In tight labor market, companies tout benefits of investing in employees

Leadership Development

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Four years into his job with Milwaukee-based software company Integrated Time Systems LLC, George Warner was itching for a new challenge at work.

As an implementation specialist, Warner brought in a lot of clients and was known to be able to handle more challenging cases. When customers asked for customized versions of the company’s workforce time management application, he would improvise solutions, despite not knowing how to code. But to grow professionally, Warner knew he would have to learn.

George Warner works on a project at devCodeCamp, an immersive coding school housed in the Ward4 co-working space in the Pritzlaff Building in Walker’s Point.

So he took a risk.

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He decided to put in his notice and enroll in devCodeCamp Inc., a 12-week intensive coding school.

“I didn’t think there was a place in my organization if I went to devCode Camp because we outsource our software,” Warner said. “So I waited until right before my review, I was ready to sign up (for devCode), and told my supervisor, ‘I’m going to devCodeCamp. I know there are no roles here. But if you want to hire me when I’m done, you get first dibs because I like it here.’”

His supervisor came back with a surprising offer.

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The company would cover his tuition for the devCodeCamp, pay his salary while he attended the school, give him a raise when he returned and create a new position for him.


Now, six weeks into the devCodeCamp program, Warner already has ideas of how he will apply his new skills to his job.

In a tight labor market, employees like Warner are enjoying newfound leverage in certain industries, as the number of available positions outpaces the talent to fill them.

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But for employers, the perennial question – Is it worth it to invest resources into employees’ professional development and education when they could just take those skills and leave? – is intensified.

Employers are seeing the need to make an investment in the current labor market. A 2016-’17 Talent Shortage Survey from ManpowerGroup indicates 48 percent of employers are training and developing employees to fill open positions, a significant jump from a 2015 survey when just 12 percent were using training and development as a solution.

At Milwaukee-based advertising agency Laughlin/Constable Inc., it’s part of the culture to develop leaders from within. Mat Lignel, president and chief executive officer, said it’s “absolutely critical” for the agency to invest in leadership development.

“The two main priorities for us are our clients and our people,” Lignel said. “And in order to be successful with the former, you need to train the latter.”

Two years ago, the firm created a program aimed at developing employees who have the potential to fill leadership positions in the future. The leadership development program recently graduated a class of 14 employees, and a new class of 12 will begin in the fall.

It includes six half-day learning sessions on topics like problem-solving, conflict management, and the art and science of influence and persuasion, and participants are assigned a project.

Lignel acknowledges the sacrifice of taking employees away from their day-to-day client work, but said the agency gets a return on investment. Employees not only benefit from the training, he said, but they also forge strong bonds with other co-workers.

“I’m always amazed when I hear company leaders say, ‘I’m hesitant about training people because they might leave,’” Lignel said. “Well, if you don’t train them and they stay, that’s not a good picture. This has to be a leap of faith and you have to have trust in your team, which we do. To me, the best way to retain an employee is to help them grow and move forward and thrive in their careers.”

West Bend Mutual Insurance Co. likewise offers several leadership development programs, pays for employees to seek professional designations and assists them with tuition for higher education.


Mike Faley, senior vice president of human resources and administration, said there are multiple benefits to investing in employees: reducing turnover, maintaining the company’s relevance and enhancing workplace culture.

And amid low unemployment, now is the time to double down on efforts to retain employees, he said.

“With a tight labor market, people have choices, so it’s about matching up what the associates’ goals in their life and career are and do as many things as we can to keep them inside the organization,” Faley said. “This would be the worst time, in my estimation, to pull back on any of those programs. Because what you’re asking your associates and employees to do is leave so they can have their needs met somewhere else.”

While it’s common for employers to look outside their company to fill developer positions, the stories of devCodeCamp students indicate employers are seeing the value of investing in their own talent.

Paul Jirovetz, vice president of operations for devCodeCamp, said he’s seen accountants, business owners and teachers change their career trajectories by participating in the coding camp. Most come in with no coding experience.

In two years, the program has produced more than 100 software developers.

“There’s nothing that says, ‘We value you,’ more than actually giving an employee a true skillset. Not just sending them to a conference for the weekend, but saying, ‘You’re a person we want around’ … It’s not just about raises or more vacation, but ‘Can you help me improve what I do?’ … It’s a huge part of retention, especially for developers.”

Warner just wishes he would have made the leap a long time ago.

“In my role, I knew I was going to be doing the same thing … I would get the same yearly (salary) increase, bring on a certain number of new users every year,” he said. “… You have to show them there is some value beyond doing a good job. They are expecting you to do a good job. Anybody is replaceable. But if you can bring more than what’s required of you – at that point, what company is not going to show you some sort of reciprocal benefit?”

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