daly said there are 398 eligible applicants for correctional officer cadet. Another 294 cadet candidates deemed eligible have been waiting so long that their medical and psychological examinations, which are valid for one year, need to be updated.
Correctional officer Mary Moreno said that hiring on with the state can be a lengthy on-again, off-again ordeal.
"I had to retake four tests" that expired while she waited to enter the correctional officer academy in Galt, Moreno said. "Then when they called and said, 'OK, you're hired,' I had to start right away. I couldn't even give my employer two weeks' notice."
The Highway Patrol's academy, which was also closed for a while, is running again with 392 eligible candidates on its list and another 390 awaiting background checks, said department spokeswoman Fran Clader.
Applicants for state public safety positions can wait years to be hired, owing to background, physical and psychological tests that slow down an already-slow hiring process for many state jobs.
The government is trying to pick up the pace. The Brown administration will soon launch a new Human Resources Department with a mission to energize the state's recruiting and streamline hiring.
The state also has been moving more and more state job eligibility exams to the Internet, said Suzanne Ambrose, executive officer of the Personnel Board.
Traditionally, the state scheduled eligibility interview panels in Sacramento and around the state, "an extremely time-consuming and resource-intensive process," Ambrose said.
Online exams make the process more accessible to the public and work well for professional positions such as doctors and lawyers.
"It just makes sense that you get those people into state service the easiest way possible," Ambrose said, since they don't need to demonstrate their licensed skill.
The Web exams ask test takers to match their education, experience or skill sets as they apply to a given job. The state also conducts proctored tests that require applicants to demonstrate their abilities, such as word processing or mathematics.
The state then scores and ranks the results to build the eligibility lists. Once on the list, applicants can look for job openings and apply for them. The lists change daily as the state adds new names, while others drop off when applicants take a job or their eligibility expires.
Although there are plenty of job seekers, state government isn't in growth mode.
The state employed 224,645 workers in January, according to payroll records, 9,268 fewer than when Brown entered office in 2011 and about 13,000 less than in January 2010. Full-time positions account for nearly all the jobs lost.
And with the state facing a $9.2 billion deficit between now and mid-2014, "I'm not anticipating any growth in state hiring," said Michael, the University of the Pacific economist.
Since the state has never tracked eligible-list statistics, spotting a trend is impossible, Michael said. He did make a prediction, given California's double-digit unemployment rate and the slowdown in government hiring:
"Clearly, the state's workforce isn't expanding, so I expect these lists will expand instead."
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