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County work force ages

Brittany Retherford
Staff writer

Much like a person readies him or herself for retirement by making plans to fill freed time, ensure financial stability, and find ways to stay sharp and fit, Nevada County’s governments are also getting ready for their aging workforces.

Each year, more of the area’s civil servants edge closer to retirement ” something that has long been a predictable inevitability. After all, 2006 marks the year the first of the baby boomers begin turning 60.

Nevada City could lose half of its full-time workers to retirement by 2010; Grass Valley could see 30 percent retire by 2008. Nevada County, the largest employer in the area, stands to lose the most ” 50 percent of its nearly 1,000 employees were already eligible to retire by the end of 2005.

The impact of the potential loss of 30 to 50 percent of a workforce over a short period of time still remains somewhat unknown ” particularly when the numbers are so strikingly high.

Of course, just because an employee has reached retirement age doesn’t mean the person is ready to retire.

“It is a very personal choice for people when they will retire,” said Gayle Satchwell, the county’s human resource director.

Still, it is clear the trend has forced the three jurisdictions into action ” and most have already implemented plans to minimize negative impacts.

Not only must they have the foresight to predict which key positions might become vacant, but they must step up training opportunities and recruitment methods. And, perhaps most importantly, they must find ways to prevent the loss of years of accumulated employee knowledge.

Satchwell said the county has been preparing for the past two years and said she foresees a “challenging, but exciting future,” particularly with the number of opportunities it will create.

The departments have already begun preparing its current employees, readying them with skills to ease into possible promotions. Additionally, longtime employees nearing retirement are being encouraged to store their knowledge in manuals and computer programs to be able to be passed down after their departure, Satchwell said. She said they are now working with employees on this project.

Besides, not all those eligible to retire will actually do so.

Some have specific career plans that may delay their time, while others might wait until their retirement benefits can fully kick in.

“I’m not going to retire, not for at least four years, I’ve got to stay until I am 55 in order to retire with any kind of benefits,” said the county’s chief deputy coroner, Cathy Valceschini, who has put in 33 years with the county.

Still others ” such as those in Nevada City ” must consider the city’s lack of a retirement health insurance benefit before easing into enjoying their old age, said Cathy Wilcox-Barnes, city clerk.

This can make the numbers less dramatic than they may seem at first glance ” for example, in Nevada County the retirement rate for 2006 is estimated at 10 to 15 percent. It is clear, however, the impending problem is still there.

Grass Valley’s human resources manager, Michael Lewis, was reticent in even talking about what an aging staff could mean for the city’s future. On Friday he was cautious because “if I say the city is in big trouble, it could affect future negotiations.”

A few key employee spots will open in Grass Valley within the next few months ” one of the most significant being marked by the retirement in April of longtime City Clerk, Bobbi Poznik-Coover, who was described by former councilwoman Linda Stevens as a “mainstay.”

Finance director Carol Fish said the city is prepared financially, it has already budgeted to cover retirement payouts.

Recruitment efforts have also been instituted by all jurisdictions. Satchwell said the county has focused on those who might be able to commute to the area, partially because of the higher cost of living here.

The higher home prices particularly plagues Nevada City, which has the highest in the region and the smallest city budget and is just unable to pay the same wages as surrounding counties, Wilcox-Barnes said. She said the city had to hire a consultant to manage the wastewater treatment plant ” at a greater cost ” because they received little response from their job advertisements.

“It is getting harder all the time, we advertise,” she said. “It costs a lot to live up here and for somebody to relocate to this area. It is a beautiful area, but they take a cut.”

Ideally, the local governments could recruit more people like Valceschini, who started working when she was 19 in the county social service department. She said she worked at night for several years in her 20s so she could attend Sierra College during the day, making her a more valuable employee.

She also loves the area and says the higher cost of living doesn’t matter as much to her.

“Home is where the heart is,” she said. “I was born and raised here, my family is here, my roots are here. For me it was never really a question of if I could go somewhere and make more money. For me it was I was happy to be here where my family is.”

– For a portal to state figures on industry and employment, go to http://www.labormarketinfo.edd.ca.gov

– For state figures on employment and wages by sector in the 10 northeastern California counties, go to http://www.labormarketinfo.edd.ca.gov/cgi/dataanalysis/?PAGEID=94

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