Hire power: Hiring strategies should be targeted to specific demographic groups

The national and state employment pictures have a lot of people scratching their heads. The nation has enjoyed more than 40 consecutive months of job growth, but it’s been so gradual we still have fewer people employed than in 2007. In Wisconsin, the unemployment rate is lower than the national rate, but there are still tens of thousands of job openings, and employers, especially manufacturers, are having trouble finding the skills needed to fill them.

In this look at hiring strategies, IB examines how employers can “target” various demographic groups — unemployed or underemployed veterans, unemployed baby boomers, retirees who want to remain in the labor market, and recent college graduates. At the moment, they provide the most abundant supply of willing workers, and employers should craft distinct hiring (and retention) strategies for each population.

Whether you reach out to job candidates through job fairs, social media, campus visits, or networking organizations that cater to different age groups (AARP and the like), remember that the most savvy job seekers are evaluating your organization as much as you are assessing them. “With all of these groups, your policies and work culture will help determine whether you can attract these people and retain them,” says Diane Gadzalinski, human resources director for QPS Employment Group. “It’s not one size fits all.”

Vetting résumés

Military veterans, especially those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, face several challenges in the labor market. These challenges result in their being overlooked by employers, despite the dedication and discipline they demonstrated as servicemen and women. “One of the hardest things for employers is translating the military experience to skills that they understand,” says Margaret Leitinger, vice president of recruiting and staffing excellence for Spherion. “We sometimes call it civilian speak because veterans have great values and great skill sets, but [the skills] are very different. They are very unusual, and they don’t translate well onto the résumé.”

“When I say I was in aviation ordnance, prospective employers think it has absolutely nothing to do with them.” — Jessica Jo Kilian, Navy veteran and job seeker

They can, however, translate into jobs. Any hiring strategy for veterans must incorporate their desire to use the skills they gained in the military; in many cases, evaluating transferrable skills requires some vision on the part of employers; in other cases, the practicality of their skills is readily apparent. “For veterans, it’s important to identify what they did, what skills are transferrable, and how you can help them make that transition back into a private company,” Gadzalinski noted. “They are going to lean more to structure and established policies because they are accustomed to following a chain of command. They don’t seem to work as well with having a lot of flexibility and having things be a little bit more informal.”

“Some transitions are easier than others, but in general, this is a group that is going to need more hands-on training and mentorship when you bring them on board.”

Jessica Jo Kilian served in the U.S. Navy for eight years, including a stint in aviation ordnance, where she helped load bombs onto planes. On the surface, one might wonder how transferrable those skills are in the private sector, but after drilling deep — after learning of the depth of her experience while she was serving overseas — a number of pluses become clear: her attention to detail, safety awareness, ability to work in a team and lead a team are not only transferrable skills, but also desirable traits.

There is a great deal of documentation of what military veterans can bring, and some employers have developed dedicated programs for retiring veterans because of their ability to work well in teams and in stressful environments. Loading bombs onto planes would qualify as a stressful environment, and you don’t become a team leader in that exercise as part of a regular rotation; you have to earn it. Kilian did.

“When I say I was in aviation ordnance, they [employers] think it has absolutely nothing to do with them,” she acknowledged. “Loading bombs requires teamwork, communication, and fulfilling your role, or someone could get hurt or potentially die. It’s dangerous, and everyone has to communicate well.”

After returning to civilian life, Kilian has worked in retail and sales and is two courses shy of earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from UW-Platteville. Currently unemployed and raising a 4-year-old son in Madison, her next move could take her in a number of directions, perhaps serving her fellow veterans as a state employee or at a VA Hospital, or serving as a sales manager (she enjoyed the customer relationship aspect of sales and consistently outperformed her sales peers).

Asked how she would describe the job market for those who want full-time employment, Kilian noted that however much they’re lacking in desirability, some jobs can be used as a stepping stone. “It depends on personal circumstance,” she stated. “There are jobs out there if you are willing to settle. Working in retail, for me, was a getting-through-college kind of thing. It wasn’t a career move.”

In explaining her skill set, Kilian notes that she’s been to 14 different countries for six-month stretches of deployment. While she learned a lot from textbooks, her experiences with how different people in different cultures actually live their lives gave her a unique perspective on the human experience, and later helped her develop client relationships. “Being able to understand that everybody is not the same or has the same beliefs or lives the same, it’s hard to have that unless you have actually experienced it,” she says.

Another veteran, Tomah resident Jack Head, served in the Air Force for more than 20 years, and in a variety of roles: project manager, scheduler, facilities manager, training manager, and flight instructor. Given the importance of project management and transportation scheduling in today’s economy, he should find it easier to transfer his skills to the private sector. 

Yet he’s underemployed after accepting a temporary job — for a six-month probationary period — as a dockworker at Con-Way Freight. He took the job just to get his foot in the door. It could lead to full-time employment, but there are no promises for a man who would like to remain close to his family after 20 years in the military, including eight years of overseas deployments. 

Head, a partially disabled veteran, and his wife each have a military pension, but they also have young children, including a 4-year-old daughter who has battled cancer — which means they also have medical bills, and get caught up in aggravating battles with their insurer. 

Thankfully, working five hours a day as a dockworker will pay more than many full-time manufacturing jobs, and it’s more family friendly than truck driving. “I missed a lot of my kids’ growing up,” Head lamented while watching one of his sons play soccer. “There aren’t a lot of decent-paying jobs in Tomah that allow you a lot of time to do this.”

Tomah is near Fort McCoy and is home to a VA Medical Center, but Head has been frustrated in his attempts to gain employment because it seems that even though he’s not being overly particular, “you have to be working at the facility to apply for a lot of the jobs. I could not even get a job in the kitchen at the VA, cooking food.

“The biggest thing with hiring vets is they may not have specific qualifications, but I’m not applying for the chief of civil engineering.”

Retired, not relaxing

According to Leitinger, human resources professionals and recruiters sense the job market tightening up again, and employers are open to hiring baby boomers who were expecting to retire but still want to work. Whether they are out of work or retired and interested in a second career, or they simply want to supplement their retirement income to the extent they can, they want to remain active longer. That could be a function of erosion in their retirement accounts, or a simple aversion to boredom, but in general their motivating factors for working include generous benefits and earning potential.

One exception to that is Rossi Burton of DeForest, who is in the enviable position of simply wanting to supplement his retirement income. He’s not looking to launch a second career, he doesn’t have to work (other than to preserve his sanity), and unlike many baby boomers, big pay and generous benefits are not a necessity. His main challenge is that he is on the mend after recent surgery to his back (disc replacement) and shoulder (rotator cuff), and he might have some physical limitations.

While that remains to be seen — at this writing, he was waiting for the green light from an orthopedic specialist — the retired employee of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, an agency under the Department of Justice, is eager to work again. Over the past 25 years, Burton served at seven of the nation’s 114 federal prisons before retiring at age 50. While he held several positions, he retired as a correctional administrator from a prison in Florida. Correctional administrators are required to transfer locations every few years, and one of Burton’s stops was at the medium-security facility in Oxford, Wis.

“What I’m looking for now is, quite frankly, a job to supplement the difference between my retirement pay and what I made while I was working,” he says.

Burton thought he had a job that met his needs, a part-time position handling freight at a Home Depot from 8 p.m. to midnight, but his physical problems nixed that. “I had a disc replaced in my C-4, C-5, and basically I’m pretty physical as it is, but the doctor won’t allow me to do much until that bone material hardens up,” he explained. “I don’t think that’s going to hamper me in terms of looking for and finding a job. I certainly don’t want to go out on a construction site and handle heavy lifting, but I wouldn’t do that anyway. I don’t need to.”

He does need to be active and socially engaged, something that became very clear after he retired in 2010 and basically “idled” for two years. It was quite a departure from his prison administration experience, where he typically engaged a staff of 300 or more people and an inmate population of roughly 2,000. Occasionally, that engagement involved defusing stressful, chaotic situations.

Whether it’s Walmart, Menards, or a return engagement with Home Depot, Burton would like to put his personable demeanor to use. “I sat and did nothing for two years and that kind of drives you crazy after awhile,” he admitted. “So that basically motivated me to get out of the house. It’s nice to supplement my income and have a paycheck, but you have to get out and socialize.”

Baby boomers whose retirement accounts have yet to fully recover may have more interest in a 401(k) with a good company match. They might not be as technologically savvy as Generation X, but they do bring a wealth of knowledge, so their formal education is less of a consideration. “With older workers, we don’t need to be as concerned with their formal education or their official degrees,” notes Gadzalinski. “It’s more about their work experience and what they want to do.”

That’s music to the ears of Linda Ernsberger, who has no college degree and is just beginning the job hunt after 27 years with Quad/Graphics, a publicly traded printing and media company with more than 50 facilities. For the past several years, she served as a safety leader, directing process safety management, a requirement of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Her position was eliminated earlier this year, but in a state where manufacturing and commercial printing are central to the economy and impacted by government safety regulations, she doesn’t figure to be out of work for long.

But even with ample experience in developing, implementing, and auditing safety programs and processes, Ernsberger did express concern that the lack of a university degree could work against her. She has two years of education and business coursework at Indiana University in Bloomington, which is buttressed by an advanced safety certificate from the National Safety Council.

Ernsberger, a Fox Lake resident who once chaired the Wisconsin Safety Council, has been working her 25-year-old network of contacts, especially in the insurance industry, to find work. Thanks to LinkedIn, she has connected with former colleagues she hasn’t seen in 20 years. 

“With my background, for companies with about 50 employees that need a basic safety program, I could develop what they need,” she stated. “Safety is applicable across the board with the uniqueness of companies, whether it’s a dairy, whether it’s Harley-Davidson, or a printing company. Do you have an emergency plan? Do you have a hazardous materials program? Do you allow employees to take part in the safety program?”

Having ruled out starting her own business due to startup fees and insurance costs, Ernsberger is looking for loyalty in a future employer, and she’s looking for an employer that “grows” employees. “I’m not interested in just coming in, doing a job, and leaving, but coming in and participating in that business,” she stated. 

While she’s fortunate to have health insurance, fringe benefits are as important as compensation, trustworthiness, and loyalty. She would not consider salary and benefits in isolation but would evaluate them as a whole because some companies might offer sick days, others might offer short- and long-term disability insurance, and others might offer the whole package. 



While it’s still early in her job search, she’s already attended the Dane County Jobs Fair, and she has taken advantage of the state’s WorkSmart program, which has some good tools and resources for job seekers. In order to collect unemployment insurance, she says, job seekers are required to apply for jobs four times per week. She says that people hunting for a job have to think of the labor market as a jungle, but there are benefits to clearing away the brush. “One of my observations has been that if you can get unemployment and the WorkSmart program, you are becoming savvy on the computer — for sure,” she stated. 

In a way, losing her job started a process that she might have welcomed anyway. Call it the 27-year itch, because while she is thankful for her time at Quad/Graphics, “The last year was like, ‘what else is out there?’” she acknowledged. “What do I, as a baby boomer, bring to Millennial individuals coming up?’ I would have been open if somebody had approached me.”

Even with their experience, Gadzalinski says, baby boomers are well served by mentoring and access to a good onboarding-training program to acclimate them to a new company culture. If your organization cannot meet their salary expectations, she advises that you remind them of the value of the entire salary and benefits package as well as the opportunity for growth and promotion once they begin.

Hope springs eternal

With Generation Y, aka Millennials, hiring strategies must incorporate the potential for professional growth, upward mobility, and long-term earning potential. Flexible work schedules, telecommuting, and the ability to work from home are important to this 20-something group, and some time off to do community service work can also be a motivating factor. While recent grads also attend job fairs and other networking programs, they are more likely to reach potential employers through social media tools and corporate blogs, and it’s important for them to work for good corporate citizens. 

“From a branding perspective, the company they work for, that mission and that corporate philosophy, is very important to the younger generation,” Leitinger states. “They want to know where their company stands on social issues, the environment, etc.”

“There are a number of people whose field of study in college did not have an impact on what they are doing now, but they still found valuable employment in something they enjoy.” — Luke Spring, recent UW graduate and recently hired actuarial analyst, American Family Insurance

Luke Spring wouldn’t quibble with most of that, although other than LinkedIn, he’s not really into social media. Spring, a UW-Madison graduate, has worked pretty consistently since earning a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics in 2011, but in jobs largely unrelated to his chosen field. After working in what he called the “aquatics world,” including supervisory positions at outdoor pools and beaches, he recently landed the first assignment in his field, accepting a job as an actuarial analyst with American Family Insurance. It’s a six-month to one-year assignment, but it’s a start.

Spring noted that a lot of jobs in math require a master’s degree or Ph.D., so for a while he stuck with the field in which he previously worked and where he had worked his way up from a $5.50 minimum wage job to a self-supporting wage. He was content to do that for a while because he enjoyed the work, especially as a swim coach for kids, and he made some connections that helped with his job hunt. 

Having landed the American Family assignment through Spherion, he’s looking forward to the work of implementing rate changes that are determined by American Family Insurance. The insurer has a department that determines rates, and Spring will be involved with rolling them out and working with clients, explaining when they go into effect, and making sure everything is documented. 

Since it’s the first job where his degree applies in a significant way, he’s naturally excited to get started. Yet he says he was never frustrated with the hunt for this position because he kept working, stayed busy, and learned a few things along the way. “I definitely feel that, at this time in the job market, a college degree doesn’t necessarily mean that much,” he stated. “It’s just a matter of making the contacts and networking more than anything else, and I had a decent network in aquatics. That was something I enjoyed.”

In attending job fairs, he noticed something else about the job market. A lot of companies don’t seem to want to invest significantly more in their workforces, emphasizing seasonal or part-time work and de-emphasizing full-time work with benefits. And that concerns him. “That seems to be more and more common,” he says. “The biggest sense I get out of the job market is that more and more, employers are trying to take advantage of people that don’t have year-round employment, which is kind of terrifying to me. I’ve been lucky, and a lot of it has been due to the social aspects and networking.”

Thus far, the experience of some of Spring’s peers has been more frustrating, especially in terms of finding a job in their chosen field. He offered words of encouragement for other recent grads who are struggling to translate their college degrees into meaningful employment. “For the most part, people are finding work in their chosen fields, but I know a lot of people for whom it’s taken a while,” he says. “I’d definitely say there are a number of people whose field of study in college did not have an impact on what they are doing now, but they still found valuable employment in something they enjoy, which I think is quite common.”

Closing the gap

Given the skills gap cited by workforce development professionals, Gadzalinski believes companies will increasingly have to rely on internal training programs to close those gaps and fill open positions. “You have to open your eyes to all the different markets,” she opines. “Can you train people? Can you bring them on board and train them to do what is needed? We will see more of that in the future.”

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