Forget the stereotypes of California state government’s painfully slow process for hiring new workers.
This summer, it was possible to walk into a Caltrans hiring fair and leave with a job offer.
Motivated by a wave of retirements and an urgency to fill new positions created by the state’s gas tax increase, Caltrans devised a bureaucracy-defying human resources program that let it bring on hundreds of new employees at a time during hiring events. Almost 600 people have joined the department through those two-day job fairs.
“It was a very quick turnaround,” said Andy Chou, 29, a new Caltrans structural engineer who went to a hiring fair at Sacramento State in May and had a job offer within days. He started work last month. “I was definitely surprised by” the speed of the department’s hiring.
There’s more good news if you know someone looking for a job — Caltrans still has another 1,100 vacancies.
The rush to hire comes mainly from Senate Bill 1, the 10-year gas tax and vehicle fee increases the Legislature adopted in 2017 to fund a decade’s worth of transportation projects.
Voters in November will see a bid to repeal the tax on the ballot, which would jeopardize funding. So far, unions, contractors and local governments working to defend SB 1 have raised more than $26 million to defeat the repeal. Groups that want to repeal the tax have raised about $2.5 million.
Caltrans is moving forward as if the repeal initiative would fail, and is filling jobs at a fast clip. The state budget Gov. Jerry Brown signed in June sets Caltrans on track to add 1,150 new positions over the next 11 months, up from 19,109 last year.
“We are making a dent,” said Michelle Tucker, the department’s human resources director. “I’m really pleased with the innovative hiring techniques we’ve done this summer.”
It’s racing to add staff in a hot economy in which other engineering firms and local governments also are bulking up.
“They need design staff to deliver state highway projects,” said Ted Toppin, executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government. “That’s what Californians expect. Right now they’re competing with other state and local departments and the private sector for engineers, so the need to on-board them is real or they’re going to lose them.”
Caltrans had a long-approaching retirement wave, especially among its engineering ranks. In 2016, the average age of the state’s civil engineers was 51, and 52 among electrical engineers.
Meanwhile, the Brown administration shrank the headcount at Caltrans over much of the past decade. The department had 10,143 employees in the division that plans road projects in 2013. That number shrank to about 7,000 two years ago. It’s expected to grow again to 8,700 by next year.
“The department did not hire engineers and related staff for over 10 years,” Toppin said. “From 2007 to 2017 they sort of shed 3,500 positions,” he said. “Year after year, it was no replacement of folks who retired, so they’re an older workforce.”
PECG’s three-year contract that expired in July also did not give engineers a reason to stay. Brown did not commit to a raise this year when his administration negotiated the contract with the union in 2015.
Between July 2017 and July 2018, 922 Caltrans employees retired.
PECG’s new contract includes some incentives that would keep longtime engineers in the workforce developing projects funded by the gas tax increase, including an immediate 4.5 percent raise and an escalating seniority differential that rises to an extra 5.5 percent for engineers with 23 years of experience at Caltrans by 2021.
Caltrans crafted four rapid-hiring events it held this year with the state human resources department. They allowed people to apply for jobs in person, be interviewed by panels of managers, have their qualifications reviewed and references checked within two days. If they passed, they’d walk out with a conditional job offer.
“We’re able to do hundreds of interviews in a day,” Tucker said.
Usually, landing a state job takes much longer. The only other state departments that regularly use rapid-hiring events are the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Prison Industry Authority, Cal HR spokesman Andrew LaMar said.
Jeff Wiley, Caltrans’ assistant division chief for project management, said the department has been attracting engineers with a range of experience, from new graduates to veterans from other states.
The department and PECG negotiated a compromise to get more experienced engineers working on projects as soon as possible. The agreement lets Caltrans slightly increase the amount of work it sends to private contractors, although the department has not yet exceeded its traditional outsourcing cap.
“We’ve got some plans out for making those goals,” Wiley said.
Toppin said the agreement was reasonable considering the department’s “sudden increase in revenue” and shortage of experienced engineering staff.