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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Labor Market Blues—A Continuing Worry for Employers in the Year 2000 and Beyond

by Mary Fitzer

The bad news: neither the current persistent unemployment numbers nor the dearth of job candidates with well-developed skills and expertise are likely to go away any time soon. The good news: there are indeed things that all companies, including family-owned businesses, can do in order to minimize the problem in finding and keeping good people. And in today's information and technology-based economy, people are increasingly the key to competitive advantage and bottom-line success, no matter what kind of product or service we are talking about.

The short version goes like this: strive to be an “employer of choice“. One thing that the baby boomers, generation X-ers and generation Y-ers readily agree on is that a well-run company with a commitment to interesting and meaningful work, open communication, fairness, flexibility and continuous learning is a good place to work... for at least a few years.

Here are ten things companies can do to manage and meet the labor market challenge successfully:

  1. Change your expectations re. the employer/employee “contract”. I still hear too many company owners looking for “ the loyal employee who will stay here till retirement”. Do such employees still exist? Of course, but increasingly as the exception and not the norm. Non-family employees cannot be expected to have the same commitment to the business as do family members. It is more realistic to expect a mutual employer/employee commitment so long as it is perceived as beneficial by both.
  2. Listen to your employees and job applicants. In most cases, it is the boomers who are in ownership and management positions, and are largely clueless about what truly drives and motivates the up-coming generations of workers. Don't assume you know what's valued: ask and involve those whom you are looking to attract and retain.
  3. Insist on and develop genuine leadership within your company. A true leader will inspire enthusiasm and commitment around his or her vision for the future. The leader will keep employees focused and on course, and informed about the company's progress. If you and your management are not born leaders, consider making the investment in executive coaching to develop leadership skills.
  4. Make flexibility a hallmark of your employment practices. Social and cultural norms have shifted in recent decades to a point where time often outweighs money in the worker's decision to accept a specific job offer. No given company has a monolithic group of individuals all valuing the same things. The more choice people have, the more they will value their working conditions. Note that this is not a prescription for making “special deals”. Truly effective flexibility will allow choices within broadly but clearly-defined and consistent parameters.
  5. Treat your current employees at least as well as you treat newcomers... at least, those you truly want to keep. Too many employees feel the only way to earn a competitive salary is to leave and be re-hired, because pay administration locks them into a level no longer competitive with current hiring rates. Unfortunately, traditional compensation practices create and exacerbate this problem. Examine your pay practices and outcomes, and consider placing more emphasis on performance-based incentive programs. Pay is usually neither the sole nor the most important reason for turnover. But pay needs to be in the competitive ballpark for employees to bith stay and perform.
  6. Emphasize employee communication. Recent surveys indicate that most employees who leave their employer cite the same reason: “no-one ever told me what I was really expected to do.” A lack of performance feedback is another aspect of the tendency to “musroom manage” (i.e., keep employees in the dark). Train your supervisors to maintain ongoing communication with their employees.
  7. Learn to use technology to create true advantage. It is the companies that reegineer old processes and truly restructure work that reap the benefits of technology as a tool. It does no good to simply automate old ways of doing things. In many cases, it is possible to get more accomplished with fewer but higher-level employees.
  8. Make a real commitment to diversity. This goes well beyond racial and gender differences, and recognizes that thre are many individuals who might be qualified and willing to work for your company if you went beyond the traditional full-time, five-day-per-week worker profile. There are, in fact, largely-untapped labor market resources for companies who've learned to be flexible. These include people with physical or developmental disabilities, older workers or retirees, those wishing to work either part-time or part of the year. Another resource experiencing a phenomenal growth throughout the country is prison workers, with the dual benefit of getting work done, and providing successful employent opportunities that contribute to a lower rate of repeat offenders.
  9. Use a comprehensive approach to recruiting needed employees. The internet is fast becoming an important resource for workers, particularly those in highly-skilled professions. But there are other things that employers need to do beyond traditional advertising, including substantive employee referral bonuses to current staff for new people who come and stay, using internships, developing relationships with high schools, colleges and graduate schools, collaborating with other employers for job fairs.
  10. Once you've found the right candidate, pay attention to what happens next! Act quickly. Companies with too much bureaucracy and delay in making job offers run the risk of losing applicants to employers who've learned to act quickly and decisively. And treat the new employee as a valued resource. Provide an orientation and provide a mentor. Give constant feedback and listen. And make a true commitment to the career development of your workers. They may not stay with you till retirement, but they will be more productive while they are there.

Mary Fitzer is a human resources consultant located in West Springfield. She can be reached at (413) 739-8819

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