Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario is hiring. (The Enterprise/File)

In the town of Umatilla, Two Rivers Correctional Institution needs to hire a food service coordinator. Pay: up to $61,000 a year.

In Ontario, Snake River Correctional Institution is recruiting for a nurse practitioner for the state’s largest prison. Pay: Up to $124,000.

And in Madras, Deer Ridge Correctional Institution is looking for a correctional officer with pay up to $78,000.

That prison is competing with identical jobs available at state prisons in Portland, Salem, Baker City and Lakeview.

Across the Oregon Department of Corrections, finding new employees has become Job No. 1. On the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 9, the agency listed 46 openings.

“We’re in a critical status,” said Gary Ninman, administrator of the Professional Development Unit at the Corrections Department. “We have openings in our security series at every single institution and lots of them,” he said.

Ninman and Naomi Beverly, recruitment lead for the Corrections Department, said the agency is facing the same challenges as other government agencies and private employers ­– not enough people applying for jobs.

TV and movies are not our friends. They make prisons look like really dangerous places to work.

That’s a shift for the state prison system, which operates 16 institutions.

In the past, Ninman said, “People came to us. These were very sought-after positions. That simply is not the case these days.”

The agency isn’t waiting around for applicants.

Two work groups have been established and they are “feverishly working to do a couple of things – find and attract applicants to the Oregon Department of Corrections,” Ninman said.

Agency officials have been reforming their hiring practices.

In the past, a recruitment blitz would start a lengthy process involving interviews, background checks and testing.

“Just those three steps can take several weeks,” Beverly said. “We found some great successes being able to condense these events into one-day events.”

That means background checks can start the moment a potential employee applies. Interview boards, placing applicants before agency employees, happen quicker and online. Testing, once handled by outside vendors who operated on their own schedules, now is done by Corrections Department employees – and faster.

That makes a difference in a place like Ontario, where such testing was done either by the local community college or in Boise. That sometimes meant potential employees had to take time off work from other jobs to free up time for the testing.

And the agency now picks up the $41 fee for taking the national test – a cost once absorbed by applicants.

Beverly said agency officials began “looking at the recruitment process through the lens of the candidate experience. We could look at some barriers or what we have been told is an issue and mitigate that.”

Ninman said the agency is close to hiring an outside marketing company to help with the recruiting – an agency first. The point would be to fashion job openings as desirable, and that means changing perceptions about prison work, he said.

“We have battled misinterpretation or misinformation about what this work is all about,” he said. “TV and movies are not our friends. They make prisons look like really dangerous places to work.”

In fact, he said, “working in an institution is very safe.” He said Corrections Department jobs pay well and provide strong benefits.

And, he hopes the messaging gets out that working with what the agency refers to as adults in custody instead of inmates is a “purposeful occupation. We can really change people’s lives.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected] Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.