By Dan Herrera
Attracting and retaining quality staff are important goals for any organization, and the City of Ramsey is no exception. Staff with a longer tenure working for the City tend to be more familiar with the culture of the community and the needs of residents, enabling staff to respond to issues and provide services to residents more effectively and efficiently. This is especially true for public works staff charged with maintaining Ramsey’s vital and growing infrastructure systems.
Ramsey’s public works staff includes many skilled employees who complete specialized training required to do their jobs. In 2016, public works employees voiced a desire for a system that recognizes workers for completing advanced training. Although the idea was presented to city council, it saw little action until Ramsey partnered with the Resilient Communities Project.
Under the guidance of Stacy Doepner-Hove, director of the Master’s Program in Human Resources and Industrial Relations at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, graduate student Jess Zamora-Weiss began working with Ramsey Human Resources Manager Colleen Lasher to investigate the idea further this past fall via an independent study project arranged through RCP.
Zamora-Weiss set to work developing an employee development strategy and “career ladder” program for Ramsey’s public works employees. The program is designed to not only recognize employees for pursuing advanced training, but also help them identify and take advantage of educational and skill-building opportunities that would allow them to move from entry-level jobs to positions in the organization that offer higher pay and more responsibility. “The main goal of this project was to retain and motivate the workforce within the public works department,” Zamora-Weiss explained. Beyond simply acknowledging staff for pursuing training, she noted, “[t]he career development program signals to workers that their employer is willing to invest in them and their careers, which can engender a sense of reciprocity from the workers and make them want to stay longer.”
To design the program, Zamora-Weiss began by investigating how peer cities such as Coon Rapids, Champlin, and Anoka have approached employee development and career advancement for their employees. To ensure the program she recommended was tailored to the unique needs and circumstance of Ramsey employees, Zamora-Weiss reached out directly to current employees, union representatives, and senior staff to gather their input and perspectives. “I asked supervisors a lot of questions, and assured them that I was only bringing them information and they were the true experts in this field,” she explained. “Deferring to them in this way not only allowed me to develop a great working relationship, but it also assured that I would get the right information so that what I was developing would be relevant and useful.”
The employee development program Zamora-Weiss ultimately recommended encourages employees to enroll in relevant education and training programs that increase on-the-job skills and enhance overall job performance. To support participation, the City of Ramsey would reimburse employees for tuition or training costs, books and classroom supplies, and fees for licenses or certificates. Employees must qualify to participate in the program, and must satisfy City-specified participation and academic requirements to remain eligible.
In addition, Zamora-Weiss designed career ladders for the city’s mechanics and park, street, utility, and building maintenance workers. The career ladders identify minimum educational and licensing requirements to advance within the organization and move up the career ladder to higher paying jobs.
Lasher hopes that the employee development program Zamora-Weiss designed not only ensures that employees maintain the necessary training and skills to do their jobs, but also demonstrates that the City values its employees and their contributions—resulting in greater dedication and a higher standard of performance. “While we don’t have a problem with absenteeism here, I think that a more engaged, well-trained employee is going to be more present both physically and mentally,” she explained. “That brings value to the residents of Ramsey.”
Public works staff have already expressed enthusiasm for the program. “We have not rolled the program out yet, but we have sat down with our union stewards…and they were so impressed,” Lasher noted. “They were just in awe…at how it had come together, because initially their vision was just to be recognized for some of the training they had accomplished. But it really took a form that I don’t think they had expected.”
Zamora-Weiss explained that she also benefitted greatly from the opportunity RCP provided to work on the project. “This is a project that I can put on my resume and it is [an] experience that I know I will utilize in my future work as an HR representative.”
In addition to the research Zamora-Weiss completed last fall, Professor Doepner-Hove partnered with RCP and Ramsey again this spring through her graduate-level course, Employee Development: Creating a Competitive Advantage to help the city explore other employee development issues. Teams of students in the course researched and prepared recommendations on issues ranging from onboarding new employees and fostering employee engagement to performance management, employee diversity and inclusion, and employee wellness.
The employee development and career ladder proposal is well on its way to being implemented. Although there are still aspects of the program that must be clarified and fine-tuned, Lasher reported that the program will be proposed to city council in the near future, and she hopes it might be in place as early as January 1, 2019 if the council approves it. Despite being months away from implementation, Lasher already views the project as a success. “One of the big reasons that we have been interested in the career ladder—and it was something that we have wanted to get done for a long time—is that…it is a win-win-win. It is a win for employees, for management, and for the community as a whole, and we think it will produce some really great results down the road.”
Dan Herrera is a program associate for the Resilient Communities Project