Opportunity knocks for state workers

A remarkable event occurred this week at the State House. The Hall of Flags is usually reserved for non-profit groups dispensing brochures, buttons, stickers, and sometimes — especially popular with legislators — lunch. But this time it was the Bureau of Human Services holding a job fair, spotlighting opportunities in the state workforce.

While in most administrations this wouldn’t be an especially notable event, in this one, it is. After nearly eight years with a chief executive who, to put it mildly, didn’t seemed pleased with the thousands of employees who worked for him, perhaps a thaw is beginning.

When Paul LePage took office, he greeted state employees not appointed by him with the opinion that they were “corrupt,” a word never retracted or modified. Many state workers, including bureau chiefs and other career employees subject to gubernatorial appointment, decided it was time to leave.

In years since, many more have followed. Important positions have remained vacant for months or even years. Maine missed critical deadlines for intervening in dam licensing because the key official retired and no one took over. Public health nurses disappeared in large numbers, and the exodus didn’t stop until the Legislature finally ordered the administration to start hiring.

In other offices, state workers were replaced with private contractors, usually located out of state, without any rational justification — such as saving money. Perhaps the most egregious example came when the Maine Department of Transportation decided, seemingly by whim, to replace the state workers who operated the Casco Bay bridge, a vital traffic link.

And so it has gone. Even priorities the governor and Legislature agree on, such as a “step down” facility for patients at the Riverview Psychiatric Center, go nowhere because LePage insists that some of the most sensitive functions in state government must go to private companies he chooses, without knowing whether such contractors can actually do the job.

In eight years, there have been so many fiascos it’s hard to remember them all. Recently, we had a new, non-functioning unemployment claims system the administration declined to repair or even defend; it’s the subject of an OPEGA investigation.

It’s against this background that the Hall of Flags job fair stands out as new, perhaps even hopeful. There wasn’t much advance publicity, but in placards around the building, state workers talked about their jobs.

“I started working for the state in January,” said Jessica C., talent acquisition director for the bureau. “The diversity of careers available in state government is incredible. Want to be a park ranger, nurse or economic analyst? You can do all those jobs and more … what other employer in Maine is able to say that?”

Shirley B. at the Department of Administrative and Financial Services (DAFS) told how she took an entry-level position at the state auditor’s office and, 17 years later, is deputy state controller. A Maine Revenue Services employee said, “The work I am doing makes me feel a real sense of purpose.”

Joyce O., bureau director, has been with the state for 31 years, with five “increasingly challenging jobs,” adding, “In each setting, I partnered with co-workers who, like me, had a passion for our work and gave it our all.” Philip P. at DAFS spoke of “real skill sets” available “through education and on-the-job training.”

Given the governor’s attempt to unilaterally close a state prison, halted by a Superior Court judge, it was interesting to hear from a Department of Corrections recruiter, who called his job “a very natural extension to my military service,” adding, “It isn’t hard to sell an agency, and state, that you really believe in; it sells itself.”

Most startling of all was Matthew H., at DOT, who, after 25 years “in the private and public sector in Florida,” came to Maine two years ago. He said, “This is the first employer that has ever made me feel like I was part of something special, and that I was valuable to them.”

Even allowing for some hyperbole, there may be room for optimism about the state workforce — and the Augusta area, where the largest number are employed.

It’s been a long time since — in the Cabinet that Gov. Ken Curtis and a Republican Legislature created — the Department of Manpower Affairs had its own commissioner. The current bureau was downsized into the Department of Administration, which in turn was later merged with Finance.

The idea that the public sector could be a source of excellence and innovation is far from fashionable, but — in an era where careers with one employer seem impossible, and private sector jobs are fraught with insecurity — it may be time to entertain that idea again.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 33 years. His new book is “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine.” He lives in West Gardiner, and welcomes comment at: [email protected]

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