Recruitment and retention plague Grays Harbor

A chance to hobnob with local leaders at the Greater Grays Harbor, Inc. business forum luncheon on Tuesday, July 26, presented a unique opportunity to learn about the challenges facing their roles in the community.

About 80 people showed up to the event that Lynnette Buffington, chief executive officer for Greater Grays Harbor, called a success. The luncheon consisted of a boxed lunch from Aloha Alabama BBQ in Westport.

The six panel members during the event at Rotary Log Pavilion shared the main challenges facing their departments and school districts.

Two of those main challenges facing the panel members — Aberdeen Police Department Interim Chief Dale Green, Hoquiam Police Department Interim Chief Joe Strong, Aberdeen Fire Department Interim Chief Dave Golding, Hoquiam Fire Department Chief Matt Miller, Elma School District Superintendent Chris Nesbith, and Aberdeen School District Superintendent Jeff Thake — appear to be recruitment and retention.

“Our biggest challenge is to try and find good police officers,” Green said. “When Joe (Strong) and I got hired in the early 1990s, we had 50 to 80 people show up to take (the police exams.) The last time we tested, we ended up with three people… we got lucky to hire one. It’s the nature of our process.”

Green, who’s served as interim police chief for APD since Friday, July 1, after Chief Steve Shumate retired, said he and his staff aren’t hiring just anyone.

“We really try to find men and women who want to serve above themselves, selfless people who are empathetic, and compassionate,” Green said. “That’s a challenge with some of the hands we’ve been dealt in law enforcement the last couple years, so that’s where we’re going in the next six months, just trying to hire police officers. We have a lot of openings.”

Miller, who took over as fire chief when Tom Hubbard retired on June 10, said he’s finding the “same type of thing” in Hoquiam.

“When I tested 20-some years ago, you went against 50, 60, 70 people,” Miller said. “I think in our last round, we had four (recruits.) Similar to (police), we have a background check and a testing process and not everybody filters through all of that.”

Miller added how the areas of Aberdeen and Hoquiam — the most populous cities in Grays Harbor County — are quite busy with the number of 911 calls they receive.

“We’re the two busiest departments in the county,” Miller said. “We run a combined (almost) 10,000 calls per year. If you combine and compare us, if our numbers were together, we outpace Olympia, Tacoma, and Graham Fire and Rescue (in Pierce County.)”

While police and fire throughout the area get a lot of “excellent experience,” from the multitude of fire, medical, and trauma calls, that activity comes at a cost.

“They come here, work their butts off for two-three years to get experience, and then go away,” Miller said. “Literally, one of my people left, and I said ‘Why are you leaving?’ He said, ‘Because I can go to Thurston County, make more money, and work half as much. I don’t have to run as many calls per day.’ So that’s a big issue for us. (We’re) just trying to recruit people and keep them here.”

Golding said recruitment and retention have been two of his biggest concerns.

“Just like Matt (Miller) eluded to, we just don’t get the candidates we used to,” Golding said. “The pool is shrinking. EMTs and firefighters, we can get those pretty easily, but (finding) paramedics is where we hurt. To get a paramedic, anybody know one, one who wants a job? I don’t know of any. We just can’t find them.”

Golding said AFD is a good place to work, even though staff there is busy.

“If you want to learn how to fight fire, come to Aberdeen and Hoquiam,” Golding said. “We are known for the (number) of fires we have and the amount of training and experience that our people can get.”

On Monday, July 25, the incoming AFD Chief John Clark withdrew from taking the department’s fire chief position. He was supposed to start Monday, Aug. 1. The search took a couple months.

Those same hiring challenges that plague local EMS departments also plague public schools.

According to Nesbith, 13,000 teachers in Washington are on emergency certifications, which means they are not certified, but the school district has signed a letter that says they’re good. In addition to that, schools are having a problem with filling their substitute teaching roles.

And then there are a couple of problems that still stem from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Under the COVID-19 requirements, the quarantine requirements, we have an 83 percent in-staff day rate because of how many teachers and students are being quarantined,” Nesbith said. “That (means) 17 percent of our classes went unfilled without a teacher, and (other) teachers are covering those. They’re covering and covering and covering, so that means that teachers are teaching all day.”

Aberdeen School District had to close its doors for two weeks in January because of a high number of absences from teachers and students, with COVID-19 being the main reason.

Thake said right after he started as superintendent at Aberdeen School District on Friday, July 1, he had to be out of the office because he tested positive for COVID-19. With that, he pointed out how empathy, grace, and vulnerability are things that leaders like him and others on the panel must have, which means they need to listen.

Buffington pointed out the challenges facing police, fire, and public education are not unique to them.

“As I look across this room, I see the same challenges in many of your businesses,” she said. “I have heard labor shortages, I have heard regulatory environment (issues,) and I have heard recruitment and retention (issues.) There’s a lot of commonality between private and public, for sure.”

After the panel discussion, Buffington talked of the biggest thing she took away, which is that the problems facing them are common with the private sector. At least a few local business owners in the last year have also cited staffing issues that have hurt their businesses.

“We all need to be effectively addressing employment recruitment and retention,” Buffington said. “We need to be working on recruitment and retention, and then creating meaningful work experiences for our youth so they can enter into these industries.”

Buffington gave some advice for the local youths.

“If you don’t see an opportunity that you want, ask for it,” Buffington said. “There is ample opportunity here, and strong support for creating those opportunities. So, ask for it. Ask for it at your educational institutions, what it takes (and) ask in the industries what it takes for those opportunities.”

Ellie Winkelman, who just graduated from Hoquiam High School and will be attending Green River College this fall, has been interning as a member services support intern with Greater Grays Harbor since January.

“I’ve loved working with the team,” Winkelman said. “They’re all very kind people, so I really enjoyed that. I learned a ton about customer service.”

Winkelman said she got to learn more about the Grays Harbor region and its businesses. She said she’s “very grateful” to have the experience.

Winkelman said her goal is to become an elementary school teacher and so she enjoyed hearing from the superintendents.

She also had some advice for her peers.

“I’d say just get involved with everything you can,” she said. “I’m someone who likes to be pretty busy. I like to have a lot going on, because you feel more connected to your community, which is very important, especially when you have a small community like Grays Harbor.”