The Silver Bullet(s): 86 Ideas to Address Today’s Staffing Challenges — Feb 2022

I have good news, bad news, and mixed news.  First, the bad news: every size and type of organization continues to experience staffing shortages, some more than others.  I believe there are four main reasons: 1) Americans are retiring in record numbers (many of them taking early retirement); 2) immigration to the US is down nearly 60% the last few years; 3) the pandemic has delayed many from returning to work (for all sorts of reasons, such as childcare, long-COVID, or changing preferences and lifestyle); and 4) the demand for products and services is way up (perhaps due to pent up demand from the pandemic), adding to the need for more staffing.  Some experts predict this staffing shortage could take years to resolve.

Now the mixed news: research (McKinsey, PwC) shows that 65% of the current workforce is looking for opportunities that might better align with their new, post-pandemic needs and wants.  This is mixed news because – on the one hand – it might further put pressure on organizations who are at risk of losing good talent.  However – on the other hand: as the game of “employment musical chairs” has clearly started back up, it might also create opportunities to find and lure solid workers to your organization.

And now the good news: a Roosevelt Institute study last year reports that there are 28 million Americans who are available, interested, and capable of work but are being trapped in outdated recruiting and hiring processes – a real opportunity for those employers who can modernize their systems to find and attract new pools of candidates.  In other words, the problem isn’t in there being enough candidates, but in the recruiting and hiring processes themselves.

Today – perhaps more than ever – leaders need to focus both on finding and attracting high quality talent as well as engaging and keeping the high-quality talent they already have.

PEN recently hosted two webinars – one last month and one in November – that featured three employers, an expert from the Minnesota Department of Employment & Economic Development, and two consultants (who have developed methods and tools to inspire a “hiring revolution,” involving completely redesigning recruiting processes to allow diversity be a solution to today’s staffing issues).  Links to those recordings are below, along with some other helpful resources.

I listened again to both discussions, pulling out actionable insights that any organization could use to improve recruiting and retention.  Amazingly, there were 86 ideas (depending on how you count them), clustered into the 21 possible solutions I list below.

This first list involves good ideas and best practices in recruiting/hiring, in no particular order:

Leverage your local resources – there are numerous resources available to you: city/county economic development agencies, state economic development agency (DEED in Minnesota), US Department of Labor, educational partners (both K12 and higher education), local workforce boards, chambers of commerce, and industry associations.  Make a list of resources and partners available, then contact those who might provide tools, databases, or actual candidate pools.  Most organizations are underutilizing these (oftentimes free) resources.

Explore different talent pools – if you keep hiring from the same networks, you’ll keep getting the same type of candidates.  And research shows that mixed teams will outperform homogenous teams if you acknowledge the diversity and leverage it as an asset.  So instead of recruiting from the same pools, consider different sources of candidates, such as immigrant populations, dislocated workers, unemployed or underemployed workers, “second chance” workers (including former offenders), youth, senior citizens, veterans, vocational rehab, disabled, and diverse populations (minority populations, LBGTQ, ESL, and other groups).  Conduct targeted-population job fairs and hiring events. Consider providing transportation for recruits and/or group tours for diverse populations. Consider recruiting in other countries to access new and diverse candidate pools (and, yes, then pay for their relocation, possibly housing, Visas, and other expenses). And by all means: recruit where your customers are!  Matching your workforce to the market(s) you serve helps align understanding, build relationships, and increase customer (and workforce) engagement.

Also, consider reducing your reliance on job boards (which often produce similar candidate pools that you already have and/or unqualified candidates).  Instead, approach people who are similar to the characteristics that you lack (and that you desire) and ask them to recommend specific candidates. This really is focused networking – recruiting with a purpose – and can help greatly expand and diversify your candidate pool

Reexamine your actual needs – organizations sometimes have a habit of embedding rituals and traditions into their systems.  While good on one level (it “hardwires” organizational culture), it might also be limiting the number of candidates that reach you.  So, reexamine your position descriptions to determine if job characteristics are actual requirements of the position or just unnecessary historical artifacts (and therefore may be creating barriers to certain groups of potential employees).  For example, do candidates really need an advanced degree when a college degree will do, or a college degree with a high school diploma or GED will do?  And in the process, consider different ways of getting the work done: do you really need a full-time resource or could you split the work into different part-time roles, job-sharing arrangements (where two or more employees share a role), split shifts or off-shift positions? Consider customized employment or “job carving,” which is redesigning positions to fit with employee capabilities.

Use different marketing tools and platforms – become more sophisticated in recruiting by using social media, videos, employee testimonials, and/or organizational tours (in person or virtual).  Conduct virtual and “curbside” hiring events.  Get creative with how you position (and sell) your organization – and how you reach new candidate pools.

Enable candidates to better understand you – offer a variety of pre-employment training programs to provide basic skills and an introduction to the sector, industry, and your specific organization.  Or conduct paid, day-long interviews so that job seekers can see and experience your organization’s culture, better understand the job, interact with your team, and better determine alignment with your organization.  Hiring is a two-way street, and while these two ideas require investments, they usually produce better hiring outcomes.

Improve your recruiting process – Streamline the process itself from inquiry/application to hire, reducing the time required (which benefits both the candidates and your organization).  Use technology to improve hiring efficiency. Eliminate formulas or rubrics, which usually have inherent bias built into them.  Instead, try to identify what a candidate has done or accomplished, what are they good at, and how can they demonstrate it (rather than how they got that experience).  The skill is more important than how they got the skill.  For example, are they good with numbers because they manage the family checkbook (getting an MBA in Finance may not be required)?  Are they good with customer service because they served tables and hustled for tips?

Consider reducing your reliance on (or eliminating altogether) resumes and cover letters, which usually don’t capture the full experience and skillset, are time-intensive to build, get caught in corporate “filters” (which produces false negatives!), and really don’t help hiring managers sort and vet those who might be good candidates.  Instead, consider asking three simple questions as intake: “why do you want to work here?”; “why do you think you’ll be good at it?”; and “is there anything we need to know about your lived and work experience?”.

Measure performance with metrics that are meaningful, such as placement rate, placement speed, “yield,” hiring in targeted groups, recruit satisfaction (with or without hire), retention rate (30, 60, 90 days and 1+ year).  And for goodness sake: focus on effective communication with your candidates. One of the single biggest complaints recruits have is that their application goes into a black hole, never to be heard of again!

Share salary ranges up front – it is more transparent; it is more fair and respectful; and it helps candidates self-filter for positions for which they are a better economic fit (which also makes your hiring process more efficient by focusing only on candidates who are in the target salary range).  Also, stop asking for materials that are unrelated to the position, like presentations (for positions that don’t require public speaking) or writing samples (for those that don’t involve a lot of writing). Instead, let candidates show you what they can do.

Finally, be careful in trying to find someone that is a good “fit” (which is subjective and pretty unmeasurable anyway).  Instead of trying to find those who fit in, find those who stand out – those who add value, bring new perspectives and ideas to your team.

Leverage your current team – turn all of your current employees into recruiters: referrals from your current employees not only expands the pipeline of already vetted prospects, but helps deepen engagement with your current team.  You might consider providing incentives and creating fun contests for your employees, encouraging them to make referrals: offer cash bonuses, give away free trips or vacations, offer free parking or additional PTO, or offer anything that creates excitement and energy with your team to help find and expand the team.

Consider internships – internship programs can expose (usually younger) talent to your organization, giving them skills and experience that advance their future careers, but also building a rapport and possible pipeline of future team members.  Internships could be with college students, high school students or even younger kids.  They do take time and effort to build correctly, but the labor is usually cheaper than full time professionals, and it’s a long-term investment to create a steady stream of future candidates who have already been exposed (and tested in the real environment) to your organization and its culture and needs.

Purchase expertise – don’t forget search firms, staffing agencies, and other third-party help.

Onboard with purpose – once you hire someone, invest in the process of bringing him/her onboard, helping them to transition onto the team, understand the culture, and hit the ground running.  Start orientation before they arrive; have a meaningful orientation the day they arrive (and not just a 2-hour “fill out these personnel forms” experience); and then provide 30-, 60-, and 90-day training and check-ins to ensure they are integrating.  Make them feel like part of the team before and during their integration; provide them adequate job coaching and shadowing to help them build capacity, understanding, confidence, and engagement with the organization.  Considering using a “buddy” system for new hires, connecting them to experienced employees to help them navigate the culture (and organizational traditions) and build relationships and engagement. Consider a “job tryout” process, where employees can work for a limited amount of time (30 or 60 days, for example) to “try out” the job and organization to determine if it will be a good fit.

So those ideas above were about more effectively finding, recruiting, and hiring good talent.  These next insights are about keeping the talent you have, also in no particular order:

Focus on workforce engagement – reconnect with your current workforce, asking them what their drivers of engagement are.  Research shows that employee needs have shifted considerably the last 24 months, now focused more on factors such as flexibility, inclusivity, connection and relationships with their team, remote access and hybrid or flexible work arrangements, purpose-driven work, work/life balance, competitive pay and benefits, among other things.  Use engagement surveys, including shorter, more frequent “pulse” surveys to check in with your current workforce to understand their engagement levels and identify issues that could lead to turnover.

Create a more flexible work environment – the world has changed the last 24 months.  Sure, some roles still require a worker to physically be somewhere to do the work, but there’s a growing recognition that many roles can be done anywhere at almost any time.  Consider permanently allowing remote (or hybrid) work, flexible scheduling, split shifts, on-call options, job sharing (and part-time split roles). Allow your team to help design and shift work models to serve their own personal needs, as well as improve productivity and organizational results.  If you don’t accommodate more flexible work environments, your competitors might.

Create a fun culture – we all spend a third of our days at work, so we need to make it fun and enjoyable!  Have themed conference rooms; allow toys and personal items on desks and walls; consider novelty features in the office – a popcorn machine (if it doesn’t smell too much), a video game or physical game (a foosball table, air hockey or nerf basketball hoop).  But don’t just plop one down: ask employees what they want in the office!  Encourage downtime.  Be flexible with attire policies (matched to your type of business, of course). Play games; experience out-of-office group activities; build relationships.

Invest in your team’s future – your organization’s learning and development system should support both personal development as well as your organization’s needs (building skills that leverage your core competencies, address strategic challenges, advance strategy and action plans, and provide capability in terms of managing change, focusing on the customer, problem solving, becoming more innovative, or taking more intelligent risks).  Provide tuition reimbursement, in-house training and education, mentoring, job rotation, as well as other career advancement support.  And for a diverse workforce: provide training in multiple languages (and in multiple formats), maybe providing iPads with language translation or kiosks throughout the building.  These investments are a win-win, helping the organization improve capability, but also engaging and deepening the relationships with your current team.

Focus on career progression, leadership succession – part of keeping the talent you have is in developing them for whatever is next. This requires understanding their current capabilities (and desires) and working together to develop future capabilities for potential future roles, including leadership.

Encourage volunteerism – give time off to allow current employees to volunteer.  It supports improving community outcomes; it creates opportunities for employees to learn and engage outside of the organization; it promotes engagement and outreach.

Modernize your benefits package – gone are the days of just providing a paycheck, medical insurance, and maybe a 401K.  Organizations today need to stretch to provide services that address current and prospective employees’ needs and/or remove historical barriers for some groups of employees. Consider enhancements such as mental health services, GED or ESL services, employment for spouse or partner, transportation (including ride sharing), daycare, or housing assistance.  If you need employees physically in your building, consider temporary housing (hotels or apartments) to widen the candidate pool.  Consider loyalty bonuses (“stay pay”).

Reconsider employee time off – Encourage employee breaks.  Consider an open PTO policy (unlimited and untracked vacation, which allows – and trusts – your employees to take time off when they need it, focusing on job outcomes, not job input).  But for sure: do encourage time off to refresh, rejuvenate.

And if those 18 ideas above weren’t enough, here are three more, that really cut across both recruiting and retention:

Involve leaders – these processes cannot simply be delegated to the HR department: make sure your senior leaders are engaged in all workforce processes – recruiting, hiring, onboarding, career development, succession planning, coaching.  Senior leaders are ultimately responsible for the organization’s culture and for creating an environment for their teams to succeed.  Responsibility for recruiting, retention, and ultimately employee engagement rests with leadership.

Focus on mission – every organization has a mission…the reason it exists.  It brings meaning to the organization’s work; it helps employees connect to the purpose, which can inspire them to give their utmost.  Mission can attract strong candidates to an organization; it can also keep them there.

Take risks and try new things – be creative, learn, adapt, and shift.  Despite my blog’s title, there is no silver bullet in addressing today’s staffing challenges.  Keep trying things and evolving.  A combination of strategies and processes will help you find and keep the best talent.

Here are a few quick resources:

  • For the recording of the staffing panel webinar PEN hosted last November, visit here.
  • For the recording of the webinar “Using DEI to Address Staffing Challenges,” visit here.
  • For free ideas and tools for improving your hiring process (hosted by the speakers in the DEI webinar above), visit here.
  • For my article on the changing nature of work – which is full of other ideas on how to address today’s staffing challenges – visit here.

What other insights/tips do you have regarding how to more effectively recruit and retain talent and more effectively address today’s staffing challenges?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

A Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

Photo credit AP Photo, Andreas Klinke Johannsen in WINF Ft. Meyers, StrengthsScope