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Apr 3, 2023

Scott Dennis, Assistant Superintendent of the Maryland Division of Rehabilitative Services (DORS), joins Carol Pankow in the VRTAC-QM Studio and tells us about how Maryland DORS increased recruitment and decreased resignations by raising salaries to compete in the regional job market. Learn how they opened the door and proved the case.


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Full Transcript:



Speaker1: Manager Minute brought to you by the VRTAC for Quality Management, Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host Carol Pankow.


Carol: Well, welcome to the Manager Minute. Scott Dennis, assistant superintendent of the Maryland Division of Rehabilitative Services or DORS, is joining me in the studio today. So thanks for joining me. How are things going in Maryland, Scott.


Scott: Things are going well, Carol. I appreciate the opportunity to join today's podcast. Excellent.


Carol: So a little background for our listeners. I did have some familiarity with Maryland DORS. I had worked with Sue Page. She was the former director and a national level. We were on the executive committee together and Sue and I also did a couple panel presentations and that was super fun. And I was so disappointed, you know, when she had retired in '18, I had just worked with her. And then like the next week she goes, I'm retiring. She had sent me a note and I knew you had been her deputy and I think you were named right in 2019 to replace her, was that right?


Scott: Yeah. I came into this position an acting role in 2018. Sue left in June of 2018 and I was named, the Acting. Was permanently placed into the position in January of 2019.


Carol: Gotcha.


Scott: Almost five years now.


Carol: Nice. Well, it was really fun because early in '19 you and I, we were working on that RSA workgroup around Rethinking Performance. So I liked getting to know you and realizing, Oh, you're the fiscal guy too. You were the fiscal guy for the agency. So it's been fun to have that kind of a little lens into your agency. So I know you've had some unique challenges that we're going to get into later. And I understand that there had been some previous runs at trying to get employee wages increased, which, you know, had failed. So this was all prior to you being at the helm. And the state of the recruitment and retention issue nationally has been front and center for every VR agency, I think. And you were able to more recently secure a rather significant employee pay increase. So I am sure our listeners are on the edge of their seats and are anxious to hear, How did you make that happen? So let's dig in. So Scott, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself, like how long you've been with DORS and how have you got to the position you hold today? What's kind of the path you took?


Scott: Well, sure. I kind of happened into VR. I was working in a private sector in retail and was looking to do something different than that. And as anybody who's ever worked in retail, there's a lot of long hours that are very odd and so forth. So I was looking to do something different and happened to come across an advertisement in the paper for a director for this program called the Business Enterprise Program for the Blind.


Carol: Oh, wow.


Scott: It kind of struck me. And so I said, Well, I've got a retail background, I've got a business background, let me get my shot at it. And so I put in my application and went through the interview process. And about four months later in 1990, I became the director of the Maryland Business Enterprise Program for the Blind, which was kind of unique because my background was not in the area of either VR or in blindness, but I did bring that business background, which is what the agency at the time was looking for. It was a great experience. The business enterprise programs for the blind bring their own unique challenges and so forth, and trying to operate a business environment inside of a state government.

And you've got some real challenges in trying to do stuff fast and an organization is trying to slow you down. But it was a great experience. I was the director for BEP for six years and then our state director, who was Bob Burns at the time, said, I need some help over at DDS. And I went, What's a DDS? Because my focus had been strictly on BEP. And so he sent me over to the Disability Determination Services as the assistant director over there, and I oversaw sort of the administrative side of the DDS and did a number of activities over there. We moved into a much larger facility. We also at that time moved off a state legacy system onto *Levi. And for any of those who have been around a long time and have a program, you understand how far back that went. After about five years of DDS, moved over, back over here to the side of the shop and became the director of business services, which included all the administrative functions of the agency and sort of the financial piece of it. And so I was that until 2018 when I became the assistant state superintendent.


Carol: Very cool. I had no clue. Your days started with BEP. That is amazing. Good for you. You have a definitely a great broad history there.

Paint a picture for our listeners about DORS and what agency you live under. What's your designated state agency and how many staff do you have in VR? And you already said you had DDS, but is that service under your purview as well?


Scott: Yeah, we're  housed within the Maryland State Department of Education. We're probably one of the first big divisions of the Maryland State Department of. We were created in 1929 and we at that time the division had two employees and a budget of $15,000. And the only reason I know any of this is because we've got the enacting legislation sitting out in the hall. We had two employees and $15,000 worth of state appropriation at the time. And of the two employees, one was the director of the agency and the other one was his secretary. He was also the counselor at the time as well. So obviously but we've been here ever since. The Division of Rehabilitation Services is comprised of two main programs that we operate are the VR program, obviously, as well as the program. In total, we've got 648 employees in total, of which 416 of them reside in the VR program and the remaining 232 reside in the DDS program. Within that VR program operates an Office of Field Services, which is very much operated the way the general agencies operate and then we have an Office of Blindness and Vision Services, which operate very much as a blind agency. And so we have a director of each one of those offices. They have their own budget and own staff and so forth. Then we also operate our Workforce and Technology center, which does a lot of our training and so forth, as well as a number of community based services out in the field and so forth. So yeah.


Carol: Yeah, you have a large operation. Holy cow. I didn't realize all of that. That's a bunch.


Carol: So let's talk about your unique position as far as the state. You border other states, as does every state. You know, people probably think duh, but there's something special about where your state is positioned in this country, because I always hear people say that you're the training ground for people that move to RSA. Can you talk about like what that geographical situation has played for you as far as your staff?


Scott: Yeah, and appreciate that. It does provide a unique situation for us. We border Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia as well as D.C. We do have some challenges, especially when we're competing with the federal government. And so because of the federal agencies that are housed here, it has become a real challenge because obviously the states don't pay as much as the federal government does, in particular around the Washington, D.C. area. The salaries are much higher than what we as an agency was able to offer. I mean, in some cases we'd have staff leave and they would nearly double their salaries as a result of that. In some cases, you just can't blame them. It has been a challenge having some of that federal government around, you know, as especially the presence of it, you know, large presence and so forth.


Carol: So we all know about this great resignation, you know, that's been talked about in the news. VRs experienced that itself. So how has that impacted what was happening in your agency? What were you facing for vacancy?


Scott: We were facing a high level of resignation. It was almost I hate coming in in the morning and turning on my computer and opening my email to see how many people resigned that particular day or week. And so we got hit pretty hard. We had about 40 counselors and supervisors, so it was about 30% of our workforce. We had vacancies in and that's on the VR side, on the side. You know, for those agencies that operate that, we had 59 vacancies and our examiners, which was about 45% of that. And, you know, the big culprit was they were going elsewhere, both private and public, to organizations that were paying them substantially more money than what we could afford, at least at the time. It hit us bad.


Carol: Well, I know your number's up there. I'd heard from some other directors talking about you like a 60% turnover in counselors and all these crazy numbers. It's hard to imagine how the work is able to get done. So obviously, you've got this geographic situation, you've got the great resignation going on, and you decided to embark on a journey where you wanted to get these wages increased. Can you tell us more about what went into that?


Scott: It was more than just me. I mean, it was a total agency effort. And I'm talking about from the top. In 2021, we got a new state superintendent who was from Texas. And so he was obviously very new, very young and high energy. And so being one of the large divisions and he wanted to have a one on one with me. And so we sat down and we talked. And what he wanted to know what DORS was to begin with and what VR was because he'd always been in education and so forth. And so we, you know, we talked and his first question, you know, real serious question was, what's your biggest challenge? I said, I can't hire, I can't retain because our salaries are so low. And I gave him an example. I said, we've had a recruitment out for three weeks now and we've got one person who is applying and they don't even meet the qualifications down in Montgomery County and Prince George's County, which are two largest counties in the state as far as population, but they're also the two counties that encircle Washington, D.C. And so the obviously the wages down there are extremely high because of the federal government. And so getting any staff at the wages that we were paying was next to impossible. We couldn't recruit, period. That was just the part of the problem. And so, you know, after I told him what the wages were, he even coming from the south out of Texas, even by his standards, the wages were low. So he put together, you know, he tasked the senior management, not only of the Maryland State Department of Education, but also of DORS to start working on a salary adjustment.

Obviously, with something like this, it takes all hands on deck because it's just not one person who's doing all the work and guiding this. And so he tasked us and so my staff started doing feelers out to other states to find out what they're going for. We looked at the federal government and some of the positions that they were hiring for that had sort of equal entry level requirements. We looked at our counties. Some of our counties were paying way more than what we were. And so we took all that into consideration in looking at what is it that we wanted our salaries to look like. The other piece of this that was probably sort of the saving grace for us. Our counselors are in a classification series in this state that's only unique to DORS. It doesn't cross other state agencies or anything. And because of that, our Department of Budget and Management allowed us to do what they call an off cycle adjustment. Typically when they take a look at their salary adjustments and so forth and see whether they need to rescale them, they're looking across all the state agencies. They've got to balance who's got money and who doesn't, money when they start to raise salaries for, you know, let's say, an office secretary. Well, every agency has an office secretary. So they've got to have to balance this all out. When they say, okay, we're going to raise the office secretary's levels, well, they only had to look at us.

They didn't have to compare us to anybody else, which made it a lot easier. And because a lot of our salaries, the way the state funds us, they put most of our state match dollars into our case services budgets. And so we've got just a small amount that actually goes towards salary. And so when we kind of pulled this together and say, okay, where can we go with this? We said, Hey, for a little bit of investment from the state side, we've got more than enough appropriation and federal funding over here. We can support this without any problem. So the meeting started in September. We kind of got going in earnest just after the Christmas holidays. We spent basically from October through December polling just gathering information. And then in from about January on, we started writing this up, getting everything put together. And then by late April we had the package ready together and we presented it to our Office of Budget and Management and Director of State personnel, and we suggested a threshold that we thought we could go to. They didn't quite agree with that. So there was some negotiating with the Department of Budget and Management, but we landed on a on a figure that was acceptable that they could live with that wasn't so far off that they were going to have problems with other state agencies as well, once they learned about what we had done. Our superintendent really wanted to push our salaries. He wanted it to be the highest in the nation.


Carol: Wow!


Scott: And he was pushing very hard to get us there. Didn't land there.


Carol: So how far did you get? How high did you get to go?


Scott: We got a substantial pay increase for them. We got, depending upon where they started, it was well over 20% pay increase for our counselors and examiners, which really stabilized it. I mean, it kind of gives you an idea, our salaries, starting salaries for what we call our VR counselor ones, which are individuals who come in with just a bachelor's degree, no experience. So we kind of have to build them up. We were starting at like 41,000 between 41 and 42. Our VR 2-counselors are individuals who have come in with a master's degree, no experience or some experience. And they were starting around 44,000 at the time and we were able to get them up. I mean, today our starting salary for counselor one is 57,000 and a couple of months with the new fiscal year will go to 58. Our twos were starting them at 60,000 and they'll go up to 62 in July. And then we have a technical specialist series and these are for individuals who again, have master's degrees, have been here a couple of years. They're starting in the upper 60s and low 70s now.


Carol: Yeah, good for you. That's pretty amazing. So were there other positions included? So it's not like your examiners or counselors. Were there any other types of positions in the agency include?


Scott: Well, we had to go back and do a readjustment because it affected both our counselors and our supervisors because it's a series of counselors, one, twos, technical specialists and supervisors. Then we have our regional supervisors and our regional directors. Well, because of it went up by grades and steps. Basically our regional supervisors were making the same thing as our office supervisors now. And so we had to raise them. When we raised the regional supervisors, they were making the same thing as the regional directors. So we had to raise the regional directors, but it had to happen over the course of time. The first push was the counselor series and so forth, and then we had to come back about a month later and do the rest of the others and so forth. So yeah, it's been sort of a work in progress and we still have some other classifications to take a look at as we kind of move down this path.


Carol: I wondered about that. If you had some work left to do.


Scott: Yeah, yeah, we do. We have to kind of go back. I mean, our support staff, we've got to go back and we've already started that work already to start looking at that group as well, because again, those classifications go across all state agencies, so we have no authority to raise those salaries. So we have to go back and do what we call a reclass them, which means we have to take a look at their classifications, see whether or not it still fits the job duties and so forth. So that's the only way I can raise that series, those individuals up. I just can't do what we did with the counselors. And in some cases, those salaries and all that are all controlled by the union.


Carol: Yes.


Scott: And so you've got to kind of have to work through all that stuff. So those positions take a little bit longer to kind of get through.


Carol: That makes good sense. So how long did that take you for this?


Scott: The first like I said, we started in 20. We started in September when I first met and we started in September. Late October.


Carol: Was that 2021?


Scott: Right.


Carol: Okay.


Scott: And then the pay raise went into effect on July 1st of 2022. So it took us nine months to kind of get it all put together and work through all the processes and doing the negotiation and so forth. So yeah.


Carol: And it's interesting because you are a union state as well. I came from a union state too, so there's extra things that go into play because I know some other folks have been successful across the country, but they didn't have that added complexity to it. So it was good to see you were able to do this in that environment.


Scott: Yeah, well, I mean, one of the things is even though we're part of a union, because the series is strictly DORS, we brought the union in once we had kind of got everything kind of worked through and said, okay, here's what we've done. They could have said, Yeah, no, we don't want you getting a pay raise. We worked at it that way just because and we had to cross even within our parent agency, if our parent agency, the Department of Education had a classification series and some of the stuff that they did, this would have never happened.


Carol: right.


Scott: Because of that uniqueness, we were able to get it done.


Carol: Yeah, the stars were aligned for you, for sure. So how have these increases impacted your staff recruitment and retention?


Scott: Oh, yeah. Big. I mean, it's like I mentioned earlier, we couldn't find staff or if we did, our supervisors and directors were making the decision of, I got to have a body, and so in some cases you're just getting a warm body. This has nothing to do with the person or anything like that. But they were probably individuals that this may not have been the best fit. But because you're sitting there as a supervisor and you've got 3 or 4 empty caseloads sitting on your desk, at least if I can get them in and get them do some work that's less work that I've got to do and so forth. So we were making some decisions on trying to sort of balance whether this was the right fit for people, but also looking at the number of people that are actually applying for the job was extremely low. I mean, we might come up with 4 or 5 individuals that make like really good candidates. And then when you made salary offer to them, they went, Uh, no thanks. In some cases we actually had made salary offers to individuals who had interned with us and wanted to work for us. And then we made the salary offer and they went, no thanks.


Carol: They're like, I can go work at Target instead.


Scott: You're exactly right. Because the salary, especially down in Prince George's and it is extremely high. Maryland has the highest median income in the country. You know, it's driven by about 3 to 4 counties in this state that drive that. And so that kind of shows you how tough it is in some other jurisdictions to find people and retain people is extremely difficult. Like I said, you know, one of those recruitments was just before we put out the salary change where we had gotten one individual. We got the permission to start publishing the new salary and we went from 1 to 40 in about two weeks.


Carol: Wow. Good for you.


Scott: For example, we had a recruitment out for this for about a month and maybe have gotten 25 to 30 applications. We re-advertised and got 170 in 3 weeks. So we went from 30 people to well over 200. So it obviously had a tremendous impact. In fact, I just had a regional director in talking with me earlier this week, talking about the quality of individuals that we're now seeing, because I haven't seen this high level of quality of people that we've gotten in years. So yeah, the impact has been immediate.


Carol: That's terrific. Have you had any staff want to come back? Maybe that left?


Scott: Well, actually, funny you asked that. We went back out to we had several staff.

members who left 3 or 4 months earlier, and these were good staff. Sometimes you have staff leave and you go, thank God. Other times, you know, you see staff go out the door and you go, What a loss. And so we had about a half a dozen staff that had recently left that were sort of, oh, man, I hate to lose them. And so we reached back out to them and we were able to get four out of those six back. We almost got five back. But when they went to talk to their new employer, they went, Oh, we'll give you a pay raise. So she ended up getting a pay raise out of it because we told her what we were going to give her and they went higher. That's the benefit of a private sector situation versus, you know, state government type of situation. So we were able to get some seasoned staff back really quick. I mean, literally within weeks after the new pay plan went into effect. So yeah, it's stabilized. I'm seeing right now what I would consider sort of normal turnover. Now you're back down to 5 to 6% turnover rate versus 25 to 30% turnover rate. It's really made a made a difference in the world. It's stabilized the agency. We have a wait list. We had to basically shut it down because we had so many vacancies. I mean, we have had one and we were bringing people off the wait list. We just had to literally just shut it down. We couldn't handle. The individuals that were coming in the door that met the criteria for Category one. We were struggling with that along with our pre-employment. We just couldn't handle. We couldn't do it. So we shut it down.  Once we got stable. Our regional directors and director of Office Field services came to me and said, We can handle bringing people off the waitlist now. And so we've been able to start bringing people back off the waitlist now.


Carol: Good for you. That is terrific news is a big win all the way around. I just wondered if you had any advice for other directors and leaders across the country as there may be interested in doing something like this in their state. What advice would you give them?


Scott: The biggest advice is you've got to get buy in from your senior secretary, superintendent, whoever is your most senior, most person in the agency, because at the end of the day, they're the ones that are really going to have to go to bat and particularly when you start dealing with the counterparts over at your budget office who are always going, Oh, that's going to cost us a dollar. No, I don't think so. That's where you really need to have sort of that political clout to kind of push some of this stuff through, because it's not, it's not easy. And again depending upon the environment, to some degree, we benefited from the environment itself because obviously we weren't the only state agency losing people. And so the state, I think, recognized that they had to do something. Because even other state agencies around us couldn't hire people because of the state wage. And so I think we kind of hit it right at the right time, so we were able to do it.

So I think the combination of two. One, we had a superintendent who had no problem to go banging on the secretary of budget management's door and say, I need this in order for this program to function and opening the door and then letting the rest. of the team go to work and prove the case.


Carol: I Like that you said that, prove the case. So if folks wanted to reach out to you. What would be the best way for them to contact you? Because a lot of times our listeners will say, I want to talk to Scott Dennis about what he just said.


Scott: Yeah, I mean, anybody can reach out to me. My email address is Scott Dot Dennis (D e n n i s)


Carol: Excellent. I really appreciate you joining me today and congratulations on the win. I just wish you continued success as you're working through your other positions. This is very cool. Thanks, thanks much.


Scott: Not a problem. Thank you, Carol.



Speaker1: Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time, brought to you by the VR TAC for Quality Management. Catch all of our podcast episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening!