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At 2.7 percent, as of the last Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the unemployment rate in Columbia is low — the lowest of any metropolitan area in Missouri, in fact. While that’s great news for job seekers, it forces human resources teams to get creative in how they recruit and retain new employees.
At a January panel hosted by the Human Resources Association of Central Missouri, some of Columbia’s most successful HR professionals offered their advice on today’s best practices.
In a college town, the job candidate pool is full of recent graduates, and for all the talk of participation trophies and entitlement, research shows that millennials share the same workplace goals as Gen X and Baby Boomers. A joint review conducted by George Washington University and the Department of Defense studied more than 20 workplace studies concluded that there don’t appear to be any meaningful differences between generations in the way they go about their work.
“They struggle with some soft skills,” says Lisa Pilkington, HR recruitment and hiring manager at MidwayUSA. “But I think it’s always been like that. We have to work with our new grads, teach them, cultivate them, and mentor them.”
Many HR professionals worry about those soft skills— traits like communication, time management, and adaptability — in new graduates. The solution to this, according to Diamond Scott, recruitment coordinator at Influence & Co., is to expose college students to the office environment as much as possible. “If you don’t have a lot of internship experience, your first day in the office will be the first time that you’re exposed to a professional environment.”
Internships are a way to train young people in workplace etiquette, and they’re also a recruitment tool. Scott explains, “All of our students start with a 10-week paid internship and, as things progress, if it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, we offer them part-time opportunities to stay with us until graduation.” If full-time positions are available, then those new grads can expect a job offer from Influence & Co.
Being present on campus should be central to the recruitment strategy of any company looking to hire new graduates. This semester, Scott and Influence & Co. president Kelsey Meyer are teaching a class at MU, and their students spend four hours a week at Influence & Co. working on projects. Taking part in resume workshops and mock interviews gives you exposure with career-minded students — exactly the kind you’d like to hire.
The bottom line? Don’t be afraid to bring in young blood. Just make sure you’re putting in the work to prepare your potential new hires for success.
How long is your organization’s employment application? When was the last time you made changes to it — or even looked at it? Making your application simple and accessible means more people will complete it, giving your company a better chance of finding the right candidate.
Jessica Gardner, an HR specialist at MidwayUSA, says that once Midway made their career site mobile-friendly, their application rates spiked. According to a report from Jobvite, a recruiting software company, 48 percent of job seekers used their mobile devices to search for their most recent job. “That is one thing that you can do today,” Gardner says. “Pull out your cell phone. See if you can view your application online via the mobile site.”
Another issue? Readability of your job posting. “Make it super easy,” Gardner stresses. “Applicants spend less than 50 seconds determining whether the job is a fit for them or not. You have 50 seconds to catch their attention.” This statistic comes from a study by TheLadders, a job search website, which goes on to say that job seekers only spend an additional 22 seconds reading the applications on jobs they’ve decided to apply for. Being as clear and straightforward as possible in the job posting means that the people who do apply will have a better idea of what the job actually is.
A good way to get a pulse on your application’s success with job seekers, according to Gardner, is with an applicant tracking system, such as Jobvite or Kronos Workforce Ready. An ATS can show you how many people are clicking on your application versus how many are actually turned in. “If you’re getting a lot of clicks and not a lot of applicants, maybe you need to go back and think about how you’re advertising that job,” Gardner says.
And if a promising application comes in, get in touch quickly. Gardner says to remember that Columbia’s candidate pool is small. “If you have an applicant that really wants to work, they’re going to be applying for a lot of jobs. So if you don’t connect with them quickly, someone else is going to before you.”
When speaking with potential hires, finding a good fit means more than agreeing on starting salary. It’s important to figure out what makes your organization unique, Pilkington says, and to hire people based on a shared vision.
“That’s where you attract talent — by telling your story,” she says. “That’s the compelling thing. We emphasize mission, values, and culture at Midway. We have a very unique culture. Don’t underestimate how valuable it is to tell that story.”
For Midway, a company that sells hunting and outdoor products, it’s a no-brainer to target candidates who love the outdoors. Employees who take part in the same activities as the company’s target customers will feel more invested and engaged in their work.
“If you hire for culture fit, you’re really going to be more successful,” Pilkington says. “Look for that culture fit, and then train them up.”
Part of your company’s story also stems from geography. Columbia competes with larger cities like St. Louis and Kansas City for talent. So, Pilkington says, look for people with connections to the area. “Maybe they went to school here,” she says. “Maybe they have family here. Maybe they want to do graduate work at the university. There’s some draw for them to live in Columbia, Missouri.”
At Influence & Co., Scott also uses company culture as a strategic recruitment tool. As a content marketing agency, the organization produces articles to help their clients reach and engage new audiences.
“We feel like we are marketing ourselves as an employer, so we use those same content marketing strategies to bring candidates into our pipeline,” Scott says. She encourages staff members to share their work on social media. She also writes for Influence & Co.’s blog and published an article on Glassdoor, the employer review and job searching website, about preparing for interviews. By sharing that knowledge and taking pride in their work, Scott and her co-workers spread Influence & Co.’s message to potential new hires.
In keeping with this company value of sharing and spreading knowledge, Scott does something that may seem strange in such a competitive market. “We’ve built partnerships with brands and other companies who are looking for similar types of applicants, but maybe there’s some sort of variation,” she says. “If you’re not a great person for us, it doesn’t mean you’re not a great applicant. So let me help you find some other avenues to work within the community that you’re in.”
With unemployment as low as it is, building these sorts of partnerships can be essential to finding the right people and keeping talent in Columbia. “We have nothing to lose by referring those really great individuals back and forth,” Scott says.
Cultivating a community with a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds spurs innovation and drives your company forward. Change is hard, but it’s worth it. Orvil Savery, HR generalist at Veterans United Home Loans, says that recruiting for diversity has to be deliberate, and it’s all about showing up.
College campuses are one of the best spaces to get to know diverse groups. “Support organizations and events,” Savery says. “There are over 600 student organizations at Mizzou. Six diversity orgs, 22 minority orgs, nine international, 10 advocacy.” Being present in those spaces, he says, will bring you into contact with students who might not otherwise think of applying to your company.
It will get easier as you get to know these students and tap into new talent pools, but continue to challenge yourself. “If you’re actively seeking out diverse students, make sure you’re tracking yourself,” Savery adds. “How many students did I talk to? How many organizations’ meetings did I attend this year versus last year? Try to increase that amount as you go.”
Hire diverse students for internships, exposing them to your company structure and grooming them for full-time work after graduation. The payoff is invaluable in terms of new perspectives and richer company culture.
Diversity is not just about gender and race. Tina Olson, director of graduate business programs at Stephens College and an HR professional with more than 20 years of experience, wants to see more companies make an effort to hire individuals with disabilities. She talks about one young man she knows with poor verbal communication skills, but a work ethic that would make him a valuable employee. “We do some things in our processes that limit the ability of nontraditional employees [to meet the requirements],” she says. “People with disabilities really want to work and contribute, and there’s some great data that shows the benefits of productivity [for those individuals]. Can we just rethink why we need a five-page application?”
Other underserved groups would benefit from this too. “In Columbia,” Olson continues, “we have multiple groups that represent people with disabilities or people re-entering from prison, or the stay-at-home parent who’s coming back into the workforce, but it never seems like there’s a real, intricate collaboration [with companies]. Everyone does it just a little bit differently, so I think that reduces advocacy. If I could wave my magic wand, I would want to see groups like that work together more and collaborate more with employers. Learn what the needs are and also talk with employers about their concerns. Are they real or perceived?”
If your employees enjoy their work, they’re going to tell their friends and family about it. And that word-of-mouth communication, when harnessed, can be your strongest recruitment tool.
Every company should design a referral program that reflects their organizations’ values and goals. MidwayUSA, for example, is committed to high retention — their referral system rewards employees for referred hires that stay with the company. When an employee brings in a new hire, according to Gardner, “At 30 days you get $100. At 90 days you get $150, and then at six months, $250. There’s an incentive to pass out the cards to people who really want to work here.” She says that, about a third of their new hires come from the referral program.
At Influence & Co., employee referrals account for about half of new hires. The day that the new hire starts working, the employee that referred them gets to choose a charity to receive a $200 donation from Influence & Co. After 30 days, the employee also gets $200 cash. “I think it’s a really cool way for us to reward our employees for sending us great, high-quality candidates, and it also allows those employees to invest back into their communities,” Scott says. “That’s something that we’re really big on at Influence & Co. — being a part of that larger community.”
Employees love it too. Scott says: “As employees do repeat referrals, they have so much fun picking different charities throughout the year to support. We’ve also had charities come back to us and say how awesome they think it is that that’s something we do, because for them it’s just a little push of donations throughout the year that they maybe weren’t anticipating.”
It helps that Influence & Co. has a relatively young workforce. Millennials as a group have a philanthropic bent (Olson calls it an “I’m going to save the world” perspective), so the charity donation can be a strong motivator that also benefits more than just your company.
Invest in Your Employees
As the referral program results at MidwayUSA and Influence & Co. suggest, the best way to position your company in a competitive market is to have happy employees. A 2014 study from the University of Warwick showed that happiness in employees causes a 12 percent increase in productivity. And there are plenty of ways to cultivate a sense of well-being in your workforce.
Influence & Co. offers unlimited paid time off. This sounds counterintuitive, but studies show that companies offering unlimited PTO actually see employees take less time off. The theory goes that employees feel their organization trusts them, and it motivates them to work harder.
Another good strategy? Learn from the people who choose to leave or have been terminated. Scott conducts all exit interviews in person. “You get much more information from people when you’re just having a conversation versus asking them to try to remember everything about their time with the company in a Google Form or some sort of survey,” she says. Find out what led to their departure and make sure future employees don’t face the same issues.
This culture of trust and reinforcement, of course, starts on day one. The onboarding period can be pivotal for making a new employee feel valued and comfortable within your organization. Scott ensures that new hires don’t just meet their own team – they learn how their position interacts with different departments.
“So rather than their direct support being the one to tell them, ‘this is how the publication team is going to interact with you,’ we have someone from publications meet with them,” Scott says. “Their first day lunch, we make sure that it’s not just the team they work with directly, but that we pull in some members from other teams.”
Scott also sends out a company-wide email introducing the new employee and encouraging everyone to say hello in the hallway or break room. “I think that little bit of extra investment to make sure that, very early on, they see themselves as a member of the team versus this newbie that’s learning things – we find that really important, and I feel very fortunate that our team feels invested in that as well.”