Wilson County currently faces a distressing situation as staffing positions across multiple departments is becoming increasingly difficult.
On Monday at the County Commission meeting, Wilson County Emergency Management Director Joey Cooper said, “It is my duty to tell you we are in dire straits right now.”
Cooper was referring to the employment shortage plaguing the county. According to Cooper though, it’s not just a problem impacting Wilson County, it’s statewide and it’s multi-pronged.
Cooper cited on-the-job stressors as a large reason while retention had become difficult. “People are stressed out from their normal job duties. If you add stress from the pandemic, people are only going to be able to take it for so long.”
The director said, “A lot of other counties have shut down stations. They’ve offered incentivized pay to get people on board but a lot of them are still short.”
Commissioner John Gentry asked Cooper how the county should combat this problem. He pointed to tenure in the Air Force and how bonuses failed to retain airmen over the allure and competitive pay of private industry.
Cooper said that the private sector was certainly a contributing factor to employees leaving, but that “people are going to go where the money is.”
It’s not the benefit packages that are failing to keep employees, at least not per exit polls and interviews with those employees after they leave, according to Cooper.
Commissioner Terry Ashe, who chairs the insurance committee, said he was proud of the “direction” the committee had taken to provide above-average benefits. “We’ve turned this insurance benefit around, providing a good enough retention package for employees.”
Ashe was quick to shun any credit, instead saying it was the employees around the county buying into the insurance policies that had made them successful. “We’re in good shape and I give a lot of that credit to the employees,” he said.
Cooper mentioned that it wasn’t so long ago when Wilson County was a premiere employment destination, with competitive pay, but that wage increases in places like Nashville and an emerging Mt. Juliet, have been siphoning off the help.
Sheriff Robert Bryan echoed Cooper’s concerns as it pertained to his staff at the WCSO. Cooper said that unlike his emergency responder counterpart, the WCSO at least could pull help from county corrections officers, although those individuals require additional training that makes them less serviceable.
Bryan said that he did something he never thought he would have to do as sheriff: “I went to a job fair last week.”
The sheriff and Cooper both said that while there had been sparse interest, many of the attendees lacked necessary qualifications, which presented one option that neither administrator is gung-ho about.
“One option is to bring people in who are not qualified, but that’s going to cost me more money to get them up to certification. Plus bringing them on, they can’t do a thing until they complete those courses, so you have them sitting around for six months,” said Cooper.
Indicating that this is hardly just a Wilson County problem is a vacancy that remains unfilled at the Division of Forestry at Cedars of Lebanon State Park. Could this spell disaster in the event of a fire at the state park? The Tennessee Department of Agriculture Public Information Officer Kim Doddridge said, “no,” but it’s still another vacancy remaining to be filled.
In email correspondence with Doddridge, she said that the “Division of Forestry is confident responses to wildfire situations in Wilson County will continue to be carried out in a timely manner.”
Despite having a vacant position, “TDF maintains a presence in Wilson County on the Cedars of Lebanon property and is responsible for managing 5,270 acres of state forest lands in the Cedars of Lebanon public ownership complex,” Doddridge said.
She also said that personnel and firefighting equipment resources there include an area forester who serves as incident commander for emergency response, a forestry aide equipment operator, and a tractor plow firefighting unit.
TDA also has two additional dozers and personnel that can be in Wilson County within 10-20 minutes from the east.
Commissioner Annette Stafford asked if it would be feasible to reach an agreement with the Division of Forestry where the county trains personnel in return for their commitment to stay.
County Attorney Michael Jennings said that in his capacity as mayor of Watertown, this hasn’t been an efficient way to recoup costs, stating that “when they get ready to go, they go.”
Jennings was referring to first responders and not directly to forestry division personnel.