New Career Paths Draw an Audience at JPJ

June 12, 2008 — More than 700 employees got involved in the creation of a new University human resources system by visiting John Paul Jones Arena on Tuesday and Wednesday to learn about and comment on a major element of the new system — draft career paths that will guide employees in their career development.

As a result of Virginia's higher education restructuring legislation of 2005, U.Va. is creating a new human resources system that will govern "University staff," a designation that replaced "classified employees" on July 1, 2006. Anyone hired on or after that date will automatically fall under the new human resources system when it is formally implemented on Jan. 1, 2009. Classified staff and administrative and professional faculty will periodically have the option (at least once every 2 years) to join the new University staff system, starting with an enrollment period this year from Oct. 30 to Dec. 31, but will never be transferred into the new system without electing to do so.

"I think those that have been here 20 or 25 years will be reluctant to make a change, and I understand that," said Leonard Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the University. "We have no plans and certainly would not want to put pressure on anyone to make the change. But there are some who have been here that long that I think will choose to [join the new system.] We would like to think it’s attractive enough that many employees will choose to do it."

Fifteen task forces, composed of nearly 200 employees from across Grounds, met weekly for two months this spring to identify career paths among the more than 5,500 classified employees at U.Va. They identified 73 different career paths such as contract administration, project management and database administration. A single career path often encompassed positions in different departments across the University. The 73 paths were grouped in 15 career fields, including finance, general administration and information technology.

Task force members drew upon their own years of employment at U.Va. and elsewhere to identify the career paths, which were displayed on large charts that covered the walls of 15 booths (one for each career field) occupying two long hallways of the arena. Visiting employees were encouraged to offer suggestions and feedback that could make the draft career paths more accurate or comprehensive. By the end of the second session, Post-it notes and handwritten comments were scattered around the charts.

Jim Traub, project manager for the new human resources system’s creation, explained that the career paths will be a linchpin of the new human resources system because they will guide the design of employee training and development programs, the posting of new jobs, performance planning and evaluation, and the new market- and performance-based compensation system,. In contrast to the state's position classification system, which is rooted in the 1880s creation of the federal civil service system, the career paths "base the system around people and where they're headed," said Traub. He added that the paths will serve as "a guide for employees in terms of the skills that they need to progress in a career, and an idea of what skills the University values in those careers."

"Many people come to work at U.Va. because they are attracted to our mission of learning and growing people," said Susan Carkeek, vice president and chief human resources officer. "Career paths are all about employees learning, developing and growing on the job, and when they do that the University benefits. This gives the HR system a strong connection to the educational mission of U.Va. — a connection that we haven't had in the past."

Having accurate career paths guiding the new human resources system should allow "more success in growing people at the University of Virginia and putting the right people in the right place," said Sue Haas, a director of Web services for the Darden School of Business and a member of the task force that outlined career paths in information technology.

Chris Blakey, a boiler operator at the University's power plant, was enthused about the prospect of seeing his job description updated to reflect how his job duties and skills have evolved with the recent $80 million upgrade of the power plant that added new pollution scrubbers and several other environmental protection systems. Blakey said that an up-to-date job description will be crucial to determine an accurate "market rate" salary and to demonstrate his skills to any future employer. He said that when he was hired 2 years ago, his job description  was so outdated that it referred to shoveling coal into the boiler, even though mechanized coal feeders replaced hand shoveling many years ago.

Those who attended the career path expo were encouraged to complete paper feedback forms or to leave comments anytime before June 30 on the Web site at about both the career paths and the new human resources policy recommendations that were unveiled at a town hall-style meeting in late May.

"We are building this new system from the ground up based on several stages of employee feedback, from the focus groups and the resulting survey to the task force recommendations and responses to them," said Carkeek. "I hope that more folks will take the time to review these recommendations and give us their feedback. We want to design something that uniquely reflects the needs, issues and values of this University."

"The [new human resources] system has clearly been influenced by the input of the work groups that were established," said Sandridge. "It's different and it's better because of that input."

Employees have already offered more than 300 suggestions, and employee feedback will be the primary driver of improvements to the new system, said Traub. "The recommendations that we've seen so far from the task forces are exciting. But we want to make [the new system] even better," based on additional ideas from employees. "A good idea is a good idea. If one person says it, it's as valuable as if 50 people say it."

At the end of July, Traub's team will issue a report summarizing all the recommendations they receive, with an explanation of the disposition of each suggestion. "If someone's taken the time to come up with an idea and share it with us, we at least owe them an explanation of what was done with their idea," said Traub.

Al Sapienza, director of human resources for the U.Va. libraries, reflected on the process of designing the new human resources system in light of his own long career in human resources both in the federal civil service and at Boston University, before coming to U.Va. last October. He said that human resources organizations, in general, tend to be "controlling, top-down kind of organizations," and that seems to have been the case at U.Va. in the past. But under Carkeek, who started at U.Va. on Nov. 1, 2006, University Human Resources has had an open style that solicits opinions from across the University. "It's a much better way of doing things," he noted, but it takes a while for people to get accustomed to a new human resources culture that is more open.

— By Brevy Cannon