MDOT staffing remains at ‘crisis’ levels, commissioner says

Published: Mar. 18, 2022 at 5:23 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - If you take the Byram exit headed south on I-55, you’ll likely see a large blinking sign, saying MDOT is hiring at its Clinton office.

The sign is an unusual step the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) is taking to address critical staffing shortages across the department.

MDOT currently has about 400 open positions but is struggling to fill them.

To help boost its ranks, the department has been going to colleges and universities to host career fairs. It also is implementing a new intern program to help fill skilled positions.

However, the agency won’t truly be able to solve its staffing problem, until it can raise employee pay across all levels. And it’s banking on the legislature this year to give them the authority to do it.

The 2022 legislative session ends in about two weeks, and MDOT is asking the state for permission to use a portion of its gas tax funding to raise employee pay to coincide with the new SEC-Squared (SEC2) plan, a proposal adopted by the Mississippi State Personnel Board designed to make state agencies more competitive with other public sector agencies.

MDOT Executive Director Brad White says the highway department has the funding to make the new plan work. It just needs legislative permission to do it.

“I just have to have the authority,” he said. “Even with this, we’re not talking about taking money away from construction, but shifting the budget and having different line items.”

White says he’s had conversations with several lawmakers this year and is hopeful the authority will be granted in the agency’s annual budget bill.

Central District Transportation Commissioner Willie Simmons also is hopeful, saying that staffing within the department has reached a “crisis” level.

“We’re constantly having turnover in our lower ranks. Because, once again, when you get out into the rural part of the state, where there’s a McDonald’s or a Bumpers, and those employees do not have to be faced with inclement weather and the challenges with the virus, and they can go into a safe work zone and make more money, you know, that’s very challenging for us,” he said. “And it has gotten us to the point that in some cases, we are down to one or two employees in a county trying to take care of maintenance.”

Maintenance workers are the ones who fill potholes, pave streets, and answer calls at all hours of the day and night to pick up debris when it is blocking state roadways.

He says a shortage of workers means longer response times. It also means the remaining maintenance workers have larger coverage areas.

“Our floating crews are so ill-equipped that the geographical area is so much greater, and it increases the length of time they have to respond to needs,” White said.

However, those employees have little incentive to stick around. Maintenance techs earn around $9.50 an hour and receive no overtime. Nor, are they eligible for COVID-19 bonuses like some other public employees have been.

Higher-ranking positions have also taken a hit. In 2021, MDOT lost 32 engineers. Since January, additional “top-level folks” have left for better positions, Simmons said.

The commissioner says with fewer engineers, more projects will have to be bid out for design work. He said that fact, coupled with inflation, means the $962 million in federal infrastructure dollars the state is expected to receive over the next five years will have much less of an impact than initially hoped.

“These projects are going to be delayed because we don’t have adequate staff to do the design and do the kind of work, so we’re going to have to outsource (and that’s) going to cost us more money. You add that to the inflation rate that’s going up, and we could very easily be looking at somewhat of a washout,” he said. “We may not see any real growth with the new dollars we’re going to get.”

Project SEC2, though, could offer MDOT, as well as other state agencies, some hope.

MDOT also already appears to be increasing some starting salaries, based on its website. A transportation engineer position, for instance, is offering a starting salary of $71,078.45 a year. A comparable position in Alabama is offering a salary range of $63,78 to $97,221.60 a year, a job posting on the Alabama personnel board’s website states.

“It’s designed to better equip us to be able to address the needs of the agencies... not just hiring members of the team, but promoting them and properly compensating them based on experience, education and other factors like that,” White said. “I do believe it’s going to move the needle in the right direction to help us to not only keep the people we’ve got but to help us recruit new members of the team to help us better carry out the mission of our agency.”

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