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Low unemployment calls for creative hiring solutions

Spherion co-owner Margaret Leitinger notes that with a ridiculously low metro unemployment rate of less than 3%, the creativity of local employers has reached higher levels.


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Greater Madison has long been in the top five nationally when it comes to low unemployment, so area employers have had to be creative in the search for labor. In advance of Labor Day weekend, we interviewed Margaret Leitinger, vice president of operations and co-owner, Spherion Madison, a recruiting and staffing provider, for a look at the local labor situation. As Leitinger explains, with a ridiculously low metro unemployment rate of less than 3%, the creativity of local employers has reached higher levels.

IB: Regarding the labor situation (shortage) in Madison, some says it’s caused by a skills gap; others say it’s basically a low body count. How would you characterize it?

Leitinger: I’d have to say it’s both. I really can’t categorize it into either. When it’s a 2.4% unemployment rate in metro Madison, sometimes in the HR field we kind of consider that to be zero. There is 1% that maybe doesn’t have the skill set that we’re looking for. There is 1% of the unemployed that may not be job-ready, and then we all seem to be competing and battling for that last 0.4% or that last 1%. A lot of times people say 3% [unemployment] is equivalent to zero, so there definitely is a shortage of workers.

Then there is this skillset issue that some employers are feeling a little bit more than others. In IT and health services, specifically in Madison with biotech, we have a shortage, but we have really creative initiatives. One of them is in workforce development with the state of Wisconsin’s adult apprenticeship program where they are trying to ‘up-skill’ workers, creating a certified apprenticeship similar to what you might see in the electrical plumbing fields.

IB: But this is for adults?

Leitinger: Yes, and actually what we’re doing is looking at what are some of the skill sets, the standard operating procedures in the lab, with FDA regulations requiring quality processes and assurance in the laboratory environment. It’s all of those biotech companies that are working in that environment, but it’s more of a clean laboratory approach, and we don’t have enough people. So again, if we can’t find them, how do we grow them? How do we make them? How do we get people job-ready?

Of course, you know about health care and health services, from the entry-level to the non-clinical perspective, and in R&D, pharmacy, phlebotomy, CNAs, and all across the board. In Wisconsin, we need more health care providers because we have an aging population, which means more health care services. So it’s kind of a Catch-22.

IB: Are there limits to what creativity can do with a labor shortage like this?

Leitinger: I don’t know, but we can’t just give up hope. As you get down to the more creative things, we talk about adult apprenticeships but we’re also involved in an initiative called Personalized Pathways. So it’s MMSD [Madison Metropolitan School District] and the high schools in the Madison area that have started this cohort of Personalized Pathways for health care. What we’re doing is getting high school students acclimated to some of the career opportunities that are available, as young as freshmen, but also sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Then they have an idea of the jobs that are available and how they can select a career path, so when they graduate high school it’s not the idea of, ‘Okay, I’ve got my diploma. Am I going to enter the workforce? Am I going to go in the military? Or am I going to go onto college?’ They already have a lot of connections, and even if it’s something they didn’t enjoy, they know more than they would have if they had never participated at all.

Right now, we’ve got companies that are doing tours and saying ‘this is what a laboratory looks like’ and ‘this is what a clinical environment looks like. These are the classes you take.’ We were actually pleasantly surprised that we had a waiting list, and our first year was last year. So again, that’s being very creative.

The retirees are another population. I believe it was Jan. 1, 2017, that point in time, where every day 10,000 baby boomers were eligible for retirement. That doesn’t mean they were taking it. At this point, from an employee perspective, you have to look at that. So with creativity, we’ve talked to companies that say, ‘No, we don’t have part-time opportunities. We don’t have flexible shifts.’ Well, if you want to be competitive and attract that workforce that doesn’t want to work full time, that’s something you’re going to have to do to compete.

Flexing their schedules

IB: What does Spherion’s most recent Emerging Workforce Study tell us about the demands of newer “emergent” workers, or established workers or retirees that employers are trying to lure back, especially when it comes to their desire for flexibility?

Leitinger: Millennials aren’t the only workers who want flexibility. A lot of people don’t want to retire completely. Even students, when we talk about ‘up-skilling’ and the cost of a college education, they have got to work. So we’ve got to be flexible and offer those flex schedules. A lot of the companies we work with are asking, ‘Can we do more job sharing? Can we do more flexibility?’

The emerging workforce, they don’t want just flexibility. What’s really important is they want to get behind a mission. They want to do work that matters. They want to feel that the work and the organization they work for is genuine and that they have a purpose. As a matter of fact, 70% say believing in the organization’s work is a top priority, as much as flexibility, but I can tell you that according to our Emerging Workforce study, 17% of millennials say that the ability to work from home is the greatest influence, outside of salary, on their decision to work for a company. That’s pretty big.

I can tell you that we work in a team environment, and we’re recruiters and we have to communicate, and a year ago I had to craft a work-from-home schedule. It really wasn’t so much of a recruiting strategy; it was a retention strategy because we have a very mixed workforce. We’re very diverse. We’re a women-owned, minority-owned staffing company, and we needed to practice what we preached. It was a little bit of an obstacle because we thought you couldn’t do certain work from home. You’ve got to answer the phone, clients are calling, and you have to interview people. So we started using things like Montage for an interview. We do Skype interviews on those days, and what we’ve done is give everyone the option to work one or two days from home. We had to do it to be competitive.

IB: Do you have to tailor individual flex plans for your employees with regard to work-life balance to give them an indication that you are thinking about their individual needs, as part of a retention strategy?

Leitinger: Totally, and I would tell you there is another statistic to throw out there. According to the Emerging Workforce Study, 84% of millennials say that the number of programs and benefits that an employer can offer to help them balance work and their personal life will determine if they stay or even accept a job. I mean, 84%. Yes, to answer your question. Yes, yes, yes.

IB: With retiring baby boomers, part of the idea of a job share with two retirees working part-time, is they still need help with their health care expenses, even if they are eligible for Medicare, and that’s what a part-time job can do.

Leitinger: Yes, it helps offset the costs of their supplemental plan and things like that. Employees say that they would only work for companies that offer agile employment arrangements. About 41% of the population says, ‘I will only work for a company that offers that, so you’re left with 60% that would consider the traditional workforce. So yes, it’s a big driver to work for a company that will offer some flexibility and work-life balance, but again, millennials are not the only ones who want flexibility. It’s baby boomers, it’s students, and now think of parents or people who are caring for elderly parents. People who have children also need flexibility, and then we call ourselves the sandwich generation. Some of our workers on the other end of the spectrum have parents they have to run back and forth to appointments and help with transportation and things of that nature. So it’s not just millennials; it’s kind of a common theme that I’m seeing through the entire way that people prefer to work.

IB: Speaking of the desire for flexibility, where does flexibility rank among the various employment classifications you offer — including flexible work, project work, temp-to-hire, or direct hire?

Leitinger: Employers are more flexible now because they have to be to stay competitive. There is a new benefit that employers don’t feel too good about at first and that’s unlimited PTO. Companies are offering that because it’s really important to this generation, and so is flexible and project work. Those two categories are designed to be flexible. Even if you’re an entrepreneur, for example, and you’re running your own business, and you don’t have any side gigs. Say you’re a photographer or you’re a graphic artist or whatever it might be, the idea is that you can jump in and have a flexible project or you can just take a temporary gig. That is really very appealing because you can earn income, but it’s in a limited time frame. So you say, yes, I’m available for three months.

Or if you’re retired in Wisconsin, if you’re not a snowbird and here in January, February, and March, you’re probably not golfing, kayaking, biking, or gardening — all the things that might motivate certain people — and so you’re more apt to help out. What’s nice about that is, think about businesses like distribution centers and insurance companies. They have peaks, right, and it’s right before that seasonal holiday where all the products have to get out into the stores. For insurance companies, it’s the open enrollment period. That’s a really nice gig to be able to work three or four months and still have your summers off.

And then the temp-to-hire and the direct hire — from a flexibility perspective, temp-to-hire enables both the employer and the employees to test the waters to see if it’s providing them with the flexibility that they need. If it does, the employee can make a decision to say, ‘yes, this is a company that I would like to work for full time.’ So they kind of have that flexibility, as well, as does the employer who gets a chance to try before they buy. I’ll tell you what — in this workforce, they are testing the waters, as well, to see if someone is a good fit culturally. So it gives employees that extra flexibility to do different jobs and work with a variety of different employers and have diverse experiences and different work schedules.


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