Economic Development and Human Resources

HR trends reveal a struggle for long-term employees

Employers should focus on why workers are staying, not leaving, and adjust accordingly.

January 1, 2016
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Local sources working in human resources say they are seeing a shift, and it seems to be across industry lines: It’s becoming trickier not only to get talent through the door but also to keep them from walking out.

“I’ve noticed that the human resources field has been forced to change because the way that people are working is changing,” said Tori Vandragt, studio manager with Grand Rapids-based technology company Elevator Up.

“A lot of people I talk to are working for themselves, almost in a freelance position. I hear it from that perspective. Other companies in the area in the tech field are all competing for the same talent.”

Vandragt, who also handles the HR needs of Elevator Up, said although she can’t name a specific timeframe for when this shift occurred, she’s noticed, read about and heard from other companies that employers are working harder to attract and retain talent, in part because “the way people are working is tied to the talent piece.”

“One thing I’ve noticed is companies have to work a lot harder than (before) to bring people on and keep them here — particularly with the technology field, since technology is growing a lot. It’s almost growing too fast for people to keep up from the talent side of things,” she said.

“Companies that want to hire really good people are having to get more creative to hire people on. It seems like they want more flexibility in their work environment, more independence in their responsibilities. There’s this whole influx in companies like Uber and TaskRabbit because people are able to choose when they’re working, what they’re doing — they have more choices, and I feel like people are wanting that more.”

The talent issue is what led The Employers’ Association, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that offers HR solutions, to prep for a new roundtable for its members. The roundtable, which launches Jan. 15, is called “ART” — Attracting/Retaining Talent, said Jason Reep, director of learning and inclusion at TEA.

“We’re a member-based association with about 500 member companies — small, medium-sized and large. … We’ve heard (across industries) from a number of folks, ‘How do we attract people?’” Reep said.

“Tech is absolutely one of those industries where it’s being challenged. We focus on our members’ needs, and we’ve definitely heard it from our manufacturing members, too, but also our nonprofit folks are facing the same challenges.”

West Michigan has a unique culture in that hiring traditionally has come through family members, previously established relationships or word-of-mouth, Reep said. But that is changing, especially in smaller businesses.

“There’s a lot of support for West Michigan supporting West Michigan. … The shift of different populations coming into Grand Rapids, we can benefit from that, but for smaller members, that’s not the model used in the past. There’s not been a lot of need to go outside of the direct community,” he said.

Many of the people Reep has talked to have said the HR issue is generation related, although Reep doesn’t think it’s that simple. It’s more of cultural change, he said.

“People are saying the millennials have different work styles, but cultures have changed so much, I don’t think we can just point fingers,” he said.

“When we talk about a cultural shift, sure, it’s true for millennials, but it’s true for everybody. People want things quicker, so if they see another job, they ask, ‘What will get me to where I want to go? I’ll move into that space.’ So companies are saying, ‘How can we make it so employees aren’t jumping ship?’

“That cultural change — I don’t know if you call it ‘commitment to employer’ — it’s changed. And some would argue it’s changed on both ends, but that’s the old ‘chicken versus the egg’ phenomenon,” Reep said.

Gone are the days when people expect to stay in a job a long time — even if they want to, Reep said.

“People don’t go into an organization saying, ‘This is where I’ll spend the rest of my life,’ but the research is clear: People would like to find a place and stay for a long time, and that’s across generations,” he said.

Aaron Schaap, owner of Elevator Up and organizer of the downtown startup hub The Factory, agreed the workplace culture is over the idea of long-term jobs. This doesn’t, however, mean employees are necessarily less productive, he said. It depends on if you think of productivity in the format of a 40-hour work week. This is a point of disagreement, he admitted, but there’s no such thing as turning work “off” anymore, he said.

“On the West Coast, the lifespan of an employee is 11 months. It’s ridiculous. That’s starting to come our way. … There’s no such thing as 40 hours anymore. I’m always working. So, if I want to relax during the day — not all day, I need to be responsible — but I can leave and hang out with my family and go do something, or I can take a nap if I need to,” Schaap said.

“The idea is I understand what we, as a team, have to accomplish in getting things done. So it becomes a challenge to ask, ‘How do you create a lifestyle where you don’t have to come in, stamp a time stamp and then go back out. How do you create a culture that’s always on?’”

Companies are starting to find that investing in employees’ well-being will make them more productive in the long run and will curb the 11-month turnover, which can be super-expensive, Vandragt said.

As part of a long-term shift to attract employees, Vandragt advises local companies to do an audit or to study analyses from other companies and shift their systems to allow team members to stake more ownership in both the company and projects. She also advised making a company more transparent in both its business dealings and with its work space.

“That’s where the HR field is coming into needing to change its ways a bit. There’s a fine balance between protecting the people and protecting the company. And that’s where the shift is happening,” she said. “They need to be creative in what they’re offering their people, but they also need to be creative in protecting themselves against that, ‘I’m the bomb, you need me so what are you going to give me?’ It’s a fine balance. That’s where I think the shift is.”

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Reep said whenever he discusses the issue with a company, he tries to approach it for that specific company and its goals and strategies. Sometimes general strategies don’t work.

One way to navigate the shift is to focus on what’s working, he said. People often look at who’s leaving a company, but they forget to look at who’s staying.

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