Parker McKenna, senior vice president of HR at Mosaic in Omaha, Neb., says his organization—a provider of care services to people with disabilities—has always had to work hard to bring in front-line employees. That’s because it takes a special type of worker to serve the company’s clients with the compassion they deserve.
Lately, however, hiring at the organization has gotten even harder.
“I’ve only been at Mosaic for three years, but this is really an unprecedented level of turnover in our workforce,” says McKenna, who holds a SHRM-SCP credential. “It is more difficult today to find candidates and retain them.”
Finding qualified job candidates is tough for all companies, but the challenge is particularly acute in certain industries, such as health care and transportation. As the Great Resignation drags on, organizations nationwide are wondering what HR professionals can do to bring viable candidates through the door in a labor market that is plagued by significant turnover and stubbornly high job vacancy rates.
Compensation can play a role, of course, and retention and referral bonuses can help. But increased spending often isn’t enough, and companies’ pockets are only so deep.
So what techniques, other than hiking pay rates, are organizations using to attract candidates? Strategies include wooing retirees back into the workforce with flexible scheduling, partnering with educational institutions to create pipelines of prospects and amping up training.
HR professionals also say fostering an inclusive culture that honors the ideas and contributions of employees is more important than ever.
“You almost need to be a sociologist in HR today,” says Mark Berry, SHRM-SCP, vice president of HR at Indiana Packers Corp., a food wholesaler in Delphi, Ind. “The Great Resignation is showing us that if you don’t understand the perspective of the other person, [you] will lose in the battle to win talent.”
On the pages that follow, five HR professionals share how they are competing to attract and retain employees in this grueling war for top talent.
Vice president, HR
Indiana Packers Corp., Delphi, Ind.
Mark Berry has seen plenty in more than 25 years as an HR professional. Until the pandemic, however, he had never seen “people simply ghosting us.” It’s no longer unusual for candidates who have expressed interest in entry-level or management positions to ditch their applications without a word, sometimes when an offer is imminent, says Berry, vice president of HR at Indiana Packers Corp., a retail and processed foods company with personnel across three primary operating locations in the Midwest.
In late 2021, the company was attracting 60 percent of the job applicants it had received in a normal week prior to the pandemic, Berry says, and that’s an improvement from 40 percent to 50 percent earlier in the year. At the same time, more employees than usual have either departed for other jobs or retired as a result of government incentives that make it easier to step back, child care pressures or concerns about COVID-19. Plus, “right now almost everyone can get a job, and companies have done some really surprising things with compensation and benefits,” Berry adds.
He declined to disclose the number of vacancies at Indiana Packers, but as a percentage of total positions, the openings are more than the company has had in his five years there.
To hire workers in this tough environment, the company—which produces bacon, hams, hot dogs and lunchmeats at five plants in three states—is recruiting former workers and recent retirees, even if they are new to the field. Flexible, part-time schedules are available for employees willing to work between 16 and 30 hours per week.
“It has helped unbelievably,” Berry says. “We’re finding in many cases that people who have retired don’t want full-time jobs but are still interested in part-time [work] simply to have something to do.”
Finally, culture, though amorphous, can be a powerful differentiator at a time when employees have choices about where to work, Berry says. “We’re building on simple words like respect, accept and include,” he notes.
In terms of communication, the company has tried to reach employees in multiple ways, including text, e-mail and information sent to employees’ homes. The company is now evaluating smartphone-enabled platforms that would allow information sharing to go both ways so Indiana Packers could receive employee input almost in real time.
And for the first time in the company’s 30-year history, it is surveying all team members, with raffles and drawings designed to encourage people to take 15 minutes to respond within a two-week window. The basic question is simple: “What is most important to you, and to what degree are we meeting that need?”
Vice president of people
M1 Finance, Chicago
Even rapidly growing technology companies are struggling as a result of the tight labor market. Maria Selvaggio, vice president of people at M1 Finance, a digital financial services company that bills itself as “the finance super app,” had to pull out all the stops to add 225 staff members in 2021.
Founded in 2015, M1 ramped up its hiring in conjunction with four rounds of private equity fundraising that occurred between June 2020 and July 2021 and that yielded capital investments of more than $300 million.
“We decided to use it to take some big swings and put out some new products,” Selvaggio says. “To do that, you need people.”
The company recruited software engineers, product managers, operations staff and client services team members as it continued developing its platform, which includes an online brokerage, a line of credit, debit accounts and a credit card.
But resumes were slow to arrive at the fledgling company, and the pandemic didn’t help.
“We had to do a lot of outreach to individuals through LinkedIn,” Selvaggio says. “We ended up doubling our referral bonus so our employees could reach out to old colleagues.”
From the start, the company has focused on retention.
“We didn’t want to hire just to lose them again in a year,” she says. “We have three tenets: People want a good manager, to see themselves grow and to have meaningful work. Those things are more important than free lunch.”
The company makes itself attractive by offering intensive management training and holding six-month career check-ins rather than annual reviews. M1 also has career ladders and a process for lateral moves.
Head of HR
Curtin Co., Charlotte, N.C.
At the Curtin Co., which operates trucking and construction services businesses across the Carolinas, HR head Myra Thomas says managers are currently feeling a pinch, particularly in the search for individuals with commercial driver’s licenses to haul materials and equipment to and from worksites across the region. The organization had 30 vacancies in late December, but it’s not as if it’s usually awash in applicants.
“Our managers have always experienced this sort of shortage,” Thomas says. “A lot of different industries are supported by people who have commercial driver’s licenses, and there’s great competition for individual talent.”
The nature of the company’s work also poses specific challenges.
“Transportation is very complex, and because we support construction, we have a different ‘ask’ when speaking to applicants,” Thomas explains.
For example, a lot of infrastructure construction occurs in the evenings to avoid traffic disruptions. “We need to hire not only a licensed professional, but also an individual who may not have ideal hours and may have to work nights and weekends,” she says.
The company is mapping out a new strategy to bring more applicants in the door, Thomas says, by engaging with community and technical colleges that offer truck-driver training to figure out ways to increase the driver applicant pool.
The Curtin Co. plans to attend college job fairs to educate prospects about the company. Thomas sees it as an opportunity to demonstrate a positive culture and a willingness to train individuals who are just beginning their careers—important employer attributes in a highly competitive job market.
By emphasizing training, “we can be part of their experience going into this career field and give them that leg up,” Thomas says. “We have to be willing to train, open doors and cast a wide net for candidates. We tell them, ‘We’re on this journey with you.’ ”
More than 25 years in HR and recruiting in a notoriously challenging field have convinced her that talent shortages can be addressed with persistence.
“Employers can’t sit back and wait for candidates to bring themselves through the door,” Thomas says. “They have to be proactive and look for ways to engage diverse audiences.”
Senior vice president of HR
Mosaic, Omaha, Neb.
Staffing an organization that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities live full and dignified lives has never been easy, says Parker McKenna, senior vice president of HR at Mosaic. But it’s harder now than ever.
“We talk about being called for this work, as it’s not for everyone,” McKenna says. “It’s hard work for a relatively low wage, and in this labor shortage we are very much at a pinch point.”
The company had several hundred vacancies last fall, he says.
Mosaic is a faith-based organization that serves clients in 13 states from Maine to Arizona. McKenna notes that about 70 percent of the company’s 4,000 employees are on the front lines in a field that was known for high turnover and burnout even before the pandemic amplified pressures. In addition to providing care in varied settings to clients with intellectual and physical disabilities, Mosaic also serves individuals who are aging, on the autism spectrum or in need of behavioral support.
Finding ways to accelerate the hiring process has been a key focus of late.
“We’ve tried to take out some steps in our process to reduce the cycle time to hire people,” McKenna says.
That hasn’t been easy, however. Because health care service providers are highly regulated, numerous steps are needed to approve hires. Vaccination mandates have also made some prospects skittish, McKenna says.
Mosaic has focused on identifying pre-employment contingencies that can be deferred until after an employee starts work, or in some cases even eliminated. For example, the organization has reconsidered its education and experience standards that exceed those required by law.
“We are being as creative as possible, streamlining our process and making it as simple as possible,” McKenna says. “Moving quickly matters in a competitive market, because the employer that moves fastest often gets the hire.”
The organization is also increasing its focus on flexibility, continuous learning and professional development. Pulse surveys on employee engagement have been critical.
“We are asking questions of our workforce every month. That’s new for us,” he says. “We’re pretty decentralized, which means understanding what’s important to people is a challenge sometimes. By connecting the surveys to timekeeping and payroll, it’s right in their face once a month.”
One of the messages Mosaic has received is that front-line supervisors who also have their own client loads need additional skills and support to manage their direct reports, McKenna says.
To help meet staffing needs, Mosaic has tried hiring bonuses, employee referral campaigns and retention bonuses, but McKenna says cash payouts have “relatively short-term impact.”
Direct wages are more important in a population where “people will leave to make 50 cents more an hour.” However, because services are largely funded by Medicaid reimbursements, the ability to offer hourly rate hikes is limited.
“We are a price taker, not a price maker,” McKenna says.
Interim chief HR officer, Washington and Montana region
Providence, Renton, Wash.
Higher patient counts, chronic nursing shortages, accelerated retirements and a spike in turnover by first-year nurses have added up to a heavy load for Providence, a full-spectrum health care company that operates in seven Western states.
Even in simple times, nursing is a tough profession with high first-year turnover rates. Consequently, Providence has been building recruitment pipeline programs for several years, says Bryan Fix, interim chief HR officer for the Washington and Montana region.
But over the past two years, the situation has worsened. Retirements jumped 18 percent in 2021 as the pandemic drove many exhausted nurses to hang up their blood pressure cuffs. Burnout is also having a profound impact at a time when Providence is receiving half the typical number of applications. Vacancies are up 75 percent from pre-pandemic levels, Fix says.
“Across the health care industry, we used to lose 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 nurses in the first year,” he says. “Now it’s 1 in 3, and that puts a huge burden on your hiring and training.”
Patient counts are up not just because of COVID-19, but also because the regions Providence serves are growing and investments in new hospitals haven’t kept up with demand for health care. To meet staffing needs, Fix says, Providence is trying many strategies—a few of which are bearing fruit.
First, the organization focuses on retention. “This is huge because if you don’t retain correctly, you can’t dig out of the hole of vacancies in the current labor market,” he says.
Some of the solution is purely monetary. In September 2021, Providence added a $220 million “gratitude bonus” pool that was distributed among all caregivers and front-line leaders, including nurses.
The retention strategy also involves engaging employees on difficult topics, such as state and local vaccine mandates.
“We’re trying to help them through the process rather than taking the stance that ‘the mandate’s here; you’re out,’ ” Fix says.
Second, Providence has a broad set of workforce development initiatives underway. The hospital system participates in programs to bring employees in from abroad for hard-to-fill jobs, including nursing and respiratory therapy. And it is creating pipeline programs to attract people with diverse backgrounds who might not have considered a career in health care to get certified in disciplines such as nurse technician, nursing assistant, medical assistant and pharmacy technician.
Finally, Providence focuses on the caregiver experience. It’s asking managers to put more time and effort into onboarding “to make sure people are cemented into our workforce,” Fix says. Providence stresses its status as a faith-based, values-driven nonprofit.
“Our No. 1 attractor is that we can do things differently than for-profits do,” Fix says. “When people are a fit to that mission, they often stay 20 to 30 years.”
Debra Cope is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.
Photo illustrations by C.J. Burton.
HR Teams Are Stretched ThinAs they struggle to fill job vacancies at their organizations, HR teams are experiencing shortages, too. Read more here.