Staffing crisis: MDOT has lost 32 engineers in the last year

Commissioner Willie Simmons discussed road needs in a previous interview with WLBT.
Commissioner Willie Simmons discussed road needs in a previous interview with WLBT.(WLBT)
Published: Jan. 14, 2022 at 12:28 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Speaking to the Senate Appropriations Committee on January 13, Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) Executive Director Brad White did not argue that the state needed to spend more money on roads.

But he said an even greater challenge facing the department was behind the scenes, with the recruitment and retention of staff.

The department is hemorrhaging employees, in large part, due to low salaries and, in some cases, poor working conditions.

Leaders with the department would like to see the state provide additional revenue not only to maintain roads and build new roads but to raise salaries.

“In the last year along, just going back 12 months, we’ve lost 32 engineers,” White said. “It’s not just a problem of losing staff, but the problem of having the salaries and things necessary to recruit others.”

Central District Transportation Commissioner Willie Simmons said the department is facing shortages at all levels, from engineering to maintenance.

In his district alone, the department has a shortage of about 20 maintenance technicians. These are men and women who work all hours, in all kinds of weather and earn less than $20,000 a year starting out, he said.

“Those individuals, when they come into MDOT, are making less than $10 an hour. They can go to McDonald’s and make more now,” he said.

Simmons says the employee shortage is not only a challenge but a crisis that ultimately impacts the state’s ability to repair roads, design and build new roads to meet traffic demands, and respond to constituent concerns.

“We had 32 resignations since January 1, 2021, and of those, we have only been able to replace about 14,” he said. “Even when we get new money, like the $960 million we’re going to get over the next five years from the federal government... it’s going to slow our ability down to design projects and move faster.”

“The alternative is for us to outsource it. When we outsource it, it triples the cost to do it.”

Staffing shortfalls among maintenance technicians are creating another problem.

“For the first time in a long time, we have counties in the state where there are no MDOT employees in those counties,” White told Appropriations members. “That’s important to point out, because when any of you or your colleagues call with constituents that have problems... our floating crews that are having to address that are now having to cover more of a geographic area. So, it’s slowed down our ability and time to address the issues that are reported to us.”

Simmons said maintenance techs start out at around $9.50 an hour.

“We require them to get their CDL, but we don’t pay them any additional money for that. Getting a CDL provides them with an opportunity to move up in our system, but we don’t give them any additional money just for having a CDL,” the commissioner said.

“As a result of having their CDL, it puts them in a position to go into an industry where there is a severe shortage of drivers and where they make more money than they would be working for MDOT.”

Meanwhile, maintenance workers don’t receive overtime and MDOT doesn’t have the funds to provide workers with hazard pay for working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, Congress approved the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Mississippi received $1.25 million in federal funds from the act.

MDOT received a portion of that funding. However, the agency is unable to use the funds to give employee bonuses.

“The federal government sent our money in two categories: infrastructure... and public transit,” Simmons said. “Those infrastructure dollars coming down are to be used for projects. We don’t have personnel dollars.”

The state also is unable to give workers additional pay using is allotment from the Mississippi State Lottery.

State lawmakers approved the Alice Clarke Lottery Mississippi Lottery Act in 2018. The act was signed into law by then Gov. Phil Bryant. Under the measure, the first $80 million in lottery revenue goes to MDOT.

“The language in the bill says it is for infrastructure,” Simmons said. “We, the commission, decided to put (that money) into repaving our two-lane highways. Many of them haven’t been paved in 20 years. So, when you’re riding on some of the state two-lanes, you’ll see lottery (money) going into them.”At $9.50 an hour, maintenance techs earn $19,760 a year.

By comparison, those workers earn just over $22,000 a year starting out in Alabama, according to the Alabama Department of Transportation’s (ADOT) website.

Transportation engineers make significantly more when they take jobs across state lines.

According to the Mississippi State Personnel Board’s website, a transportation engineer Level II has a starting salary of $61,417 a year. In Alabama, a senior civil engineer II earns $86,038 starting out, ADOT’s website shows.

The pay gap between Level III transportation engineers in Alabama and Mississippi is even greater. With MDOT, that position starts out at $66,944 a year, while in Alabama, that starting salary for that worker is $99,650.

“You can’t criticize folks to improve their livelihood and do better. That’s what they go to school for. That’s what they work for. And when the opportunity comes, they’re going to take advantage of it,” Simmons said.

He estimates MDOT would need an additional $10 million a year in recurring funds to increase salaries.

“We need to reclassify some of the personnel positions and pay them according to what other states are doing and to put them in a position to be competitive with the private sector,” he said. “We don’t just need a small salary increase at the three-percent level. We have kicked the can down the road for so long, that we have kicked it into a crisis pothole.”

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