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Tapping Untapped Talent: A Q&A with Wendi Safstrom

The head of the SHRM Foundation is helping overlooked job seekers—and young people entering HR—find work.

A woman in a pink shirt sitting on a chair.

​Wendi Safstrom launched her HR career at Hyatt Hotels' corporate offices in Chicago in the compensation and benefits group. That was followed soon after by a stint leading the company's college recruiting efforts, where she traveled the country seeking management trainee candidates. Five years later, she jumped into the online world as a recruiter for the digital advertising division at Leo Burnett Company, an advertising powerhouse based in Chicago. Looking back, she says she truly enjoyed her early work experiences, but she had no idea they would lead to her current role as executive director of the SHRM Foundation.

"By my late 20s, I considered myself to be a very junior HR professional," Safstrom says, despite having seven years of HR experience.

"Then I got a call from a former supervisor at Hyatt who said there was an opportunity at a nonprofit called the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation that was right up my alley," she says. She soon learned something important about herself: Helping students and others who need educational and career assistance was a mission she could embrace for many years to come.

The SHRM Foundation works on a wide range of initiatives that benefit large swaths of the HR community. How do you prioritize and fund these efforts?

We believe social change begins in the workplace, so our primary goal is to elevate and empower HR as a social force. HR professionals are the engine that drives and leads social change. So through generous funding from our members—and from great supporters such as the Lumina Foundation and USAA Foundation, and companies including JP Morgan Chase, Comcast/NBC Universal and, of course, SHRM—we're able to give close to $500,000 in scholarships and awards every year that help advance our social change initiatives, including our work helping employers identify and hire untapped talent.

The SHRM Foundation started focusing on untapped talent two years ago with its efforts to help returning veterans find employment. Does that effort continue?

Absolutely! In fact, we'll be expanding our work this year to support military spouses and caregivers. More than 10,000 HR professionals, hiring managers and others have registered for the certificate program we offer, and more than 4,000 people have completed the course. In fact, people are so proud of their certificate that they've taken pictures of it and tweeted the photo and posted it on Instagram and Facebook, which is amazing!

It's a real commitment to complete the coursework, and I think it's a really important addition to your professional portfolio. It shows that you're committed to changing your company's culture and making a workplace that's conducive and welcoming to veterans.

Another initiative that attracted a lot of attention is "Getting Talent Back to Work," which focuses on helping job seekers with criminal histories find employment.

It has, and the website——is a fantastic resource. It includes a toolkit and lots of great content, as well as a pledge for employers to commit to considering these candidates when hiring. So far, we have close to 3,000 individuals and 600 organizations that have said, "We're making the commitment and signing the pledge because we're interested in making a difference." The Foundation is building on that by creating a Digital Hub, additional training and a certificate program for HR professionals who want to become the best-in-class in terms of recruitment and retention strategies for those who've been formerly incarcerated.

You're also working to help companies recognize and hire job hunters with disabilities to fill critical positions through the Foundation's new Employing Abilities @Work program. What's your message for those who believe accommodating these employees is too expensive?

More than 70 percent of HR professionals believe the potential cost of providing an accommodation is a challenge when recruiting, hiring or promoting people with disabilities. We've found that the business return is well worth the investment, and frankly, the cost of accommodation tends to be very, very low. Accommodations generally have to be made, but they're not as onerous as some people think. Often, the accommodation isn't about a particular workspace, but it involves just providing different work hours or the type of work that an individual can do best.

Also, this issue is about a lot more than just physical disabilities. We hear from leaders across industry sectors that accommodation issues related to mental health and mental wellness are at the forefront, and that the SHRM Foundation is helping to address that. 

You're also focusing on young professionals who need assistance entering the HR profession. What's their biggest challenge?

Landing their first job in HR. One of the things we're exploring is how companies small, medium and large are recruiting talent for their HR function. Then we need to find ways to help students find jobs in the industry.

A perfect suggestion for students is to attend a local SHRM chapter meeting where you've got 100 or 200 HR professionals in the room, raise your hand and say, "I'm trying to break into HR." They'll help you. But one thing students say they hear is, "You need experience to get a job." So we're in the process of developing an apprenticeship/internship program for future HR professionals—an "internship in a box"—that we can take to organizations and say, "We've got a student in your backyard who's looking to get a foot in the door."

The Foundation certainly has a full plate for 2020. What do you do to relax when the work day is done?

I love this workout called barre3, which is a combo of Pilates, yoga and ballet. I'm not proficient in any of those, but it's a good mental and physical workout. I also like to travel, read and spend time with my niece. And I live in Old Town Alexandria, Va., and just love the area. There's easy access to the Northeast corridor, and you can go to the mountains or to the beach.

I moved here from Chicago, so I explore lots of local restaurants—especially deep-dish pizza restaurants. It's not as good in Virginia as in Chicago, but when I'm back in Chicago, I go to Lou Malnati's Pizza for a butter-crust, light-sauce pepperoni pizza, which, by the way, you can order online from anywhere in the world.

Interview by Tony Lee, vice president of editorial for SHRM.


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