Acknowledging an aging workforce, the Ellis County Commission said Monday the county should take steps to plan for the future and retain current employees.

The county likely will see many upper-level managers and longtime employees retire during the next five years, County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes said, noting not every department has an internal candidate qualified and willing to take over.

The candidate pool, at times, also is more limited in a rural environment, and it can be difficult to draw prospective employees from urban areas.

“Because of our location, it’s wonderful in many ways, but it’s also limiting,” he said. “It’s not like being in a metropolitan area where you can just steal from the next town over. There are not a lot of other EMS directors that we can pull from in the area, or public works directors, as we’ve experienced.”

The discussion was part of a goal-setting work session held by the county commission and attended by many department heads, who have expressed an interest in preparing for future staffing changes by hiring “overfill” candidates to receive on-the-job training prior to taking over. There already is a retirement pending for an upper-level position in the EMS department, which partly prompted the discussion.

Smith-Hanes noted similar challenges are facing many sectors of the economy, from agriculture to certain industries in private enterprise.

“I think, obviously, we want to be sensitive to the financial piece of that, but there’s sort of nothing like learning on the job,” Smith-Hanes said. “This is an area where I don’t think anybody really has a magic wand in terms of succession planning.”

Commissioners spoke in favor of looking more carefully at the county’s future workforce. Commissioner Dean Haselhorst noted the public works department specifically could be in a position to lose several experienced employees at nearly the same time if the employees choose to retire.

Public Works director Bill Ring said the department is trying to plan ahead, but succession training might require the county to consider adding additional staff positions. The county largely has been in a hiring freeze in efforts to curb spending.

“In general, we’re trying to look forward five years down the road,” Ring said. “One thing we need to identify is the overfill works great, as long as it’s a county employee, because of the limitations on our personnel policy. We would have to work on that at the same time we brought an outsider in, because we’re capped on the number of employees that we’re allowed.”

Commissioners also discussed the future of the county health department and were asked about the possibility of adding a mid-level medical staff position in the future to increase services.

The county has purchased a new building on Canterbury Drive for the clinic, and the move is hoped to be complete before year’s end. That will allow space for additional programs, and adding a mid-level health professional would enable the county to offer services such as physical examinations.

“One of the things you told me was you wanted me to see the department blossom,” Health and EMS Director Kerry McCue said. “Talking to the staff, talking to other health department administrators, it’s pretty clear that the next step for us would be a mid-level of some type.”

McCue said he already has heard from a few mid-level health professionals who have expressed interest in working for the county.

Commissioners said they would like to explore the possibility, but spoke in favor of contracting with a health provider for a limited time as a trial run rather than initially hiring a new full-time employee. Doing so would allow the county to gauge the demand and cost for full-time services, Commission Chairwoman Barbara Wasinger said.

“I like the idea of starting with a contractual person and see how it works. Does it increase traffic? Is it growing, does it look like it’s feasible?” she said. “It’s going to take awhile to build some clientele, obviously, but this way you can also see how it fits within your office and your department.”

The issue likely will be revisited by the commission later this year.

In other business, the commission had an executive session to discuss ongoing labor union negotiations. The commission’s next regular business meeting will be at 5 p.m. Monday at the county’s administrative center.