Dealing with frequent employee turnover and difficulty recruiting, Manhattan is hoping to make changes to its workplace environment and transform the city into an “employer of choice.”

Multiple department heads echoed similar staffing troubles during Tuesday’s City Commission meeting. Administrative staff told commissioners relatively low pay compared to what businesses or other cities offer in their respective fields, employee sentiment that good performance is not rewarded and growing dissatisfaction with the work-life balance in the organization have contributed to the situation.

“I really believe if we were a private company, we’re probably not heading in the right direction as an employer of choice and we need to turn that around,” says Public Works Director Rob Ott. “And that’s hard to say because I’ve been a big part of that in upper management and it is eye-opening [to see]some of the surveys that we’ve done. We do need to change and we need your help to turn it around.”

Turnover city-wide in 2019 was 11.5 percent and nearly half of all employees have been in their current positions for five or fewer years. Departments with the highest rates of turnover are typically those with lower pay, specifically in the areas of street and park maintenance. Parks maintenance has a 31 percent turnover rate and street maintenance has a 25 percent turnover rate. About 17 percent of the city’s workforce is also eligible for retirement within a ten year period.

In order to improve the situation, Manhattan city departments are planning to implement an Organizational Excellence Initiative (OEI) with goals identified following surveys of approximately 300 Manhattan employees. They hope to make Manhattan into an employer of choice, which city staff says is characterized by a robust and creative recruitment process, healthy and motivated workforce, excellent community service, “enviable” employee retention rates, open and honest communication channels as well as fair and consistent business practices.

They have identified strategic areas to focus on improving to reach that status, including offering competitive pay, benefits, and a flexible work schedule as well as better evaluate and reward employee performance. Additionally, departments will look to consolidate software to streamline operations as well as provide more opportunities for professional development and leadership training for employees entering the workforce and those progressing through the ranks.

“Both […] the organization and the community will benefit,” says Assistant City Manager Dennis Marstall. “Investment in our employees, we think, will help us continue to deliver the top-notch services and programs that the citizens and you have come to expect from the city workforce.”

Mayor Usha Reddi proposed gathering more data comparing Manhattan’s wages with other communities in the state to gauge how they stack up.

“Because I don’t know what good looks like in those staffing areas and what does a flexible schedule look like.”

Marstall says that work is already underway, Additionally, Human Resources Director Tammy Galvan said the city should consider performing a full compensation study.

“Most organizations do a full compensation study every five to seven years and I don’t even know the date of our last full compensation study,” says Galvan. “Our past pay studies have said we want to be competitive with the market, but what we’re finding out is we’re not staying competitive.”

Data presented during the meeting also highlighted a gender imbalance in city employment, with 74 percent of employees being identified as male, 24 percent as female and 2 percent as other. Commissioner Aaron Estabrook says that is an area needing addressing as well, noting they tried to tackle similar disparity in his time on the USD383 Board of Education.

“We explored that in education as well, trying to attract and retain young men to be in classrooms,” says Estabrook. “Young boys like to see young men teaching just the same way I think women would like to see more women in their work environment too in the city.”

Galvan says between screening matrices to reduce unconscious bias and showcasing organizational diversity during recruitment, they hope to bring that number to one more representative of the city’s demographics.

A scan of the city’s department heads shows HR, customer service and legal are among the only departments lead by women.

Commissioner Linda Morse says she and Reddi have made a case for greater diversity in city employment in the past.

“What we see are the people in this room and sometimes we’re the only two women here,” says Morse. “It takes a vacancy before we can remedy some of that, so I’m glad to see that you’re putting some measures in place to help bring some change.”

Reddi followed by saying the similar attention needs to be paid to increasing racial diversity as well.

Commissioner Mark Hatesohl questioned whether increased contracting for mowing services could help with the high turnover rate for part-time mowers in the Parks and Recreation Department. Parks and Recreation Director Eddie Eastes says their mowing contracts are already in excess of $40,000 and that they utilize their staff specifically to mow bigger areas such as ball fields. Mayor Pro Tempore Wynn Butler questioned whether they could halt mowing of some of KDOT’s right of way that Manhattan has been voluntarily mowing.

“How about just leave the Kansas grass back to tallgrass and not worry about it?” says Butler. “Maybe we’re just mowing too much and we can take a look at reducing some costs there because I don’t see any harm in some cases for some of that grass to be a little bit higher.”

Going into 2020 and 21, City Administration plans to further examine ways to implement strategies addressing these concerns as well as how to fit them in a budget in a time of flattening tax revenue. They’ll be presenting the commission with a more comprehensive work plan for the OEI at their upcoming goal-setting retreat.

“We all recognize we are working in an environment with flat revenues,” Marstall says. “We just want to make sure you know from us what we see and what we know you have to work with and deal with as you go into your retreat.”

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