Retaining, attracting workers means standing out in a crowd

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As worker pool shrinks, talent management practices evolve among leading New North employers

Story by Larry Avila, New North B2B Editor

The phrase “Good help is hard to find” isn’t new by any means, but its meaning still resonates with employers today.

A combination of the aging workforce, improving job market and shrinking labor pool has created an environment for those with the skills employers seek to be selective about the professions they pursue and employers for whom they choose to work.

Businesses across northeast Wisconsin recognize this and in recent years have stepped up efforts to develop reputations as a destination employer, offering an array of perks from flexible work schedules to pledges of learning opportunities to help an employee grow into a future leader.

Employers agree competition is fierce for top talent and will do what they can to ensure they hold on to their best people while also continuing to find ways to fill workforce needs with not only the most qualified, but with those who also are a good cultural fit. Menasha-based human services organization Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin, contract electrical firm Faith Technologies in Menasha and SparkNet Corp., the De Pere-based Internet and application developer, are a sampling of northeast Wisconsin businesses that offer unique benefits to employees and those they recruit.

Finding the best people

About six years ago, Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin began looking into its high turnover rate among its leadership.

Chris Weber, leader of talent management and leadership development for the organization, said at that time, “several of its leaders” were let go.

“It was somewhat telling (of our own hiring practices),” he said. “We hired those people, now we were asking them to leave, so that’s on us.”

Weber said the issue wasn’t the individuals themselves.

“We followed traditional hiring practices and an interview process, and we based hiring decisions on what people said,” Weber said. “But we learned it wasn’t as reliable as we thought or wanted it to be.”

This led to reexamining Goodwill’s hiring process and developing new procedures, which placed job candidates into interactive situations where they perform assorted tasks so staff can evaluate and observe their behaviors from problem solving to staff interaction.

“When we decided to do this I remember (someone asking), ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could see someone lead before hiring them?,’” Weber said.

The new process, which Goodwill refers to as Talent Day, has made an impact.

Before the effort was implemented three years ago, leadership retention was 60 percent. Today it’s around 80 percent and Goodwill hopes to raise that to 90 percent.

Weber said Talent Day is held monthly and typically features up to a dozen job candidates under consideration. These individuals likely will have supervisory roles or will have some influence over group operations.

It’s a daylong process, which begins with candidates giving a six-minute presentation about themselves. Candidates are then given written tests, leadership exercises, as well as a thorough tour of facilities and interact with staff.

Weber said by observing candidates, Goodwill can assess whether someone will fit its culture.

“It’s an observation interview, we don’t ask many questions, we watch,” he said. “It allows us to see behaviors.”

Careful selection of leadership has changed the corporate dynamics, Weber said.

“We have a higher degree of intellectual capital and higher degree of emotional intelligence here,” he said. “The quality of leader we have today is much higher than it was four years ago, that is evident in how you see the business being run.”

Weber said employees comment on improved quality in internal leadership development programs and an improved collaborative environment since the operation employs more like-minded people.

Internal development

Contract electrical services firm Faith Technologies in Menasha recognized years ago in order to remain competitive and ensure its workers had the latest training available, it would need to develop internal academies to educate its workers as well as groom future leaders for the company.

Leaders at Faith aren’t just those managing operations, said Stephanie Guin, executive vice president of human resources.

“Our development programs more so are for the people in the field and people leading people in the field and in our support roles,” Guin said. “The strength of the business really depends on the employees within it … the stronger foundation we have through our employees, the stronger the business will be.”

Guin said commitment to employee development speaks to the vision of the executive leadership at Faith.

“Most of our executives here started at the bottom and worked their way up so they understand what it takes to be successful,” she said. The company today employs about 1,700 people across Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia and Minnesota.

Only selected employees are chosen for Faith’s High Potential Program. Guin said the program focuses on the top 10 percent of employees the company deems have the making of a future company leader.

The high-potential program is a three-year process, she said. Participants are exposed to many facets of operations, including understanding company finances and regular interaction with executives, who serve as mentors on a range of topics from leadership to project management.

“(High-potential) is geared toward challenging employees,” Guin said. “They are often assigned problems the company is facing and we see if they can come up with some innovation or new way of thinking.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Employees on the front lines and on job sites also have access to ongoing training to improve their skills, whether through internal courses or offsite training.

Continual learning is encouraged at Faith and employees have to keep their skills updated if they wish to pursue other jobs within the company. Guin said as jobs are posted, existing employees can view the position’s requirements and cross-reference the needed skills with their own personnel file, which tracks training completed and what they may need to complete to be considered for the position.

Guin said Faith invests heavily in employee development and it’s worth it. Existing employees are encouraged to refer potential candidates for jobs and are incented to make referrals, which increase if the individual is hired.

“To give the best value to our employees, we have to be innovative because employees do have a choice to work elsewhere,” she said. “The construction industry is facing a skilled worker shortage and if we don’t do something to be different, we’ll be left in the dust.”

What matters to workers

Trying to learn more about a company and its culture isn’t always easy.

Corporate websites, much like a jobseeker’s resume, often portray greatest strengths, said Mary Schills, a human resources instructor at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton. Schills previously spent 13 years in the field with the accounting and consulting firm Schenck in Appleton.

“When I teach students, I teach how to be a good HR professional, but I’m also offering advice to them as a job seeker,” she said.

Truly determining whether someone will be a good fit for a company comes through during the interview process, Schills said. “It won’t necessarily be through the words someone says.”

Schills suggested taking notice of the small details including the cleanliness of a worksite, whether the grounds are well manicured. Also be mindful of how people interact with each other.

“Are the smiling? Are they greeting each other? Are they making eye contact? What kind of impression did the receptionist make on you? … There are many clues you can watch for to get an idea of the culture,” she said.

A clean worksite, particularly in manufacturing, may give the impression safety is stressed, Schills said.

Matthew Stollak, associate professor of business administration at St. Norbert College in De Pere, said many organizations may strive to differentiate themselves based on the unique employee prerequisites they offer, while ignoring some universal factors that all employees want and desire regardless of age. Those things may include quality co-workers, being treated with respect at work, being given the necessary tools and materials to do one’s job effectively, offering a fair and equitable salary as well as a safe and healthy work environment, he said.

“Firms that offer many of those items will find applicants wanting to work there and sticking around for the long haul,” he said.

Determining whether a company truly is a good place to work takes some research, but technology has made it easier.

“The rise of crowd sourcing has helped address this issue,” Stollak said. “Much like Yelp has individuals contribute ratings of restaurants, or Amazon.com collects user reviews of their products, companies such as Glassdoor.com enable current and former employees to anonymously post about their work experience.”

What job candidates seek varies depending on what stage someone is at in their life, experts say.

Schills said for many people, it’s the bottom line that matters most.

“For some, they need that strong paycheck and good benefits, but as people gain skills and experience they become more attractive (to employers) and they can be more selective about where they go,” she said.

This is where other factors like a company’s reputation for being active in the community or what it does to encourage wellness come into play, Schills said.

Stollak said job seekers want strong and open communication, recognition for a job well done, the ability to impact and control the work they perform, as well as clear goals and expectations of what’s required of them.

“The best benefits package in the world will not keep employees satisfied if they dislike their boss and/or coworkers, find the work monotonous and boring, and are not trusted or vested in,” he said.

Standing out in a crowd

A first-time visitor walking into SparkNet Corp. in De Pere may notice one of the site’s unique features. So that workers can get from one floor to the next as quickly as possible, the company installed slides.

It was done because the company values speed, said Loretta Bauer, human resources manager for SparkNet.

“The slides are used a lot, our developers use it a lot,” she said.

It’s part of the company’s culture to foster a creative environment. The office has some features other businesses may consider distractions, such as areas set up for video games or playing pool or ping pong.

Break areas also have beanbag chairs. The idea is to give employees areas to relax and escape for a few minutes so they are not anchored to their desk during an entire work day, Bauer said.

“Things like gaming are not seen as a distraction here,” she said. “Our team is good about recognizing that once in a while you need a breather and it’s OK to take a short break before jumping back into a project.”

Human capital is important at SparkNet. The company also invests heavily in wellness initiatives to ensure its workers are healthy.

“People need to be healthy not just physically but mentally so they can produce the best work possible,” Bauer said. “Emphasis is placed on healthy lifestyles because we want our employees to be as productive and creative as possible.”

Getting noticed

Effective employee development initiatives get noticed.

Guin with Faith Technologies said other businesses have reached out asking about its talent development programs.

She said Faith participates in a national peer group, where it shares information about its employee training programs.

One program that Faith developed was a course to train its workers in cellular tower installation.

“We invested in a program to create in house a program to train workers who will be working on cell towers,” she said. Faith created its own curriculum and developed ways to teach crews how to work on lofty towers safely.

“Customers have been impressed with that,” Guin said. “A lot of our training and labs are very hands on.”

Weber said Goodwill also has had observers during its Talent Day sessions. The program often leaves a good impression on visitors but may not be a good fit for all organizations, he said.

Weber said instructors from area universities have observed sessions as well as employees from regional firms, including Oshkosh Corp.

“(Oshkosh Corp.) as an organization is much different than what we do,” he said. “What we do may resonate with them and they may take something away from it, but they’d have to customize something to work within their environment. What we have really is outside the box.”