State government in Alabama is home to an intricate web of employment rules, regulations and requirements.
Jackie Graham is the person tasked with untangling that web and maintaining order within the State Merit System, which covers approximately 30,000 state employees.
Graham currently serves as director of the Alabama State Personnel Department, a position she has held since her appointment by the State Personnel Board in 2005.
The Ozark native has worked for the State Personnel Department in various capacities for three and a half decades.
Fortunately for the state of Alabama, Graham is able to tap into that vast experience to carry out a daunting list of duties and responsibilities assigned to the director.
Graham does not blink an eye at all that her office undertakes.
“While some think of challenges as a burden, I think they can be one of the most rewarding parts of my job,” she remarked. “I enjoy being posed with a challenge and working to identify a solution to that problem. It is especially interesting when assisting other agencies with their own unique challenges and collaborating to find a solution that works best for that agency.”
As director, Graham guides all administrative and technical activities of the State Personnel Department. This includes maintaining merit system operations for state employees in accordance with the Rules of the State Personnel Board and supporting payroll transactions and preparation of personnel activity reports. She also must establish and maintain an enormous repository of employee records.
And, if that was not enough, Graham acts as a liaison to the governor, state legislature and personnel board. In those roles, she provides evaluations and cost studies related to proposed salary or benefit improvements, as well as analysis of proposed legislation that may impact state employee operations.
Graham, an Auburn University graduate, is only the second woman to serve as director in the department’s 82-year history.
That fact provides her with some unique perspective on women being in positions to lead.
“The opportunity for women to serve not only in state government but also in leadership positions is flourishing,” Graham outlined.
She noted that females make up 58.4% of the state workforce, and that women lead major agencies, departments, boards and commissions.
“Most importantly, we have Governor Kay Ivey, who spent her entire career as an educator and public servant,” said Graham. “These women have backgrounds that vary from education to a decorated military career to assisting the young and elderly. While these women do a tremendous job leading their boards, agencies, and commissions, no success is possible without the assistance of incredible and committed employees within those agencies and across state government. I am inspired each day to look across state government and see the successful women that help lead this state forward.”
For the next generation of women leaders who may just now be embarking on career journeys, Graham advises a step-by-step approach, building at each point along the way.
“While it can be intimidating to start a new job or change careers, just know everyone in the workforce had to start somewhere,” she said. “Continue to learn and grow in your career and commit yourself each day to achieve your goals, and continue to take opportunities that present themselves. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or inquire about why something is done a certain way. I assure you, for the most part, the people and leadership at your agency truly want you to succeed.”
Graham revels in the ability to assist all of the different departments and agencies within state government as they each work through their own issues.
“Many state agencies have very innovative ideas to move their agencies forward but often need assistance in implementing these ideas,” she explained. “I especially enjoy getting to know the individuals within the various agencies and assisting them when needed. We are very honored and appreciative that many agencies look to us for guidance in bringing their ideas to life. We strive at State Personnel to be a service organization by working with citizens, employees and agencies.”
One project on which Graham worked that stands out to her is the creation of the Retired State Employee classification in 2009.
The special classification was achieved through legislation which made the State Personnel Board the sponsor of a voluntary deferred compensation plan for state employees. Graham has joined her board in working tirelessly to ensure this deferred compensation plan provides the highest level of service to state employees and works for all state employees regardless of their pay grade or job class.
The intent behind the creation of the job class was to allow state agencies to reemploy individuals who have retired from state service.
“There is so much institutional knowledge that a person gains through state employment,” Graham stated. “While we understand that state employees wish to retire at some point in their career, many agencies lose significant institutional knowledge when a career state employee retires. This job classification has allowed retired state employees to come back to the agency on a part-time basis, without benefits, to continue their work or to pass their knowledge on to others in the agency. Most agencies utilize this job classification currently, and we have received very positive feedback from creating this job class.”
When the State Personnel Board assumed responsibility for the program, it had less than $300,000,000. It has now grown to approximately $750,000,000 with over 17,000 participants.
Despite a resume steeped in experience, Graham continues to encounter novel issues in the execution of her job.
“Most employee issues come to State Personnel in some form or fashion,” she commented. “What has surprised me most is the wide-ranging employee issues among agencies that require assistance from State Personnel. We assist agencies in dealing with these tough employee situations and providing guidance on how best to handle these situations. Given that I began my career at State Personnel over 35 years ago, you would think there would be no more surprises. But just when I think I have seen it all, the phone rings.”
Those closest to her continue to retain a prominent place in Graham’s life. She and Max, her husband of 35 years, grab as much lake time as possible as well as visits with their sons Patrick and Trent and their wives. And, like any good dog owners, Frank is never far away, either.
Now having decades of success under her belt, Graham believes much is attributable to the relationships with other people she has worked to develop along the way.
“While some say treat others the way you would like to be treated, I believe we should treat others better than the way we would want to be treated,” she concluded. “It does not matter who the person is and what their background is; they should always be treated with respect and dignity. A principle instilled into me by my parents is always to do the right thing, especially when no one is looking.”
Yellowhammer News is proud to name Jackie Graham a 2021 Woman of Impact.
Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia