About 550 Kentucky Transportation Cabinet engineers received pay raises last month averaging 20 percent.

The raises were authorized by the state legislature in 2014 and will cost about $7.8 million per year.

On Tuesday, Transportation Cabinet officials said the raises will help the state attract and retain skilled workers, who often leave for the private sector to get higher paying jobs.

Projects get delayed when engineers leave state transportation jobs, said State Rep. Diane St. Onge, a Lakeside Park Republican.

“So you have one engineer who’s specifically centered on designing or perhaps two and you have multiple projects,” St. Onge said.

The turnover rate for state transportation engineers is high in the state—57 percent for the “transportation engineer 1” classification and 40 percent for “transportation engineer 2.”

Transportation officials say that engineers often quit their state jobs soon after they’ve received training, moving on to become private consultants and contractors. In turn, the drain has pushed the state to shift some of the workload to the private industry.

About 70 percent of the state’s design work was performed by outside consultants in 2014, compared to about 30 percent in 2000, according to the Transportation Cabinet. Also in 2014, the cabinet paid $150 million in professional engineering services compared to 2004, when it paid a little over $101 million.

Carol Beth Martin, the Transportation Cabinet’s human resources director, said she’s heard anecdotes of engineers deciding to stay as a result of the raise.

During a committee meeting Tuesday, State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Hopkinsville Republican and candidate for attorney general, questioned why transportation engineers were singled out for the raise.

“That’s one of a handful of jobs I can name off of the top of my head right now, positions in state government that aren’t competitive salary for salary with the private sector,” Westerfield said, listing corrections workers, social workers, prosecutors and public defenders as examples.

“I guess I’m just curious how did we decide who gets the raise first?”

The Kentucky transportation cabinet pays a civil engineer about $60,950 per year, well below regional averages of $92,500 in the south central region and $94,400 in the Midwest.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.