Chapter Corner

Attracting, Hiring, and Retaining the Best Employees

Posted in: Features, January/February 2015

attracting.gifThese days, hiring people is all about quality, not quantity. In decades past, companies hired large numbers of people, especially during lengthy periods of economic growth. Then, when the economy tightened, many companies had to let people go. Then, the process started again. In recent years, most companies have learned their lessons: Rather than hire large numbers of average employees and then downsize them later on, savvy employers are now judiciously hiring a smaller number of employees, focusing on the highest quality they can get, and then working hard to retain them.

Every quarter since 2004, Gallup, in conjunction with Wells Fargo, has conducted what is called the Small Business Survey Topline. The survey polls small business owners on various elements of success and challenges in their businesses, covering areas such as jobs. One question is: Over the past 12 months, did the overall number of jobs or positions at your company increase a lot, increase a little, stay the same, decrease a little, or decrease a lot? Of course, responses have tended to mirror the economy. (Percentages listed below are for the second quarter of each year.)

In 2004, 19 percent reported “increased a lot” or “increased a little,” while 9 percent reported “decreased a lot” or “decreased a little.” With the advent of the economic downturn, hiring reflected the downward trend.

Even with the economic upturn, employers still remained cautious about hiring: 10 percent (increased) and 23 percent (decreased) in 2011, in 2012 12 percent (increased) and 21 percent (decreased), and 11 percent (increased) and 23 percent (decreased) in 2013.

It has only been this past year where the numbers began reversing: 14 percent (increasing) and 17 percent (decreasing) in 2014.

This increase is confirmed by the responses to another question the survey asks: Over the next 12 months, do you expect the overall number of jobs or positions at your company to increase a lot, increase a little, stay the same, decrease a little, or decrease a lot? In 2014, a strong 21 percent of respondents reported “increase a lot” or “increase a little,” while a paltry 10 percent reported “decrease a lot” or “decrease a little.”

Hiring the Best

bestemployees.gifWhile employers are becoming a bit more confident these days about increasing their hiring, they have (as noted earlier) learned a lesson from the recession, and one thing they want to do is make sure that the people they do hire are the “best and the brightest.” 

However, while there is a desire to hire the “best and brightest,” doing so is not always easy. After all, the best employees are limited in number. When employers are in the market to hire, finding qualified people, especially those with the requisite technical skills, can be difficult.

According to a recent report, “Bridge the Gap: Rebuilding America’s Middle Skills,” published  by Accenture, Burning Glass Technologies, and Harvard Business School, 73 percent of U.S. companies expect an increase in their demand for “middle skills” jobs over the next few years. Middle skills jobs are defined as those that require more education and training than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. Qualified electricians and related technical people fall into this category. More than half (56 percent) of those surveyed are struggling to find people with the qualifications to fill existing middle skills vacancies.

According to the report, “While millions of aspiring workers remain unemployed and an unprecedented percentage of the workforce report being underemployed, employers across industries and regions find it hard to fill open positions. The market for middle skills jobs is consistently failing to clear.”

The Accenture report underscores the results of previous reports. A 2013 Adecco report noted that 92 percent of senior executives reported that troubling gaps in skills plagued the workforce, and a 2013 Manpower Group Talent Shortage Survey reported that 49 percent of respondents said that talent shortages were undermining their ability to serve customers. Employers cited absence of technical skills (48 percent) as the most significant barrier to fulfilling their needs.

According to the report, inadequate training and lack of experience were seen as the leading impediments to filling middle-skills positions. In specific, 54 percent of respondents said, “Trained talent is difficult to find,” and 50 percent reported that, “sufficient experience is not easy to find.” However, just 22 percent of respondents, including those who said their companies are having trouble filling job vacancies, said they always are willing to consider hiring a new employee who requires additional training.

This lack of talent is having a direct impact on company performance. According to the report, 69 percent of respondents indicated that the middle skills shortage regularly affects their performance, and 34 percent believe that the dearth of middle skills workers has significantly undermined their productivity.

One IEC member committed to beating the odds is APG Electric in Clearwater, Florida. When it comes to finding the “best and brightest,” APG doesn’t bother putting ads in the paper.

“We do get involved in some apprenticeship programs in the schools,” said Tim White, group manager. “However, word of mouth has always been our best strategy. Most of our employees are long-term. There is always room for growth, and we promote from within.” In fact, according to White, most of the managers and others in the office came up through the field, and the company has some second-generation, and even third-generation, people working there. “This message has gotten out in the trade among our peers that we are a good place to work,” he said.

Depending on the positions that it is looking to fill, F.B. Harding Inc. in Rockville, Maryland, uses professional recruiting service companies to find new employees. “Of course, this is more expensive than doing it ourselves and having staff in place to look for people, but there is value in having professional recruiters find people for us,” said G. Scott Harding, president. “We have used a few different recruiting service companies. Like anything else, we spent time focusing our relationships on those that have performed the best for us over time.”

Hiring as a Process

Once applicants are available, both companies are careful about screening and ultimately hiring. “Our hiring process really is a ‘process’,” said White. “When we accept applications, we have a set procedure. Human Resources goes through the applications and looks for people with prior experience, but may, depending on our needs at the time, look for ‘greenies.’” Applicants are given an exam to check their basic mechanical knowledge, as well as aptitude test. If they pass these steps, they are brought in for interviews. After this, those who remain go through a physical examination. “We have a full-time life safety coach, who puts applicants through basic physical tests, such as being able to carry a ladder, walk up a ladder, turn a screw, etc.,” said White. Those who are still in the running are then drug tested.

While this comprehensive process is not foolproof, it is very effective, according to White. The company is usually able to retain four or so out of every half-dozen people it hires. Some of the ones who leave, especially the younger ones, do so of their own accord. “They may realize that the trade is not for them,” he said. “On other occasions, we may have to let someone go, and these are usually the ones who don’t seem to ‘fit into the family.’"

F.B. Harding also utilizes a screening process. “We do a background check, and we also use drug testing, especially since many of the sites we work in are secure facilities,” said Harding.

Retaining Good People

Attracting and screening are only the first steps in ensuring a good workforce. Once good employees are on board, it is important to have processes and programs in place to make sure they remain – even for the lifetime of their career. “One of the most important ways we retain good people is having a structure in place so that, when people start, they all follow the same process,” said Harding. “That is, each person’s first interaction with the company is the same as it is for everyone else. This provides some consistency with how everyone begins their careers here. Everyone starts with an orientation. All new field workers then spend time in the fabrication shop, so they learn that process and how it fits into what the company does as a whole. This helps them understand our culture,” he said. “They also receive safety orientation.”

In the past, before the company adopted this process a couple of years ago, it would hire people, and they would start by going straight out to a job site immediately after a quick orientation. Management found that this did not provide an effective introduction to the company and its culture.

Retention is also important to APG Electric. “The two people who founded this company came from two different companies, neither of which had a ‘family culture,’ and both of them were committed to creating that here, which they did,” said White. “Here, we let people know that we are hiring them for a career, not a short-term job. They know that, once they get in, they can have careers here if they perform well.” Another perk is that the company has an on-site wellness center with a fully-stocked gym, as well as a full-time life safety coach.

Using the right strategies to locate, hire, and retain valued employees can make the difference for your company during shortages of skilled employees.

William Atkinson is a freelance writer with experience in the construction and contracting industries.