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Curing those HR Blues Featured

9:48am EDT July 22, 2002

Allan Halcrow knows what does and does not work for companies that struggle with today’s ever-thinning labor pool.

If you’re taking a wait-and-see attitude, Halcrow offers mixed news. The problem isn’t going to get any better, he says. But employers don’t have to sit back defenseless.

Dealing with the changing face of America’s workers, Halcrow says, begins with transforming the way you look at the hiring process — and how you view your company.

What do you see as the number one issue affecting business owners?

The labor shortage. (It) is driving everything right now. Forget about finding top quality people, which you really have to work to do, but even finding acceptable level employees just gets to be a bigger and bigger challenge everywhere.

What can companies do to help offset the problem?

The key is to step outside of this box we’ve all had ourselves locked into for such a long time. Which is, you run an ad, do an interview and hire a person for a specific job that has these finite responsibilities, these work hours at this place all the time. Instead, look at it in much more fluid ways.

You’re not hiring someone so much for a job as much as you’re hiring them for projects or tasks that need to be done, and hiring people for sort of their overall outlook and values and skill set as much as specific experience.

For example, Sears was having a really hard time finding computer programmers in the Chicago area. They found this group of programmers in Idaho that had been recently downsized from some other organization, a group of 10 who had worked together for a long time and had a successful working relationship and a good team mentality.

But they didn’t want to relocate to Chicago. Sears ended up hiring all 10 of them and setting them up in this telecommuting facility in Boise so they could stay in Idaho, yet get the work done.

How are business owners retaining employees once they have them on board?

In general, turnover is here to stay. Most employers can’t afford to look at it as a short-term problem. I don’t think it is associated with what people are calling Generation X, because it pretty much cuts across the whole spectrum of the work force.

A lot of it is our own fault. When I say “our fault,” I mean business in general for the downsizing that went on in the late ’80s and into the mid-’90s. Corporate America as a whole has sent the signal to people that you are responsible for your own career. There’s no such thing as a guaranteed job.

You have to keep your skills up and be ready to move if we decide we’re eliminating this department or this job or this function. Employees have bought into that much better than the employers themselves.

We did a survey of employees last year to get our hands around some of this stuff for our readers and ask why people choose to leave a job. What we found overwhelmingly is money doesn’t really matter. Hardly anybody changes jobs for more money.

People change jobs when they perceive it’s in their best interest to somehow either sustain or advance their career. It happens with people who feel they have hit a certain plateau in the organization and there is nowhere to go. There’s no advancement opportunity, which doesn’t necessarily mean advancement up into management, but at least advancement sideways into a new set of skills or work on a new business line or somehow get some additional experience that will be valuable in the future.

If employers can help in some way by providing ongoing training and setting up situations in which employees can keep their skills up and continue working with the latest equipment, they are much more likely to stay.

Do you think most employers are making the appropriate changes to deal with the shortage of workers?

Most employers think everything we are seeing right now in terms of the labor shortage is directly tied to the economy today, and that if the economy changed tomorrow, it would all go back to the way it used to be. Some of them are sort of waiting for that to happen —if we can just wait this out, whether it’s two more weeks or six months or even two years.

But, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. So there is a certain level of denial, and because of that, I’m not seeing a whole lot of proactive work to try to change how things are done and set themselves up better for the future. One of the things very interesting to me that doesn’t get talked about much is ... the way work is structured overall in our society in terms of how jobs are designed and how they’re rewarded, compensated and evaluated.

Although it’s been tweaked over time, it’s all a direct outgrowth of what was set up during the industrial revolution. We’re talking about systems that were created for an entirely different economy, an entirely different era, in which people had totally different expectations.

Now we’re in the information age and we’re trying to take these systems that are really very old-fashioned, sort of square systems, and shove them into these round holes, hoping somehow it will work, when it won’t.

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is associate editor at SBN.