The war for talent in West Michigan

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For those who stay current on human resource publications, the impending “war for talent” among employers is not a new concept.

Kevin Douglas, manager of college talent and candidate experience at Amway Corp., has been hearing this term floating around for about five years, but now, he said, “I think it’s here.”

Douglas said that five years ago when someone was offered a full-time position at the company, it was typical for them to accept within a week, sometimes even on the spot. Today, prospective employees are keeping their options open, sometimes taking up to two months to make their decision.

“That’s showing me that they feel pretty confident there are options. It shows me that other employers are looking to find talent,” said Douglas.

Part of this shift is due to early signs of an improving job market. As the baby boomer generation approaches retirement age, recent projections have indicated that between 8 million and 11 million fewer people are entering the work force than leaving it. Unemployment is on the decline, and a recent statistic from the Bureau of Labor indicates a 3 percent decrease in unemployment among college graduates.

The hunt for talent isn’t a matter of quantity, but quality. Douglas noted that for companies that are looking only at highly trained, well-rounded individuals who are staying involved in their field, the number of viable candidates starts to shrink.

One backlash to this scarcity is the practice of companies thieving talent from one another when a position requires an experienced hire.

“We have a strategy: identify, engage, select and hire,” said Douglas. “It’s a proactive strategy that tries to develop a pipeline of candidates before the opening occurs.”

Human resource departments take different approaches for combating the proverbial tug-of-war for coveted employees. Douglas said that at Amway they are constantly making an effort to invest in the employees, asking them to work on development plans and encouraging them to take advantage of training opportunities or reach out to other departments if they’re interested in expanding their skill set.

“It really boils down to communication with the employee, to helping them understand what their value is to the organization,” said Douglas.

Tom Merchant, regional human resources business partner at Fifth Third Bank, said that in the past five years, there has been a dramatic shift of focus to internal retention.

Fifth Third’s recent marketing campaign, “The Curious Bank,” is centered on the idea of listening to people. Merchant noted that this concept resonates not only with customers, but also with Fifth Third employees. While Fifth Third still has a presence in the recruitment arena, efforts have been largely focused on fostering strong communication, career development and manager accountability for current employees.

“Part of this strategy has broader aspirational views on how we optimize talent, how we go to market and how we ultimately continue to maintain our place as an employer of choice,” said Merchant.

One organization is taking a different tactic for overcoming the issue of stealing or coveting local talent: Bring more to the area. Hello West Michigan is an employer-driven, member-based initiative representing a collection of local businesses, including Van Andel Institute, Spectrum Health, Amway, Wolverine World Wide and Meijer. The main goal of the organization is to brand West Michigan as a whole, acting as a one-stop shop for out-of-state talent that is looking to return or relocate to the area.

The Hello West Michigan website provides information on what’s happening in the region, from entertainment and cultural events to job boards, neighborhood and school information, and community involvement opportunities.

Cindy Brown, executive director of Hello West Michigan, said that finding out what’s important to prospective West Michiganders — both as employees and residents — is essential in encouraging them to join the community.

For Brown, the most pressing challenge for the region as a whole is changing the conversation about the state.

“Michigan has gotten a bad rap. People think there’s no jobs, there’s no growth. But really, we are growing — and especially in West Michigan,” said Brown.

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