Jails around Maine are struggling to fill job openings for correctional officers, the front-line workers who do the messy but necessary work of supervising hundreds of pretrial offenders and low-level convicts.

Administrators at jails in Cumberland and York counties, and at the Two Bridges Regional Jail, which serves Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, along with facilities in Somerset County and Kennebec County, say fewer people are applying to work in their secure facilities, eschewing positions that often require inconvenient hours in a challenging environment. The problem is most acute in York County, where 10 vacancies mean the remaining 66 corrections officers must work mandatory overtime to fill the ranks – leading some to resent their jobs and seek other employment, said York County Sheriff William King Jr., whose office operates the jail.

“It’s a vicious cycle, because people are being ordered in and they feel like their home life is being affected,” King said. “They start working, they wear a uniform, and then think ‘Gee, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is looking for people.’ (Nearby) I have Pratt & Whitney. There’s a firearms company that’s starting to get people. I’ve lost people to local police departments.”

The story is the same at the Kennebec County jail in Augusta, a facility certified to hold 147 inmates, but which now houses 190. Even with an overflow population, the facility is operating with 44 officers, 12 less than when it is fully staffed. Although the starting pay is not bad, at about $14 to $15 per hour with regular raises, finding people willing to do the job is a challenge.

“We’re always recruiting,” Kennebec County Administrator Robert Devlin said. “There’s always openings. We all celebrated once because for three days we were at full staff.”

Also troublesome for hiring managers is a statewide requirement implemented in 2015 that extended training to 200 hours, up from 80, and a more intense written exam called the ALERT test, the same exam every prospective police officer must pass. It costs the applicant $50.

Although the result of more intense training is a better-prepared recruit, one side-effect is difficulty hiring part-time workers, who often add correctional work to other part-time gigs, said Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster.

STANDARD AFFECTS PART-TIMERS

In the past, before the current requirements, a part-time recruit could take two weeks off from another job, pass a test, and be certified as an officer.

“With the new law, they have to take an ALERT exam, the academy standard, and then training is 200 hours, which is about five weeks out of work out of their regular job, making it so much more difficult for someone to do part time,” Lancaster said.

At the Two Bridges Regional Jail, only two or three people are in the hiring queue at any one time, “which is pretty low,” Lt. William Frith said. “Of those applicants, maybe 20, 25 percent fit the criteria of what we’re looking for.”

Getting hired can seem like an ordeal, too.

At Two Bridges, the process at its fastest takes six to eight weeks, and requires a separate written exam from the state test, a physical agility test, a polygraph examination, a medical exam, an oral board, and a final interview with the jail’s top administrator. In that time, many recruits will have moved on to other opportunities because they simply cannot wait two months or more to find out if they got the job.

Once a recruit finds out, they move on to the required 200-hour training course, three weeks of on-the-job training, meaning that from first application to the first day on the job, four months could elapse.

One such recruit in that process is Scott Getchell, 26, of Farmingdale. After eight years in the Marine Corps working a desk job, Getchell said he knew he wanted to do something different, and with a greater opportunity to contribute to society.

After leaving the military and moving back home, Getchell explored becoming a Maine State Trooper, a game warden, a Marine Patrol officer and a corrections officer at the Maine State Prison in Warren. But it was staff at Two Bridges who pursued him most vigorously.

Now Getchell is close to the end of the hiring process, having already passed his written and physical exams and the oral board, a daunting process where three administrators quizzed him on how he would react in stressful situations.

He is not too surprised that people are not lining up for the positions.

DANGEROUS WORK

“I think it’s an inherently dangerous job,” Getchell said. “Not a lot of people really want to be put in a situation where they’re outnumbered by what could be dangerous people. I just think it takes a different kind of person to do that kind of work.”

In Cumberland County, where the jail is down 16 corrections officers out of 190 total positions, Sheriff Kevin Joyce wondered whether the millennial generation has the same appetite for difficult work that sometimes impinges on personal time.

“You’re continually dealing with mental illness, you’re continually dealing with people who do things that the public will be shocked by, and they have to clean up various bodily fluids,” Joyce said. “It’s nights and weekends. It’s holidays. And we’re finding that a lot of people don’t want to work nights, weekends and holidays.”

On Friday, King, the sheriff in York County, was getting ready to graduate six new corrections officers during a ceremony on Friday, all from drastically different backgrounds. From a former police officer who moved to Maine from out-of-state, to a former actor to a writer from New York City, the recruits all shared an ability to communicate effectively with broadly different groups of people and use creative thinking to defuse situations.

You can’t really fathom what it’s like until you’re … in a unit with 65 offenders and the door is shut and many of those offenders are older than you,” King said.

That couldn’t be more true for Chayce Steffiare, who at 21, will likely be among the youngest in the jail, on either side of the steel bars.

Steffiare sees corrections as a stepping-stone into a full-time law enforcement job, his ultimate career goal, and took the corrections job in York County despite being offered a salaried position for more money in the private sector.

Perhaps one of the oldest on the block will be Jon Simonds, 60, of North Waterboro, who said his job as a corrections officer is the first he’s had in a decade that offered benefits, and is a high-point since he lost a position working for a subcontractor to Time Warner Cable in New York City in 2008.

He moved to Maine in 2010 to be closer to his family, and since that time has worked as a substitute teacher and for FedEx, but looks forward now to working more with people in the jail.

“I enjoy people, and a lot of people who end up on the wrong side of the law made bad decisions,” Simonds said. “They’re human, they have regrets.”