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It was a dinner at Lake Park Bistro that helped close the deal on an executive hire at Milwaukee-based Versiti Inc.
During a Zoom interview last year, Lexie Pieper, a candidate from New Jersey who was then in the running for Versiti’s chief quality officer position, mentioned she loved French food. So, when she came into town for her in-person interview, the executive team took her to the restaurant, located on an Upper East Side bluff overlooking Lake Michigan.
“We had a great meal, looking at the water and talking about the organization and the city and the aspirations of the city, and it resonated,” said Chris Miskel, president and chief executive officer of Versiti.
Also a fan of theater, Pieper was interested to learn about Milwaukee’s performing arts scene and relieved to know that moving away from the East Coast wouldn’t mean leaving behind Broadway productions, said Miskel.
With a tight labor market and the rise of remote work that provides workers greater say in where they choose to locate, Milwaukee-area employers will have to flex the region’s assets and tailor their recruitment pitches to attract more employees from out of state, some business leaders say.
Finding strategies to draw more people to the region has taken on new urgency in light of the metro area’s meager 1.2% population growth over the past decade. Compared to 21 benchmark metro areas, the Milwaukee region outpaced only two others, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, according to Census data released last year.
While many argue coordinated regional efforts are needed to boost the area’s population growth, incremental wins happen one recruit at a time, and some employers have found success in finding, recruiting and retaining out-of-state candidates.
At Versiti, Pieper was one of two new hires coming from outside of Wisconsin last year. The other was Dr. Mike Deininger, who joined Versiti as its executive vice president, chief scientific officer and director of the Blood Research Institute from the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake.
It all starts with having an attractive job opportunity, Miskel said. For both hires, the mission of Versiti – a Milwaukee-based nonprofit operator of community blood centers and the Blood Research Institute in Wauwatosa – was what first caught their attention, and the opportunity to lead new initiatives within the organization was intriguing, he said.
“You have to have a compelling purpose that inspires people and they have to feel like they can be a part of it and make a difference and also be fulfilled,” he said.
Once a candidate travels to Milwaukee for an on-site interview, the hiring team is intentional about showing off the community.
“Once they get here, we sell them,” Miskel said.
In Deininger’s case, a steak dinner aided the process.
“I joke we closed him at Carnevor,” Miskel said. “That is my favorite; my go-to spot is Carnevor.”
“We have them stay downtown,” he added. “We try to show the city, get a sense of what’s important to them and show them that we are basically a big city with a small-town feel that is super accessible.”
Soon, Versiti could be making that pitch to more prospective employees. The organization plans to create more than 100 new jobs when it adds to its team of investigators at the Blood Research Institute over the next few years; many of those people are expected to be out-of-state hires, Miskel said.
From visitor to resident
While living in Illinois, Josh Albrecht was already aware of Milwaukee’s attributes and amenities before being recruited to work here.
Earlier this year, he joined VISIT Milwaukee as its vice president of marketing and communications after working as chief marketing officer for the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. For years, Albrecht and his wife, Kelly, have routinely brought their three children across the state line for visits to Milwaukee.
“My original experience with Milwaukee was that of a visitor,” he said. “And for the past 16 years, I’ve been bringing my family, my children here, whether that’s seeing who can drink the most root beer after the Sprecher brewery tour to going to the art museum or the kite festival on the lakefront, going to Bucks games, Brewers games.”
He was already a fan of the city before pursuing the VISIT job, but the decision to relocate, especially with a family, brings up another set of concerns beyond having things to do on weekends.
During one of his interviews, Peggy Williams-Smith, president and chief executive officer of VISIT, took Albrecht on an hours-long tour of Milwaukee, relaying information about schools, hospital systems and neighborhood landmarks.
“She grew up here so she was sharing things like, ‘here’s the supper club I’ve been going to for the past 30 years’ – some of those more personal things that you don’t always get, the insider perspective as a visitor,” Albrecht said.
Albrecht and his wife ultimately found an apartment downtown, where they will move their family in April. Albrecht has already started his work in the city while staying in temporary housing. He said Milwaukee has provided the “most outgoing and warmest reception” of any city he’s previously lived in.
Being in the business of promoting the region, VISIT Milwaukee takes a similar approach when recruiting employees as it would with travelers and tourists, touting the city’s sports, arts scene and museums, said Charlotte Hayslett, vice president of human resources. The visitors bureau also highlights the diversity represented in the city’s 191 neighborhoods. Ease of accessibility and a comparatively low cost of living tend to be differentiators for Milwaukee compared to more densely populated cities, Hayslett said.
“Even with traffic, you can get to most places within 15-20 minutes time,” she said.
Once a new employee comes on board, VISIT has a comprehensive training schedule, replete with recommended lunch spots and tailored based on information that is gathered during the interviewing process, Hayslett said.
She said the region can be more effective at drawing people to the city by encouraging businesses to share their best practices with one another and collaborating to find the best candidates for their organizations.
Employers can build positive associations by being gracious, even if a candidate isn’t chosen for the job, she said.
“You will find so much talent … in expressing gratitude for even their interest in the position. … It’s not, ‘You applied for the position; you should be thankful we called you.’ It’s the other way around – we’re thankful that you applied and that you’re interested,” Hayslett said.
“If I come across a great candidate that I thought would be great for another organization, I’d reach out and tell them, ‘Hey, there are other opportunities here (in Milwaukee),’” she added.
Albrecht said the region can leverage the virtuous cycle of converting tourists into residents.
“Everything starts with a visit,” he said. “Once you visit then you’re going to want to live there, and if you want to live there then you’re going to want to open businesses and be a part of the business community. And if you’re creating work opportunity then people are going to want to visit to learn more, and then they’re going to become a resident.”