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Crime & Courts

Alaska State Troopers find fix for hiring woes: More pay

The department reported more than 1,000 applicants between August and October.

More than 1,000 people have applied in the past three months to join the Alaska State Troopers in a surge of interest driven by two years of pay increases and a social-media marketing campaign.

(Bill Roth / ADN)

The number of applicants is the highest for a three-month period since record keeping began in 2017 and signifies a turnaround for a state agency that has had trouble recruiting and retaining workers.

“It’s certainly making an impact,” said Lt. Derek DeGraaf, head of the troopers’ recruitment unit.

In October, an ad on the social media site Instagram garnered thousands of views and shares, becoming viral, DeGraaf said. The ad prominently featured the troopers’ starting salaries: A range starting at $72,768 per year.

“Our pay is so good compared to other agencies in Alaska and nationwide, so I think that caught people’s attention,” he said.

Two years ago, the department didn’t have much to advertise. Officers were retiring and leaving at high rates, and the department had problems recruiting. A 2017 report about the problem stated in part that “the department’s wage and benefit package is not competitive, both within and outside Alaska.”

At the time, the department said its starting salary was behind that of four Alaska police departments, including the Anchorage Police Department.

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Last year, then-Gov. Bill Walker announced a 7.5% raise for state troopers, effective immediately, and another 7.5% raise in 2019.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy continued that plan, and the Alaska Legislature accepted it.

Some positions received less than the amount announced by Walker, but the increase at all ranks was substantial. A trooper recruit in 2017 could expect to earn a base rate of $28.10 per hour, according to the salary schedule in place at the time. Now, that figure is $34.98 per hour, DeGraaf said. (With overtime and remote-duty pay, many troopers earn well over the base rate.)

The troopers have also seen an increase in the number of experienced officers interested in transferring from other Alaska departments or Outside agencies.

The effects of the pay increase have been apparent beyond new hires. DeGraaf said that, anecdotally, he believes fewer people are transferring out of the state troopers and fewer people are retiring. Under the old state employee pension system, payouts are based on the three highest-salary years of employment, and DeGraaf said the slump in retirements may be temporary for that reason.

Brittany Patze, an HR specialist for the troopers, said in a written statement that fewer troopers have left the department in 2019 than did last year, but that “separations” are “on track with the department’s five-year average.”

In recent years, Alaska has fallen behind in state-salary competitiveness. In 2013, the Alaska Department of Labor noted that Alaska’s average salary for state and local government jobs was the 12th highest in the nation and almost $4,000 above the national average.

By 2018, the average state-government salary in Alaska was more than $1,000 below the national average, according to figures published last month by the Department of Labor.

Given that Alaska has a higher cost of living than most states (some cities, including San Francisco, New York and Seattle, have costs of living higher than Alaska), Alaska’s fall down the salary charts has made it difficult to attract qualified workers.

This week, the Alaska Department of Administration released a report examining staffing problems in the Public Defender Agency, which provides attorneys to defend poor Alaskans in criminal cases. The report found the agency is having significant problems filling vacant positions, in part because demand for skilled workers is high and it offers less pay than comparable positions in other states and cities. Some of those locations have lower costs of living, aggravating the problem, the report indicated.

DeGraaf said that in his experience, the best tool for recruitment is to “pay people well and take care of them.”

In the case of the state troopers, “we’re definitely seeing the fruit of it,” he said.

Correction: The initial version of this article misspelled the last name of the troopers’ recruitment unit. He is Lt. Derek DeGraaf, not Graaf.