Turning around Turnover

By Lommel, Jane | Corrections Today, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Turning around Turnover


Lommel, Jane, Corrections Today


It is amazing, not to mention depressing, to see the results of a simple Google Internet search for the phrase "turnover in corrections." What turns up is page after page of recent newspaper articles from states across the country, shocked about the turnover rates in their correctional facilities. From Vermont to Tennessee to Wyoming, the headline is pretty much the same: "Too Much Turnover." It is leading directors of correctional agencies and state legislatures to examine an explosive issue that has been smoldering much too long.

These headlines confirm the results of the forthcoming American Correctional Association Building a Correctional Workforce for the 21st Century study commissioned by Workforce Associates Inc. The average turnover rate among correctional officers nationally in 2000 was 16.1 percent, up from 12.6 percent in 1995. But, as Figure 1 indicates, there were vast differences in reported turnover rates among the states.

Turnover rates in 2000 ranged from a low of 3.8 percent (New York) to a high of 41 percent (Louisiana). Nine percent of states reported rates below 5 percent and 24 percent fell into the range from 5 percent to 9.9 percent, which is below the national average for all occupations. But 34 percent of the states reported rates above 20 percent while 6 percent fell into the range above 30 percent.

Turnover: The Chief Villain

Enough evidence has been presented in the study to identify turnover of correctional officers as, a if not the, main problem plaguing correctional agencies nationwide.

The study then asks: Which factors make it difficult to retain correctional officers? According to the responses, it is very simple--money. The study shows the statistically inverse relationship between the average compensation paid in 2000 to correctional officers in 44 states and those states' turnover rates in the same year. Clearly, higher pay is associated with lower turnover rates and, of course, lower pay correlates with higher turnover rates.

Other Important Factors

Noncompetitive compensation was the most frequently cited cause of difficulty in recruiting and the second most commonly cited difficulty in retention of correctional officers. But other factors were cited as well. The four main reasons cited for retention difficulty were:

* Demanding hours and shift work;

* Inadequate pay and benefits;

* Stress and burnout;

* Wrong initial selection; employees not suited to the job.

With varying degrees of emphasis, respondents also cited poor supervision, lack of perceived career prospects and competition from other security and law enforcement agencies recruiting from the same workforce pool.

Low Unemployment = High Turnover

Laments heard in the late 1990s and even 2000 about the difficulties of recruiting and retaining correctional officers frequently identified the tight labor markets (low unemployment rates) during those years as complicating factors. That low unemployment rates are associated with higher turnover rates is a conclusion strongly corroborated by the national data displayed in Figure 2. These two rates are very highly but negatively correlated. Between 1989 and 2000, every percentage point drop in the annual national unemployment rate was associated with a 1.56 percentage point increase in the turnover rate among correctional officers.

Beginning in 2001, when higher national unemployment rates were in evidence, fewer complaints were voiced about tight labor markets as a factor contributing to the difficulties of recruitment and retention of correctional officers. As national unemployment rates subside in 2004 and beyond, tight labor markets can again be anticipated to make both recruitment and retention more difficult.

It Is Hard to Recruit And Retain: So What?

What are the consequences if correctional agencies are not successful in recruiting and retaining correctional officers? …

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