Now hiring … please?

With job candidates more in control, what are some employers doing to attract workers?
0921 Editorialcontent Top100

Greater Madison always seems to be in the mix when pollsters or travelogues rank the great places to live, work, play, and even retire. The area is frequently cited for its healthy economy and low unemployment rate, its world-class university located in the heart of state government, or just the cool vibe people enjoy about the entire area.

Locals already know these things. COVID-19 couldn’t care less.

According to the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. added a robust 943,000 jobs in July, a positive sign when so many employers are desperately seeking workers. Another boost may come when the federal government’s $300 per week unemployment benefit — which
many blame for keeping people at home — expires on Sept. 6, but that’s a debatable point.

Now, as the Delta variant surges and companies once again look to masking protocols and back-to-work options, there’s been a sizable shift in the balance of power in the workforce.

Employees are gaining the upper hand.

In this Largest 100 Employers feature, we spoke with representatives from Agrace, American Family Insurance, Placon, Promega, and UW Health to learn what they’re doing to attract and retain employees. There’s an undercurrent of concern because businesses need employees and competition has ramped up.

Agrace: a candidate’s market

Julia Houck at Agrace says the hospice and palliative care center is holding its own, but she’s deeply concerned about the lack of nursing educators and caregivers in general. Houck, the chief strategy officer, has been with Agrace for 13 years, and while she says the community-based nonprofit is finding employees, it could do better.

“We could use more people. There’s a serious national and state nursing shortage and the pandemic hasn’t helped.”

Houck is worried there will be fewer nurses and caregivers in the future. “We’ve seen a decline in applicants and people choosing not to go into nursing even after getting a degree,” she notes. “We used to place an ad and find 15 people. Now we may be competing with two other employers due to the nursing shortage.”

It’s not for lack of trying. Agrace adjusted its hourly rates last year and has been focusing on employee engagement for several years, even hiring a director of engagement. The organization offers an internal scholarship program — with the help of Madison College — to attract high-school graduates interested in pursuing a health care career. “We’ll support [qualified] people from certified nursing assistant (CNA) through a master’s degree if they’re interested,” Houck says.

“But in the Madison nursing market, if you can’t get bites in 10 days you’ll have a hard time,” she reports. Agrace gets responses, but often the number of hours a perfect candidate wants to work aren’t in sync with the employer’s needs.

“It’s a candidate’s market,” Houck concludes, “and we need to morph ourselves to adjust to their needs. It’s the wave of the future. Employees will identify what they need, and employers will respond. That, and remote work, is a big change.”

One serious concern Houck has is the lack of nurse educators. “Who will take care of all the retiring baby boomers? There’s no state plan to replace either physicians or nurses.” She hopes that changes — and quickly because the interest is there at the high-school level, Houck explains, but educators are hard to find.

Agrace has purposefully recruited nurses from neighboring states with statewide plans in place. “Minnesota has more nurses, so why not move them to Madison?”

American Family Insurance: A penchant for pensions

At American Family Insurance, Christina Parrott, director of talent acquisition, says AmFam also has struggled to find workers. “We hired extensively in 2020 and picked up some great talent, especially in the technology sector, but now candidates are in the driver’s seat,” she says.

“Our application rates have remained stable, but if we don’t act fast, we’re finding candidates will take another offer and we may lose them.”

American Family has always had a great employee-value proposition, she explains, but the company is beginning to put more of an emphasis on flexible work schedules and opportunities for talent mobility, which is of particular interest to younger workers. “It’s a great way to attract people in this hot market.”

Benefits include paid parental leave, paid time off, an internship program, and not only a 401(k) but a pension program as well. “Most companies don’t offer pensions anymore,” she says.

The company’s nationally expanding brand helps too, as more people are finding out about its community focus and commitment to social responsibility.

“A few years ago, we moved to a $20 per hour minimum wage,” Parrott explains, “but we also offer geographic differentials, so if you’re in a higher wage area, like the east or west coasts for example, we can apply a differential to enable us to be more competitive.”

Despite the benefits, American Family still reports more vacancies than usual.

Parrott says recruitment efforts of the past tended to be more successful if a candidate had some sort of tie to Madison. “Before the pandemic, we had to attract talent from all over and then sell them on moving here. It was hard to recruit people from the coasts, where most of the tech talent was.”

That strategy has changed, however. The company is recruiting at a pace Parrott hasn’t seen for several years, and being able to recruit nationally has been a game changer, she says. “It’s helping us meet our goals and attract more diverse talent.

“It may settle down somewhat, but we’ll always need to stay on our toes.”

Placon: Blitzing the market

Placon has over 500 employees in Madison and nearly 800 when its locations in Minnesota, Indiana, and Massachusetts are included.

The company manufactures thermoformed and injection-molded plastic packaging. At the end of July, Leah Elsen, vice president of human resources, was struggling to fill about 115 positions, including about 70 production jobs.

Prior to the pandemic, the company averaged 40 job vacancies at any given time. “The good news is, we’ve fared very well during the pandemic, so we’re very financially sound,” Elsen reports.

Placon beefed up recruiting, increased pay, and regularly surveys the market to ensure wages remain competitive. Of late, it’s blitzed the market with radio, TV, and billboard ads, and held an online jobs fair. It also has offered significant sign-on bonuses of up to $3,000, Elsen notes.

The strategy was warranted. “At the end of 2020, our turnover was 12%,” says Elsen. “Now it’s over 28%.” Much is caused by voluntary churn, where people leave and either stay home, or find different shift schedules. Currently, Placon averages about three new production workers a week.

The company conducts pulse surveys allowing employees to share both good and not-so-good comments with management. Says Elsen: “We really want to know how our employees are feeling because on top of recruitment, we have a retention issue.”

The manufacturer operates 24-hours a day, seven days a week, running 12-hour shifts on a rotating schedule. “So, when we’re short staffed, the other employees have to work overtime. When we’re fully staffed, 12-hour shifts allow for significantly more time off during the year than a typical eight-hour schedule,” she adds. “That’s the challenge.”

Company benefits include health and dental insurance, a 401(k), and the ability to get paid for eight hours of community service a year, but Elsen is particularly excited about Placon’s profit-sharing program. Despite being short-staffed, the company performed particularly well during the pandemic, and employees in the program will see a higher-than-average payout this year.

Promega: Casting a wider net

With 600 employees required to be on site at Promega’s Fitchburg campus and hundreds of others working remotely or elsewhere, safety is of utmost concern, notes Molly Lenzendorf, talent acquisition partner.

With a 95% retention rate, its recruitment efforts focus on getting people hired.

Promega manufactures products for scientists in the life sciences, forensic science, and molecular diagnostics fields, and its three recruiters have been struggling to fill highly specialized positions.

Remote work capabilities have allowed the company to focus more on recruiting top talent. “That’s been a nice change,” Lenzendorf says. “It’s allowed us to expand our talent pool and cast a wider net to attract more diverse talent.”

Job candidates can explore the Fitchburg campus virtually or through team members who can conduct virtual tours and walk throughs.

But it may not matter whether a candidate works in Fitchburg or California, depending on the position. “We might hire someone not located here and let them work remotely, but we’re still doing relocation for people moving here. Overall, we’re being more flexible and thinking about hiring in different ways.”

Promega analyzed its compensation structure and pay scales to better compete nationally. It also increased its minimum starting salaries for new, hourly roles and bumped its minimum wage to $15 per hour.

The company created a COVID-19 task force to ensure employees were updated on changing guidelines and remained safe at work.

It implemented anonymous but mandatory onsite surveillance testing to screen for COVID; expanded its mental health benefits; and increased support for employees with children at home, providing paid time off and extended caregiver relief time.

As a benefit for employees with school-age children, Promega also partnered with Kosa spa owner Shilpa Sankaran, who founded 5Elements Learning Community, in the creation of Camp Ideation. The space provides on-campus supervision for children who are learning virtually so their parents don’t have to worry about them being home alone.

Promega also provides virtual fitness classes, virtual dietitian sessions, and ergonomic support for employees, whether in the office or at home.

“I think our retention rate is high because Promega has always supported the family and the whole employee,” states Lenzendorf. “We recognize that home life affects work life and vice versa, and COVID has really magnified that.”

UW Health: Remote concerns

“In this market, the well of workers is not what it used to be and it’s creating challenges,” states Betsy Clough, chief human resources officer at UW Health — IB’s largest employer on the following list. “We have hundreds of openings from registered nurses, environmental services, culinary roles, administrative roles, and patient scheduling, so this is our time to get creative in how we outreach to different populations of people who may be interested in work.”

UW Health is also expanding, she says, adding a need for health care technology and telemedicine positions as well.

During the pandemic, there wasn’t a lot of turnover because people were staying put in their jobs. “Now I think we’ll expect to see turnover, and I don’t think that will change quickly.”

That’s concerning, she explains, and forces the organization to constantly evaluate its strategies and tactics for retention. “We’re exploring all options,” she says.

UW Health supported its COVID-19 vaccine clinics and screening locations by recruiting retirees, students, and health care professionals. “They were critical in helping us meet our staffing needs,” Clough says.

Last summer, in fact, UW Health expanded apprenticeships with the hope of getting ahead of the workforce shortages.

The organization learned a lot too. “We’ve learned that we can do a lot of work remotely. So now the plan is to have employees (clinical or not) who can work remotely to remain off site if they can, and we’re working with the leaders to understand what their space needs are. Maybe they just get together once or twice a week to collaboratively work.”

Benefits are always evaluated, Clough notes, but the remote-work piece has been particularly successful, and workforce flexibility is another popular benefit if it can be accommodated.

From a hiring standpoint though, remote work presents unique risks. “People can live here in Madison or in the Midwest but work for companies on the coasts that pay more.

“I am hopeful that we will figure out a way to address this challenge.”

Clough’s biggest concern is retaining current employees.

“The market is exciting right now. There’s lots of openings and opportunities. We’ve had a really challenging year and I think people are tired and many are burnt out. Maybe they want to leave the industry to go to another organization. It’s very real and it’s happening.

“People have had to work very differently over the past 18 months,” Clough says. “We’ve asked different things of our staff whether they were a front-line nurse, medical assistant, nursing assistant, or physician. Then, you add on the personal challenges — perhaps their kids weren’t in school, someone didn’t have child care, their family was sick — and there are just a lot of factors contributing to this.

“That said, if you were to go into any of our facilities right now you may not notice because we have a wonderful staff that is completely committed to being the best.”

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