Photos by L.G. Patterson
Columbia’s human resource professionals use every tool at their disposal to best fill positions and retain employees for their companies and organizations. In August, a group sat down to lunch at the CEO Roundtable to discuss Columbia’s job market and the challenges and opportunities they face. Inside Columbia Publisher Fred Parry, and moderator of the CEO Roundtable, welcomed the group to
Broadway Hotel’s Food and Beverage Director and Executive Chef Jeff Guinn’s luncheon further solidified his job security. It featured his take on an Italian panzanella salad; grilled chicken breast with a sherried mushroom sauce, asparagus and Yukon gold potato puree; and strawberry tiramisu, a twist on a traditional Italian dessert.
Around the table, there were more issue similarities in finding the right job candidates than there were differences. Topics on entry-level applicants, information technology (IT), drug testing, criminal histories and simple communication skills were pervasive.
For Margrace Buckler, City of Columbia human resources director for more than 19 years, entry-level positions are hardest to fill. Within the more than 1,500 employees, there is a base of basic unskilled labor and skilled labor jobs. “Skilled labor, we have trouble with, and part of it is we’re a public utility. We’re at public pay, and we can’t compete with Ameren. We can’t complete with a lot of the co-ops,” she says. “We have trouble with finding people in our finance positions, which we have a number of — public, governmental. It’s different work.”
IT comes to mind for Jerome Rader, vice president of human resources at MBS Textbook Exchange. “That ranges for us from anywhere from the programming development staff, web development, testing, networking, support … Another component of that is really data/analytical work. It just comes with the territory, but finding that skill set or even seeing that skill set in people that are graduating with those degrees, some type of exposure, is real challenging.”
Interestingly, Katie Lottes, human resources director for CARFAX, finds IT a challenge as well.
“CARFAX is a data company and owns one of the world’s largest vehicle history databases. People don’t think that CARFAX has an IT department right here in Columbia,” she says, “but obviously the bulk of our work is done via websites and our partnerships with dealers and we’ve just had to get creative on how we do the recruitment. We have a really strong referral program, and then we try to make our culture mimic the culture of those that you’d see probably more traditional West Coast.”
The challenge for Michelle Zvanut, vice president of human resources for Boone Hospital Center (BHC), has a caveat: successfully filling. “We can fill a lot of our positions, but finding people that will successfully stay in the position is a different type of question.”
BHC began screening applicants for nicotine in 2014, and that has likely affected applicant numbers, she adds. “That’s been a little bit of a challenge, but we’ve decided that that’s the direction in health care that we’re going to go. Our mission is to improve the lives of the people and communities we serve. Being nicotine free does that.” Competing with other companies for entry-level positions is also a struggle, from housekeeping to nutrition and food services staff.
With the unemployment rate at 2.6 percent in April, job seekers in general are scarce, Zvanut says. The average citizen education level increases the difficulty of staffing those entry-level jobs. “There are people that want to live in Columbia, don’t want to move anywhere else and would love to have jobs at any of these organizations. Preparing them for the jobs and the expectations is the challenge, and I’d love to tap into that talent pool and just haven’t figured out how to do it successfully.”
Working with some in that demographic is what Steve Smith, Job Point president and CEO, does. “Many people that come to us, particularly in the building trades and YouthBuild fail drug tests to start. The vast majority has a clean drug test at the end or they wouldn’t be able to continue in the program. But soft skills are really the biggest single piece that we hear. Soft skills is as much or more of what we do because most of the people that come to us have had multiple jobs or due to a shortfall in soft skills.
“We do mock interviews, assist with resume prep and all of that,” Smith continues. “We had one gentleman who had been in jail for 27 years. He’d never seen a cell phone. How are you going to describe that 27-year gap in employment and be up front about it? Human tendency is to wait and see if anybody asks anything. So whether you call that soft skills or not, let’s address the issues up front and then let the employer decide if they think that you’re a fit for their employment. That’s been very successful.”
Columbia has a “ban the box” law, implemented in 2014, which prevents employers from asking about criminal history during the application process. It’s designed so employers consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, without the stigma of a criminal record. This does not mean a criminal background check will not be performed, just delayed until after an interview or further in the hiring process. Missouri adopted a ban the box law in 2016 and joined the now 29 other states to do so, the earliest being Hawaii in 1998. More than 150 cities and counties have adopted a ban the box law of some configuration as of Aug. 1, 2017, according to the National Employment Law Project.
“Soft skills a lot of us have known growing up,” Smith adds, “but culture has changed. Family situations have changed, and without sounding old, although I am, culture and generation are part of it. The idea of taking a job and sticking with a job is not nearly the same for someone in high school or college or fairly new out of school as opposed to some of us that are older.”
While drug testing or criminal histories might not be a part of the initial application, both are still key elements at the offer stage of the hiring process.
Legalization of marijuana in some states has created a conundrum that area employers are navigating as applicants’ attitudes change. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), while positive drug tests have declined over the last few decades in the U.S., in the last 10 years a rise in certain types of drug use coincide with the passage of these state-specific laws.
Smith grew up in a small northwest Missouri town and says drug use there isn’t much different than it is in mid-Missouri. It’s not uncommon for JobPoint employment seekers to start with a “dirty” test. “We understand that, and then we do random testing throughout. They cannot do internships where they get paid if they have a dirty drug test. We try and hold accountability throughout, but its pretty general through our culture.”
At MBS, Rader says they’ve been testing since 1991. “We did that specifically because we were starting to experience problems. We usually test everybody, no matter where they are because we’ve got employees in 24 different states. Everybody gets tested; we don’t do the random testing.”
Steve Lubbering, Columbia Insurance Group vice president of human resources, says his company is upfront about drug testing and that has affected their success in clean tests. He acknowledges that there are likely ways to pass a drug test and not be clean, so they are diligent. The company recently conducted a nationwide chief information officer search and used a consultant who was surprised they still asked for drug tests. She noted that she had not worked with any company for several years that still tested. They still did the test.
Unlike Rader, Lubbering hasn’t had to face the multiple-state legality conflict of drug laws yet. It’s coming, though, he says, and everyone will have to confront it.
For Boone County and the City of Columbia, drug testing decisions aren’t always made at the local level. While drug testing is not regulated at the federal level for private sector companies, for some federally regulated jobs, it is.
For Boone County, drug tests are done at the point of hire and then at random for safety sensitive positions like heavy equipment operators, deputy sheriffs, detention officers and emergency telecommunicators, says Jenna Redel, director of Boone County Human Resources and Risk Management. Due to employee questions about visits or vacations to states where marijuana consumption is legal, the county has proactively implemented policy that states because it’s still illegal at the federal level, if an employee tests positive, disciplinary action will be taken. She hopes to rely on the experience of other states if and when the day comes that it’s legal in Missouri.
The City of Columbia works with three federal agencies, Buckler says, railroad, airport and transit, that all require drug testing.
Like BHC, MU Health Care added nicotine to its drug screening list in 2015. While there has been some push back, says MU Health Care Recruiter Kym Huhman, it hasn’t been significant. The expected decrease in the applicant pool did not materialize either.
“We want to be the very model that we’re asking our patients to be,” she says. “The very things we’re asking our patients to do, we want to be doing. And in doing so, maintaining that nicotine-free lifestyle, we receive $50 off our premiums — so, there’s a monetary incentive as well.”
Once hired, retention becomes the focus. The track the companies represented around the table take to keep their employees varies.
“It’s evolving, what I used to think were my queues on whether someone was likely to stay no longer work with our millennials,” Zvanut says. “I’m almost less likely to question it (how long an applicant plans to stay with the hospital) for certain positions because I’m assuming that a three-year run is a long run now as opposed to a 10-, 20-, 40-year run.”
Previous employment longevity is an indicator, “that’s been a big transition for us to be okay with someone who has changed jobs every other year,” she adds. “I do believe that if someone has roots in the community it makes a difference. If there was any one predictor, that would be the predictor I would look at.”
Lottes isn’t so sure you can screen for it. She agrees that roots in the Midwest or Columbia are a good predictor, but CARFAX employs a significant amount of single males.
“When Amazon comes calling, they’re quick to jump ship because they don’t necessarily have a family to consider,” Lottes says. “On the flip side, the other thing that we look at regularly is our management team. If we have strong managers and those employees are doing work that they feel matters and that they’re being recognized, valued, and the company is valuing them, we look at all of that to make sure that they’re staying, you know, regardless of how close we are to the ocean.”
Shelter Insurance Human Resources Vice President Paul LaRose echoes the recognition sentiment and its importance to new hires. Short- and long-term goal conversations are common now, along with job performance recognition, to keep them happy in their jobs.
In addition, Rader adds, conveying job expectations early gives an employee a basis from which to grow. Frequent management communication and gratitude also adds to employee retention.
So what does make an employee happy? A pre-roundtable survey of participants indicated compensation, health care, workplace culture, upward mobility and office environment, in that order, but finding the sweet spot is a moving target for companies looking to keep their workforce satisfied.
The top indicator, compensation, did not surprise anyone.
“At least, what they focus on is compensation, but I don’t know that that turns out to be their reality,” Zvanut offers. “If you pay them higher but the culture is terrible or there’s no flexibility, that gets their attention. But, when they’re coming in the door at first, compensation is the key.”
Workplace culture is a work in progress for Shelter, LaRose says. Efforts, like increasing the number of “casual” days, are evolving.
At CARFAX, Lottes says, “it’s about staying true to our culture. We focus on a balance between the work getting done and having fun.” Buying a Nintendo Switch for the office for $300 was a little thing that has paid off big. “It’s just little things, like when it’s hot, we get ice cream, and when it’s the eclipse, we get the day off.”
Fun and productivity seem to go hand-in-hand at CARFAX.
“It’s ironic,” Lottes says. “We don’t have any policy handbook. How we’ve always treated people that join CARFAX is: We’re hiring you for your job. You know how to get your job done better than we know how to get it done. However they want to do it, great, do it. Somehow the magic happens; the work gets done. That’s just always been our philosophy.”
At MBS, productivity is key, Rader says. “It’s definitely more regimented in our warehouse operations because that’s time sensitive to get product out the door. We have more of a relaxed environment throughout. So you kind of balance it out to what the need is, but we’re still very much the traditional 8-to-5 job.” It is evolving at MBS, too.
Buckler smiles. “We are completely un-fun. We try to make sure, particularly, that our supervisors and managers know how to treat people and make it as good a work environment as you can get… We try and make sure that everybody feels that they belong and that they’re treated fairly because that’s about the best thing you can do.”
A foosball table isn’t something Redel can picture out behind the county government, either, but values the family culture within the county staff. Over 20 percent have a more than 25-year tenure. Family-like relationships and work friends are key indicators, she says, on whether or not someone is going to stick around.
For the job seekers JobPoint serves, Smith says, job stability has been elusive. “The acceptance part is probably the biggest single piece because whatever is their barrier to employment, if someone respects them and accepts them into the group or family, that’s going to go a long way for them because they’ve not had much of that in their life and they will be very loyal to those who share that with them.”
In looking at barriers to employment, transportation, a permanent residence and childcare are the three biggest barriers to employment, but soft skills still rate.
“Because of the devices, everybody’s head’s down these days,” Buckler says. “The younger people particularly do not know how to communicate person-to-person. They don’t know what’s appropriate. … You shouldn’t have to train people how to talk to people.”
Lubbering finds much of his company’s communication is done through email. He says it’s disappointing when a recent college graduate is hired and uses texting shorthand instead of professional dialogue in that medium. “It’s just not professional.”
Perception challenges go beyond communication and spill over into community reputation, which continues to present a barrier in building a diverse workforce.
“Right now Columbia has a reputation,” Lottes says. Both the 2014 protests on the MU campus and the NAACP’s recent travel warning for Missouri telling people not to come here to view the solar eclipse have impacted outsiders’ opinions of us. “That is a challenge regardless if you’re looking at recruitment within your own population but then trying to find a nationwide population to come to the Midwest and this town. It’s unfortunate that the news trail of events that have happened here has, to me, put some sort of cloud behind people’s thoughts about what it is to be here in the Midwest, in Columbia.”
Thirty-four different nationalities work at MBS, Rader says. In his 27 years there, they have worked with refugee services at a few points to bring in staff. The company provided English-as-a-second-language classes and other benefits to those displaced for a variety of reasons.
“We were able to provide opportunity,” he says.
THE EDUCATED WORKFORCE
In Columbia, 47.7 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which presents challenges of its own.
“That newly graduated candidate sometimes has unrealistic expectations of what that degree is going to turn into salary-wise,” Redel says. “So that can be difficult because they have no practical experience for the most part, or they have short internships, but they have a degree that cost them a lot of money. We start people at the base of the range or close to it, and training and longevity on the job is how they move forward. That just doesn’t meet their expectations.”
Getting wrapped up in the degree aspect of a job description might be overrated, Rader says. “The degree, especially in IT, is not necessarily important; it’s the skillset that that person has achieved over a period of time. The degree is important, but it’s not solely the thing that you look at.”
Lottes agrees. “If they can code, we put them through an extensive interview process for programming. If they know the code, who cares what they have? If you have the skillset, we don’t necessarily care that you don’t have a piece of paper that matches what the job is that you’re doing.”
Bringing it back to entry-level positions, Zvanut says they’re hard to fill and sees Columbia’s highly educated population as a challenge as well as an opportunity. “We rely on the university producing health care professionals. We rely on all the different colleges for the entry level. What we see is a lot of students wanting to work very part time with a schedule that needs to be set in accordance with their school schedule.”
Through the conversation, she admits to begin seeing a missed opportunity when making that degree a requirement for some positions that have historically had that stipulation.
“I’m aware we’re very traditional,” she adds. “We have expectations that have been founded in tradition that we haven’t been willing to back away from.”
When finding that executive level standout does not happen at the local level, recruiters broaden their search, and when aforementioned perceptions, city size or location don’t mesh, they use what they know.
In attracting health professionals to Columbia, Huhman says, recognizing their priorities is the first step. The Columbia Public School system or the MKT Trail will not be important to someone who doesn’t have kids or appreciate the outdoors. “It’s getting to know your audience so that you can find those triggers,” she adds. For those seeking larger cities, it’s important to emphasize Columbia’s proximity to St. Louis and Kansas City and help them make that connection.
Zvanut agrees you have to know your audience, but she starts with lifestyle and values. “If it’s a bad fit from those stand points, … I know pretty quickly whether that’s out of the question. I think Columbia offers a different lifestyle and value. For executive level positions, there are people that are living between two cities, and it works. It works for some, but I prefer the folks that want to move here.”
“Columbia kind of sells itself,” Lubbering says. Columbia Insurance Group brings prospective applicants in, gives them a couple of days to explore and finds that, by that time, they know whether Columbia is for them or not. “We’re not Chicago, We’re not St. Louis. We’re not Kansas City. But we’ve got a lot to offer, and we do find that it does sell itself.” He notes the airport expansion has affected relocation decisions positively, along with MU athletics and cultural events.
Long term, Rader says, promoting from within has a better shot at retaining an employee for the course of their career.
With the last word, Huhman wants to see organizations appreciating an employee’s goals, applauding them and finding mechanisms to accomplish them. By the same token, if those goals revolve around being the best at that entry-level job, then find ways to allow that person to grow in that role.
“I’m really proud that we work with each staff member individually to determine: What are your goals?” Huhman adds. “For them it may not be to get a degree or climb the ladder, to advance. It is: ‘I want to fix this aspect of my position, and that’s their goal for this quarter.’ And, ‘I want to keep striving for that so I’m fully engaged.’ We’ve created an environment or a culture that allows and encourages that to happen.”