Hire, train and hire again Featured

9:58am EDT July 22, 2002

The old cliché has never been truer: good help is hard to find.

With the nation’s unemployment rate hovering around 4.4 percent since a year ago, and a net gain of 2.2 million jobs in about the same period of time, there simply don’t seem to be enough people to go around—at least not for the positions you have to fill right now.

According to a recent survey by Arthur Andersen’s Enterprise Group and National Small Business United, 47 percent of small business owners say that recruitment and retention of employees are the biggest challenges they face today.

“The problem is finding the right employee for the right job,” says Sandra Kay Neal, founder of Synergistic Organizational Solutions and a specialist in work force development. “And given the tight labor market that is out there right now, you don’t have the luxury of hiring 10 people and hoping that one of those 10 is the one you want.”

Neal has a Ph.D. in industrial organized psychology and is an adjunct professor of human relations at the University of Akron, and of psychology at Kent State University. With these credentials, she sees the work force development issue from a different vantage point than most business owners.

The problem for most companies is that work force development is an extracurricular activity: It’s something you do in addition to daily business.

But companies such as New Philadelphia’s Lauren International (see this month’s cover story), which have made work force development a focus of their business, have found that the investment pays off with loyalty, productivity and innovation.

So how do you achieve that focus? Human resources experts say that the most successful companies are good at three broad-based disciplines:

  • First, of course, is recruiting and staffing: to maintain an ever-changing pool of high-quality candidates and have the tools to hire the right person from that pool at the right time.

  • Second is orientation and training, and experts say that what most companies do in this area is just enough to get a new hire working, but not enough to make that person a corporate asset.

  • Finally, there is retention, a complex mix of communication, benefits, education and other tools that can be used to build a commitment between employer and employee.

The search

If there is one mistake Neal sees more often than any other in the recruitment process, it’s a failure to develop specific job descriptions and an interviewing system that is connected to those descriptions.

“Being real clear about exactly what it is you’re looking for and hiring people based on those particular skills and characteristics will ensure that you get the right person for the job,” Neal says.

In contrast with how most hiring is done, she holds that interviewing is not the best way to evaluate prospects; the process more often yields decisions based on social skills—people the boss would like for a friend—than job skills.

Though others might disagree, Neal prefers a structured interview, in which every prospect is asked the same questions and scored objectively based on their responses.

“In a sense, that’s what the staffing businesses do,” she says. “They just tend not to do it at the same level of depth that I will because they are servicing too many different clients.”

She attributes the boom in staffing agencies to the fact that hiring people is a specialty.

But even the specialists are having a hard time. According to a survey by the National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services, 90 percent of such agencies have more trouble finding new recruits than they did in 1997. And yet their business continues to grow: third-quarter revenues across the industry last year were up 16.3 percent from the same period in 1997, while employment of temporaries was up 9 percent—to 2.9 million a day—in the same period.

The biggest change Lisa Doyle, branch manager of Manpower in Akron, Medina and Green, has noticed is how temporary staffers are being used. “They use temporary staffing for projects and they are waiting a longer time before hiring that next permanent employee.”

The hook

“Bosses are notorious for knowing in their heads what needs to be done. They think because they say something, it will just naturally happen,” says Neal, when asked to comment on the state of training today. “Most people don’t train well. That’s the reason why not just any good player can become a coach. Just knowing how to do something well doesn’t mean you can teach someone else how to do it well.”

Training has a lot to do with communication, which Neal says is the most critical component of employee retention. Starting with employee orientation, honest communication should be top priority regardless of the level of the job.

“Orientations that mesh with the experience work,” Neal says. “But if I bring you in and orient you and I tell you about this open door policy and I tell you we are really excited to have everybody here and we really value a team effort and we don’t put a lot of stock in hierarchy, and then you experience a closed door policy and you experience an enormous amount of hierarchy ... you’re more likely to quit because your orientation didn’t mesh with what it was you were experiencing.

“People don’t like quitting work,” she continues. “It’s uncomfortable for them. It requires them to make changes and people don’t like change. So when people quit, it does indicate by and large that there was something wrong. And in a labor market like we’ve got right now, the best employees walk because they can get another job tomorrow.”

Employer’s checklist: What kind of commitment do your people have?

A strong and productive work force is a committed work force. But according to Sandra Kay Neal of Synergistic Organizational Solutions, there are two kinds of commitment. (We added the third.)

Continuance Commitment

Employees stick around for rewards that are based on longevity, such as vesting and anniversary bonuses. While this can dampen turnover, it doesn’t enhance work quality or encourage the kind of productivity that is best for employer and employee.

Affective Commitment

An emotional loyalty to the company, based on a sense of purpose and team. It is fostered through communication, fair and frequent performance checks and competitive salary, benefits and working conditions—and usually results not only in lower turnover, but in higher productivity.

Coercive Commitment

Can also be referred to as “What commitment?” It is based on the recession era philosophy of a day’s work for a day’s pay, and the assumption that people will keep a job simply because it’s easier than looking for a new one. To be sure, some will stick around—but mainly the people you wish would leave.