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20 Unique Ideas for Finding Talent

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Trevor Gile repurposes washed-out car salespeople as sales have cooled and trains them to become repair advisors in the over-stressed service departments of his family's two Motorcars of Cleveland dealerships in Ohio.

Providence St. Joseph Health System CEO Rod Hochman spearheaded creation of an entire new School of Health Professions at the University of Providence in Great Falls, Montana, which used to be a tiny liberal-arts school affiliated with the Catholic-based company.

And in Chicago, CEO Jonathan Miller is willing to tap into the local pool of idle ex-inmates to staff production lines at his company, Element Bars, which makes nutrition bars.

"If you look for passion and a willingness to learn, you tend to find better people than those you have to fit into a box," Miller says. "Because my box is bigger, I've had fewer challenges in the current employment market."

By now, thousands of CEOs can identify with the urgency felt by these chiefs, because they well know that there are about 700,000 fewer unemployed Americans these days than there are jobs. This extreme shortage of able-bodied potential employees has set up an economy-wide game of musical chairs that CEOs experience viscerally, because they can't afford to lose it. Solving, or at least easing, that labor crunch has risen to the top of nearly every CEO's priority list, demanding their unprecedented creativity in attracting qualified or trainable workers right now—and testing their strategic capabilities for keeping people far into the future.

Here are 20 creative ways CEOs and their companies are finding and hooking new employees in the most challenging environment in memory:

1. Become missional. In-demand millennials famously want their work to mean something sublime. Some CEOs interpret that desire as simply demanding interesting tasks, and dangle what their company can offer in that regard.

"We've got an embarrassment of riches when it comes to challenging, exciting work with some of the greatest tech teams in the world, such as Google and Microsoft," says David Morken, CEO of Bandwidth, a software outfit in Raleigh, N.C., that raised $100 million for scaling up in a 2018 IPO.

Pat Pasterick says he lures young workers to his Fort Wayne, Indiana-based architectural-engineering company, Design Collaborative, with transcendent incentives such as 10 percent time off for community work of their choice. "We don't lose a lot of people," Pasterick says. "It's great for your company to do cool events, and that matters, but at the end of the day, we all want to think what we did made a difference."

2. Welcome ex-convicts. Tapping into marginal populations can involve more than re-imagining roles for existing employees as Gile, the Cleveland car dealer, has done. More CEOs like Element's Miller are endorsing the recruitment of ex-offenders, for instance. Also in metro Chicago, two of the six employees of Tom Decker's company, Chicago Green Insulation, have criminal backgrounds. In an attempt to vet real baddies, he gives a prospective hire with a prison record a tryout of five, eight-hour paid shifts—then employees vote on whether to hire the newcomer.

3. Transplant immigrants. While immigration remains a flaming political issue, desperate employers continue to find ways to incorporate legal—and presumably many illegal—immigrants into their workforces.

At a Grede Foundries plant in Reedsburg, Wis., for example, the company recently hired dozens of legal immigrants from Haiti to work grueling jobs because the company couldn't find enough willing workers locally, according to industry sources. That was despite high barriers for these itinerant workers, such as finding enough lodging and Spanish speakers in the rural town of 10,000 people. (Parent company American Axle didn't return phone calls seeking comment.)

4. Enlist the autistic population. Autistic Americans comprise an underutilized group with high potential for performing many jobs, autism advocates and employment experts say. Microsoft and SAP are among companies that recently committed to start hiring employees who fall on the autism spectrum.

Such hires often require workspace modifications such as switching out LED lights for bright fluorescents and being more careful about changing company routines, which can unnerve them.

But employers might be surprised by the payoff. "People with autism tend to be highly intelligent and highly focused workers, along with loyal employees," says Rob Wilson, president of consultants Employco USA.

5. Maintain a high bar… It may seem counterintuitive, but amid their desperation for good workers, some CEOs are maintaining or even raising their employment standards instead of lowering them—because a good long-term fit is more important to them than immediate relief.

HighTower Treasury Partners, for instance, conducts a bi-annual "wealth management symposium" for a couple dozen local college students that orients them to the profession they believe they're interested in. "The worst thing is to hire someone and only then they realize they're sitting in front of a screen six to eight hours a day and can get restless," says Rich Saperstein, managing director of the New York City financial management firm. "They also realize our industry doesn't conduct itself by text message. We end up getting better-matched employees."

6. …Or lower the bar: Hasbro, the giant toy maker, divided four marketing jobs designed for business-school grads with MBAs into eight lower-level positions and then dropped any college requirement for the jobs, after its standard for the earlier position was at least a two-year degree.

7. Make snap judgments. Boeing is among the increasing number of employers who are hiring sight-unseen, extending offers after only phone interviews for people in some entry-level positions.

At Sendik's they're a bit pickier. The small chain of grocery stores in metro Milwaukee hosts "Instant Interview Days" at its headquarters and at some of its 17 stores, during which it pledges to meet on the spot with every single person who comes in off the street inquiring about a job. Sendik's ended up hiring about two dozen people from one of its last such events, in September, for which it interviewed 180 individuals.

"We've found that once you have a candidate, you have a sense of urgency to [hire] them as soon as possible," says Cara Olson, human resources director. "These events increase our chances of success because these people could be interviewing with another company that afternoon."

8. Pay more. Sendik's also pursues job candidates with increasing bonuses, such as $3,000 upon hiring a new deli manager. That tactic, of course, is representative of rising wages and salaries across the economy, and CEOs must be willing to pay the price.

"The one way we're going to solve the tightest labor market for trucking in the last 50 years is to pay drivers more," says Don Daseke, CEO of Dallas-based Daseke Inc., a leading flatbed operator. "If we pay our truck drivers $80,000 or $100,000 a year, we won't have a shortage of drivers."

9. Get generous with benefits. Many companies are getting not only more generous but also more creative with benefits to attract incremental interest from job candidates. Noodles & Co., a Broomfield, Colorado-based fast-casual chain of more than 400 restaurants, has just added an enhanced layer of time off for new moms that goes beyond paid maternity leave. Noodles' "phase-out, phase-in" program allows expectant and postpartum moms to work an 80-percent schedule for a month before and a month after maternity leave.

10. Acquire talent in chunks. Short on talent? Just buy another company that has one. This is a strategy being followed by more CEOs, including Rob Hrabe, chief and co-founder of VRC Metal Systems, a Rapid City, South Dakota-based manufacturer that has been trailblazing a cutting-edge "cold-spray" welding technique. He wants to push the $18-million company to a $100-million enterprise within the next five years, but he needs much more engineering talent to do it.

"So we're actually going after acquisitions just because of the senior engineering talent they have in thermal-spray [welding] and other industries," Hrabe says.

11. Go to schools. More CEOs aren't waiting for the educational system to teach and disgorge workers that companies need now—they're plunging right into colleges, universities and even high schools to look for early talent, provide resources and even influence overhauling curricula specific to their employment needs.

VRC Metal Systems, for example, works with a half-dozen universities spread across the country to get grants for cold-spray research, then buys the equipment for the schools, helps them train engineers and then hires a few each year.

Emerson Electric in St. Louis devotes millions of dollars to funding scholarships that are waiting upon graduation for hundreds of high-school juniors. They fund community college programs that provide technology training that preps students for jobs at the company's nearby facilities.

And when Braidy Industries CEO Craig Bouchard was ready to commit to building a new, $1.6-billion aluminum-rolling mill in Ashland, Kentucky—good for a projected 600 high-paying jobs beginning in 2019—he asked Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin for "a favor:" have the state develop a new, two-year materials-science and metallurgy degree that could be awarded in Ashland. Its initial class of 140 students is in its first year of instruction.

Metova, a cybersecurity company based in Little Rock, Ark., has been able to enlist the University of West Florida and the University of Central Arkansas to help it develop a new program called the Florida Cyber Range that soon will begin churning out highly qualified technologists for high-security digital work that is often for the U.S. Department of Defense.

"We've found time and again that the practical application of the skills we need, coming out of existing college programs, is lacking," explains CEO Josh Smith. "So our purpose is to create a more qualified workforce and certification paths that will actually create the workforce we need where no one else has been."

12. Make the commute easier. Protolabs CEO Vicki Holt decided to locate an entire new plant in Brooklyn Park, Minn., largely because it was smack on a public bus route that would allow easy transportation for future workers.

"We can tap a new labor pool and make it easier for them to get there with public transportation," Holt says about the plant where the small-batch manufacturer plans to grow its workforce eventually to about 400 people. "It's important for new team members, and we don't have great public transportation to our [other] plant. And people don't like to commute a real long way."

13. Network digitally. A big part of being able to hire young workers is understanding where they hang out, digitally speaking, and going there. So Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, for instance, set up a private group for its young employees on LinkedIn through which they communicate with their friends who aren't bank employees and try to recruit them.

14. Boost internships. The bank also has gotten good immediate results after elevating its summer internships to paid positions beginning two years ago. There were 28 interns at Cape Cod Five Cents in 2017 and 45 of them in 2018, each making $15 an hour—and boosting current bank operations while also creating potential interest by new employees upon their graduation.

"They now have full-time jobs doing full-time work that our staff otherwise would have to do, in branches and in special projects in residential and commercial lending, even in IT, and other areas," says Laura Newstead, executive vice president and chief human resources officer of the Harwich Port, Massachusetts-based company.

15. Expand apprenticeships: Manufacturing and technical companies keep expanding apprenticeship opportunities as they try to work down younger and younger into the stream of potential new employees, often working with government funding to make them more robust.

In Connecticut, for instance, companies that are part of its huge contingent of defense and aerospace contractors are taking advantage of the state's dramatic expansion of what had been a significantly underutilized apprenticeship program.

"We've worked with the state on forming a customized program for our needs, which means welders and tube benders," says Chris DiPentima, president of Pegasus Manufacturing, a division of Leggett & Platt Aerospace that makes components for air frames and engines. "Now we have a unique pipeline we didn't have five years ago."

16. Being fun. Graduating millennials and, now, members of Generation Z come out of college with the full expectation of working somewhere fun, no matter what the job or industry. And while it's become mere table stakes, providing such an environment is important to attracting young workers.

So at Neuworks Mechanical, a Fort Collins, Colorado-based contractor that employs 75 plumbers but needs 15 or 20 more, there's a pool table, ping-pong table and Kegerator. The company even hosts outdoor bluegrass concerts as well as indoor events that can fit as many as 100 people in its 12,000-square-foot facility.

"You can also can have a beer with your manager and talk in a more candid light than if you're out in the field and frustrated and can't talk with anyone," says COO Travis Slisher.

17. Hire veterans. More and more companies are committing to the idea of hiring U.S. military veterans not out of just patriotism or altruism, but also because they're finding that vets typically are fantastic employees.

Jaguar Land Rover North America, for example, has placed about 300 military veterans as service technicians with owners of the brand's 200 or so U.S. dealers, with plans to hire 120 to 140 a year going forward. Already, 14 percent of all of its technicians are vets.

"They have not only the technical expertise but the right mindset," David Wolfe, director of retailer training and recognition. "Their experience in the military gives them a level of discipline that's required for jobs like this, and they embody the team spirit we require. It's been a great pathway for us to fill some gaps in technician needs."

18. Ply your location. Companies on the coasts can offer au courant urban environments and ocean views, but CEOs just about anywhere can find ways to make their locale appeal to sufficient numbers of candidates. In Fort Wayne, for example, Pasterick plays up the city's burgeoning downtown redevelopment—and a reasonable cost of living that the coasts can't match.

19. Use more automation. This may seem like a version of giving up on finding flesh-and-blood workers, but manufacturers, distributors and others are leveraging increasingly capable new technologies to create productive human-machine relationships that actually can enhance the appeal of many jobs.

At the Toyota Motor factory in Princeton, Ind., for instance, Plant Manager Millie Marshall is overseeing installation of dozens of new mobile "collaborative robots" that will operate amongst the human workers assembling a new SUV in a facility expansion in 2019 that will boost employment by 400 people.

"We're not eliminating people, just helping them to do more and become more efficient with these robots," she says.

20. Look to the (far) future. While scrambling for workers now, and for the next few years, many CEOs also are becoming more deliberate about planting seeds for far-future harvests of workers.

Whitcraft Group, a contract aerospace and defense manufacturer in Eastford, Conn., for instance, works with other local manufacturers on programs to reach school kids as young as the junior-high level "to get the word out there that it's not your father's manufacturing environment anymore," says Co-Executive Chairman Colin Cooper. "We outreach to parents as well as students." 

Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.

This article is adapted from with permission from Chief Executive. All rights reserved.


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