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May 3, 2012

New duties, more efficiency expected to result from fewer staff

Despite the potential for a large exodus of classified staff on June 30, Human Resources officials said the University is well-prepared to continue Pitt’s mission.

Pitt is offering qualified staff a one-time-only voluntary early retirement program (VERP). More than 650 staff, or just under 9 percent across the University, are eligible.

Ron Frisch, associate vice chancellor of Human Resources, emphasized that the University has no intention of offering any other staff early retirement plans, nor are there any plans for a faculty early retirement option.

He said he could not predict how many eligible staff members would take advantage of the plan. “We do not have a target, either for the number who would take the VERP or for an amount that we would save, and we intentionally decided not to put a target to it. The design of the program did not say we need to have this many people in order to have this kind of savings,” Frisch told the University Times.

One reason the effect of VERP is difficult to predict is that there are a range of staff levels, salaries and individual benefits choices among the eligible staff pool, he noted.

“So I can’t say if 50 people leave, here’s what we’ll save,” Frisch said. “But I will say, because of the richness of the opportunity, I’m anticipating a lot of people will be interested,” he said. “I have a great belief that folks here are better prepared for retirement than at a lot of places. The tools are there, the education has been ongoing. The University’s package is outstanding.”

What will happen to those staff positions that become vacant on July 1 as a result of staff retiring under VERP?

“One of the intents of an early retirement program — one of them — is cost-savings. The last thing we want to do is replicate every person who goes out the door with another person. All that does is double the budget, instead of saving anything,” Frisch said.

“Supervisors will have to go up through the leadership. Unit heads will have to request through their appropriate reporting chain to see if they are eligible to replace the position. Our hope is that current staff will be able to accept new responsibilities, not necessarily new positions, but an opportunity can be available for staff to accept new responsibilities. We also want to be more cost-efficient and that’s one of the driving forces behind an early retirement program,” Frisch said.

He acknowledged that some units will face challenges particular to what their function is, how they operate and the budget dollars available.

“Can we be more efficient as an operation? I can only speak for HR, but yes, I think we can. And I would challenge others to think that probably we all could be more efficient,” Frisch said.

“We will all be challenged to be more efficient, still providing the same level of, if not better, quality. Maybe with technology, we can do something different than we did. And each department is going to look at that differently,” he said.

Frisch maintained that decisions about filling or not filling vacant positions are a commonplace part of established procedures, albeit perhaps on a smaller scale.

“I would hope that every supervisor would go through a process every time someone leaves — for whatever reason — and say, ‘Is this the time to redesign the position or even ask if that’s a position we need, or do we need something different?’” he said.

“That’s an exercise that goes on in departments across the University every day. Whether you put it in VERP-context or not, I think the challenge for supervisors is to say, ‘Now I have an opportunity to say what’s this position going to look like tomorrow?’”

Frisch added that he remains optimistic that VERP will not alter the University’s mission to provide high-quality education to students.

“I’m amazed at the resiliency of people at the University. First off, we have an overabundance of talent at the University and some of it is untapped. I also believe that we’ve all already been challenged: Many of us got an opportunity because someone else was in our position and left,” he said.

“We all need to be aware of the fact that we still serve a community that educates people. We can’t forget our primary function, and that’s to educate students. We can never lose our focus there.”

—Peter Hart

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