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Forest County adapts to challenging job market to rebuild Social Services Department

The Forest County Courthouse which houses many of the county's departments including Social Services.
Katie Thoresen
The Forest County Courthouse which houses many of the county's departments including Social Services.

Forest County officials are focusing on the positive momentum of the Social Services Department.

“We really are seeing an upward tick to where I think we’ve hit the sweet spot now finding a new applicant pool,” said Forest County Supervisor Ron Skallerud. WXPR sat down with him, the social services chair, and the county board chair to talk about some of the challenges facing Forest County.

Social Service Departments in Wisconsin offer a range of services centered around families like child protective services, food stamps, and welfare checks.

Earlier this year, the Forest County Social Services Department was in a difficult position.

Between employees that quit or were fired, the department went from seven to just one employee.

Forest County has been working with Oneida County Social Services and the two local tribal communities to fill the gap.

Other employees from the county also stepped in to help the department when they could.

“It’s definitely been a team effort. I’m very proud of them. It makes you want to fight harder for our employees,” said Cindy Gretzinger, County Board Chair.

When many of the case worker positions were first posted Gretzinger said they only got a few or, in some cases, no applicants for a position.

Now, the county has hired a new director and has been actively interviewing more for more of the open positions.

Hiring challenges

To generate that applicant pool, the county has had to widen its options.

Instead of searching for certified caseworkers, they altered the position to be still within state requirements but doesn’t require a 4-year degree.

“It just opened the field up to people that may not have applied before thinking, ‘Oh I don’t have that degree, so I might as well not apply.’ I think that’s made a real big difference,” said Tina Anderson, the Social Services chair.

Anderson and Skallerud said it will involve a bit more training with employees, but it’s worth it to get people hired that they believe will be a good fit for the department.

Another challenge the county faces is the budget they’re working with.

Forest County doesn’t have much in terms of industry. And because of the large amount of public land in Forest County, only 17% of the land can be taxed for the county’s budget.

In the case of the Social Services Department, it makes it hard for the county to offer competitive wages.

“The applicant pool, when you take it on a national/state level, and you have a select group of professionals that you’re trying to recruit when there are more job openings than there are the applicants it’s really tough as a county to attract those individuals,” said Skallerud.

To be clear, this isn’t just a Forest County issue.

Many counties, cities, and other local governments face the same or similar budget issues that lead to hiring challenges across multiple departments.

The unemployment rate in Wisconsin is at a record low of 2.5% as of March.

A quick search on the hiring platform Indeed showed dozens of social services job openings in counties all across the state.

“But when you’re in a small county, such as Forest County, I think you face these impacts faster because we have a smaller population of employees,” said Skallerud.

Shared Revenue

It’s one of the reasons why shared revenue has become a big talking point of this budget cycle.

“Today, shared revenue payments for both municipalities and counties amount to around $900 million combined, down from over $1 billion during the 1990s and far more once inflation is factored in,” said the Wisconsin Policy Forum in a report analyzing Gov. Evers proposed budget.

Evers has proposed dedicating 20 percent of the state’s sales tax revenue for shared revenue.

Assembly Republicans released their shared revenue plan Thursday.

They said some details are still being worked out. Full details of the Republican’s plan will be released early next week.

Representative Tony Kurtz said their plan would change the funding formula and increase shared revenue for local governments by at least 10%.

“Those communities that were, in my humble opinion, kind of left behind with that formula, they’re going to see a bigger bump. The goal is to try to equalize those levels out,” said Kurtz.

Voting on the next budget is expected to begin Tuesday.

Back in Forest County, Skallerud, whom WXPR spoke with before the Republican’s shared revenue announcement, says change is needed.

“We would really hope to see some kind of a restructuring of a shared revenue with the state that would come back to municipal and county governments. Not just us, I think every county and every local municipality would benefit from such a thing,” said Skallerud.

Adapting to the workforce

In the meantime, Forest County isn’t waiting around for funding.

The county board is working with the Forest County Chamber of Commerce to try and build up the economy. It’s also hoping state and federal funding can help build internet infrastructure to help draw in more businesses.

The county started offering different benefits like more vacation days, 4-day work weeks, or making some jobs a limited-time positions with the option to continue.

It’s also undergoing a work-study throughout county offices to see what improvements can be made to retain and hire employees.

“We’re hoping that it will help us at least know where we should be with every department and what they should be earning. Then we’ll work on it from there,” said Anderson.

Forest County is still hiring for positions within the Social Services Department. You can view the openings here.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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