Highway officials: Shortage of snowplow workers looms
WAITSFIELD >> It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.
That was the way state highway maintenance worker Ron Kerin and his supervisor John Dunbar summed up snowplowing Thursday as the duo took a break from replacing a failed culvert.
In just a few weeks, Kerin and Dunbar will be awakened at any and all hours of the night to hop on their plows and clear snow and ice from Vermont's highways.
The state this week launched a stepped-up recruiting campaign for new road maintenance workers, complete with a sign-on bonus of up to $1,000 in response to a shortage of staff that has seen job openings double over last year.
Scott Rogers, chief of maintenance and operations for the Agency of Transportation, worried out loud that the state could be short-handed when the snowstorms inevitably come.
"To be fully candid, I'm nervous right now," he said. "If we got a three-day blizzard, we'd be in trouble right now."
This year, Vermont offered early-retirement incentives in a budget-cutting move. The results took a bite out of a division that usually includes about 570 employees, Rogers said. Of them, about 375 workers take turns driving about 250 plow trucks. Rogers' division usually has about 20 vacancies; it's currently running with about 40.
And recruiting is getting tougher in general, both Dunbar and Rogers said. Digging ditches and fixing guardrails in the hot summer sun is not everyone's cup of tea. Neither is heading out to plow roads at 3 a.m. when the thermostat reads 8 degrees. Workers are on call 24/7, from Dec. 1 to April 1.
Dunbar said if a worker wants to take his or her family out to dinner, that's OK. "As long as I know you're cell-phone available and you don't mind getting up halfway through your meal and going to plow snow."
That's been an issue when it comes to recruiting new workers, he said. Dedication has been lost.
"The younger generation, they want their time off," he said. "They want their freedom, they don't generally like to be committed to this."
But the jobs offer many benefits, some of which are hard to find in the private sector, the workers said: Sick time, vacation, medical and dental insurance, pensions, training and tuition reimbursement are among them.
Then there's simple pride in the work, Rogers said.
"People don't like getting called out at 2 a.m. on Christmas Eve for 12 hours of plowing," he said, "but because of you, people get to where they're going on Christmas Day."
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