Treasure hunt

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Local firms getting innovative in
the elusive search for valuable employees
Southeastern Wisconsin companies face the continuing challenge of how to find and retain good employees.
Bureau of Labor Statistics tell the whole story. The unemployment rate in the Milwaukee area averaged 3.09% in 1998. And yet our area civilian labor force only increased 1.5% from 1997 to 1998.
What, then, are companies doing to cope in this tight labor market? We recently surveyed our TEC CEOs and were surprised to learn that many companies are using a plethora of tactics to recruit and retain employees.
Some have innovative hiring tactics, such as offering employees $50 to $500 bonuses for referrals who become employees. They also offer signing bonuses to new hires. Others hold periodic “job fairs” and even have raffles to attract candidates. More recently, firms are advertising positions via the Internet, and totally re-engineering the content and message of advertised job postings to make them more interesting, eye-catching, and appealing.
Still, other companies are advertising in surrounding communities where the job commute is an hour or less. Many companies are training their supervisors to conduct effective screening interviews, while also selling the merits of being an employee at their companies. In some cases, that includes personality and skill testing to improve the match between the individual’s qualifications and job requirements.
Another frequently mentioned recruitment tactic is to find a temporary position for a strong candidate, even when an immediate full-time position is unavailable. Some companies actually have job candidates meet in a casual atmosphere with existing employees over refreshments and snacks in an effort to persuade the job candidate that the company is a good place to work. Most of our survey respondents indicated that they have taken the hiring process out of the “back room” and have glamorized not only interview settings, but the vitality of the interview experience.
Many companies invite the job candidate back two or three times before finalizing the hiring decision – a practice that is even used with part-time employees.
Companies have made contact with area high school counselors and have supplied offer sheets and other data about company benefits. In some cases, these contacts are nurtured over the school year. Other firms have hired full-time recruiters, mimicking military recruiters. These people not only manage the recruiting process, but they also serve as ambassadors in the community to represent the interests of the company.
Jim Cerny, CEO of EWC, a Pewaukee-based manufacturing firm, said, “Finding and keeping good employees is no less important for most businesses today than finding and keeping good customers.”
Our TEC survey indicated that a primary retention objective is to ensure that employees are always treated honestly, with respect and fairness. This places a high premium on well-trained and enlightened first-level supervision, especially supervisors who have been trained to be sensitive listeners and communicators.
Second, wage and benefit packages also must be competitive. Employee turnover correlates directly with pay and benefit packages that are inferior to what neighboring companies offer. Likewise, the chance to participate in direct payout profit-sharing plans and gain-sharing opportunities is a retention plus.
Third, many companies use ingenious techniques to make employees feel a more integral part of the business. Letting employees set their own work schedules, using integrated work cells, frequently recognizing and praising employee accomplishments, unscheduled personal time off practices, and maintaining a positive and uplifting and clean work environment are other ideas.
Companies also are offering flexible working hours, in-house day-care, ongoing education and training, and, increasingly, 360-degree performance evaluation opportunities. Some firms routinely “celebrate” business successes with employee parties, company-wide outings and routine communications about the details of the company’s competitive market strategies. Fred Lewis, CEO of MTE Corp., a Menomonee Falls producer of small transformers and related power equipment, says “routine reviews of your human resource policies and programs is an absolute must to ensure that you are equal to or better than other firms in the area.”
Many of our survey respondents said the job position must allow employees personal growth potential. Otherwise, people stagnate in their jobs and become apathetic, no matter how many of the other retention techniques are used. The best way to exploit this is by providing cross-training and job rotation possibilities.
Last but not least, companies are increasingly turning to creative and improved benefit plans such as paid child care, employee discounts on products, tuition credit, unpaid leaves of absence, family-friendly services and matching 401K plans.
The smart company today should be reviewing its current practices and moving quickly to seize new opportunities. John Howman, CEO of Inacom Information Systems in Milwaukee, one of the largest computer systems integrators in the Midwest says, “Any company that doesn’t believe its employees are its most important asset is on a collision course with ultimate failure in the new millennium.”
Harry S. Dennis III is president of The Executive Committee, a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. This is the first of a monthly column authored by him in Small Business Times.

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