What do you do when a sizable percentage of your key staff retire over a short period and you're left to carry on? If you're Julia Wickard, director of the Indiana Farm Service Agency, you do just that – carry on. "Service is part of our name, and we're going to do our best to continue to offer service," she says.
More than 780 years of experience walked out the door of FSA offices in November 2011 alone, she notes. Several of the people who left were employed at the state levels. Others were retiring from county level positions. Some buy-outs or early retirements involved, other situations involved people who simple were at retirement age and decided to retire.
This has been a big challenge and a very difficult period, Wickard acknowledges. "The uncertainty of budgets during this time makes it even more difficult to manage," she says.
Nevertheless, in the short term her goals is that farmers will see no difference in service. Instead of rehiring at the state level for some positions, since the budget is tight, some duties of previous employees have been shared amongst remaining employees. Wickard also asked for an analysis of their staffing. "Where we need people across the state to get the job done, that's where we will put people," she says. In some cases, it will mean reassigning staff form one task to another. What's not coming is more money from Washington to hire additional staff for new positions.
"The goal is to have ourselves staffed at the right level within the state," she says. "Where there are holes, we are making adjustments to fill them so that there won't be a lack of service."
Wickard is heading an agency with 75 fewer employees than three years ago when she was hired into this position. There are still about 360 employees statewide.
One weapon that will help combat some of the loss in man hours is modernization of the computer system within FSA, she notes. Money was allocated to finally move from the government-computer-based system to a Web-based system. That will eventually allow producers to do more of their own enrollment and other activities on line from their farm or home office.
In the meantime, Wickard notes, it's also a change for employees as they get used to a new system. Some remaining employees have worked for 15 years with one type of software system, antiquated as it was, and must now learn an entirely different computer system. When they are able to hire new, talented people, many of those will already be familiar with the new type of computer software that FSA will be using in the near future.
A large percentage of the staff now working for FSA are eligible for retirement. People simply don't leave once they enter the FSA system, and there have been tight budgets for hiring new people, Wickard notes.
That's not to say that there won't be any hiring. The director is currently looking to find someone to head up the Conservation Programs specialty at the state level. In the meantime, long-time veteran Steve Brown is acting as acting chief of that division.
"It's a difficult time to be at the helm, but we intend to continue to offer as much service as possible," Wickard concludes.