BY JOHN F. DINI
If you haven’t heard the term “talent wars” yet, you have now. They are heating up, and most small businesses aren’t very well equipped to compete in them.
Talent wars refer to a growing shortage in the U.S. labor market of properly trained and educated employees. Starting prior to the Great Recession, there has been a mismatch between people seeking jobs and those who hire them.
Statistics show that employers currently are advertising to fill 51 million open positions, an all-time record. Many business owners complain bitterly about the lack of talent in the hiring pool—especially in sales, technical jobs and trades. There are several factors causing this disconnect between employers and prospective employees. You should be aware of them if you intend to compete in the talent wars.
Where did everyone go?
The first factor is the shrinking number of people in the prime age group for experienced employees. Those reaching their 65th birthday outnumber the folks hitting their 45th birthday by 4,000 people a day. This overlap of the post-World War II baby boom with the baby bust of the late 1960s and ’70s can’t be changed, and it will continue for the next 10 years.
One strategy to counter the middle-experience gap is to look for employees both younger and older than you typically hire. Over the next few years, you will find yourself reconsidering fixed ideas about what is an ideal age for these positions. Boomers are generally healthier than preceding generations, and many plan to work much longer. A “new” hire in her late 50s can be up to speed in far less time and still be a productive member of the team for 10 or 15 years.
Training and education
The second major issue with finding qualified people is training. Our higher education system today is driven more by low-interest, government-guaranteed loans than the value of degree. Employers can no longer look at a college education as de facto evidence of qualifications, but it can still provide some guidance. How long did it take the applicant to graduate? (Less than 50% make it in four years.) What courses did he or she take? A well-rounded liberal arts education still has value, and timely completion certainly indicates a goal-oriented person. Both, however, require more investigation than merely checking the sheepskin.
Finally, business owners have to face increasing competition from corporate America for talent. After years of downsizing, outsourcing and upgrading technology to replace people, large companies now are filling the slots left by the wave of retiring baby boomers. According to a poll of 587 corporate executives in a study titled, “Talent Wars: The Struggle for Tomorrow’s Workforce,” published in The Economist, the top five concerns were:
1. an aging population
2. shift of personal values, such as stronger focus on work/life balance
3. lack of investment by companies in training and developing employees
4. increasing gaps between what universities provide and what industries need
5. low or declining standards of education.
The issues they identified aren’t surprising. What the owners of small and mid-size businesses need to realize, however, is that this study was done seven years ago in 2008. In that time corporations already have reacted. Job offers for desirable hires now include signing bonuses, guaranteed wage increases and creative benefits packages.
Smaller employers finally are becoming aware of the crisis, and they simply can’t win this battle on the benefits front. Wages are a much higher percentage of their expenses, and they typically aren’t deep enough at any position to easily swap bodies when one isn’t available. They have to compete in the talent wars with the weapons they always have used against giant competitors: speed, creativity and culture.
There are tactics available to smaller employers that cost little beyond some time and energy and may actually reduce your employment expenses.
Treat employees as real people: Most small companies say things like, “We are proud of our family atmosphere.” The culture of your business is still your biggest advantage. Employee satisfaction surveys consistently rate the importance of social interaction in the workplace far higher than wages.
Tailor jobs and benefits to individual employees: Use behavioral tools to show that you truly are concerned about an employee’s job satisfaction. Some companies have a flexible self-improvement benefit—a few hundred dollars annually for each employee to use as he or she chooses for education, hobby lessons or a gym membership. Consider carefully whether it is really a problem if an employee schedules around family needs, such as taking children to school in the morning or taking an aging parent to a doctor’s appointment.
Maintain current technology: Most of us get frustrated if a website doesn’t load in less than five seconds. Don’t make your employees deal with outdated equipment or software. The cost of a second monitor, faster Internet service or upgraded workstation is less than most employees’ weekly salaries.
Consider outsourcing: Many smaller companies hire skilled employees and then “fill in” their 40-hour week with lower-level tasks. Is your controller entering invoices? Does your sales manager produce the customer newsletter? The luxury of “We do that ourselves” is impractical when you are overpaying for the task. You can’t afford to pay for full-time talent if it is really only a part-time job.
Invest in skills: Owners often worry that they are training people so they can get better jobs elsewhere. Let employees know that you are investing in them as recognition for their ability and have them sign agreements that forgive training costs over time. Once they are more qualified, adjust wages to reflect their new value. Gratitude is a short-lived motivation for staying in a job.
Pay market rates: Everyone has lost an employee to “an offer we just couldn’t match,” but if it is happening regularly, you may be out of touch with the wage scale. Remember, there are 2.5 jobs being advertised for every person who is looking for one. Those with ability don’t have a problem finding work. You may not match the top of the market, but you need to be in the ballpark.
Market internally: Employees can develop a “grass is greener” attitude when they take for granted all the good things that their current employer offers. Make a list of all the tangible and intangible benefits that your company provides and schedule regular reminders of them for your workers.
The talent wars are here, and they will intensify in the years to come. Finding and retaining the right people will depend on your ability to fight back with the inherent advantages of a small business: speed, creativity and culture.