Lindsey Falkowski corporate recruiter, United Electric Supply
Dan Philippi senior vice president of human resources, Crescent Electric Co.
Dean Tanner vice president of human resources and people development, Mayer

How does your company stack up in the ‘war for talent?’ HR professionals at several IMARK member companies discuss the current trends and challenges associated with recruiting and retention and the opportunities they present

The current need to attract and train young talent combined with the ongoing retirement of the large Baby Boomer population and the nation’s all-time low unemployment rate have created conditions that even the strongest human resources (HR) departments in the electrical distribution industry find challenging.

Following, veteran HR executives at several IMARK member companies discuss some of the unique challenges and opportunities they’re managing when it comes to recruiting and retention in today’s dynamic market.

The Challenges

“Recruiting and retention are concerns today,” confirmed Dean Tanner, vice president of human resources and people development at Mayer in Birmingham, Alabama. “Continued low unemployment rates and an aging workforce, along with our growth, are driving significant increases in our recruiting activity and volume, and there’s definitely competition for the best and brightest.” Tanner noted that it’s not just the number of openings but the types of positions Mayer needs to fill that’s added a new level of complexity to the recruiting mix. “As technology advances and we strive to be a ‘solutions provider’ to our customers, we need associates who understand and appreciate concepts beyond just product, price and availability,” he explained. “Those are now expectations that any number of suppliers can fulfill. The differentiator isn’t just in meeting a customer’s expectations but in the ability to help them improve their business, which requires us to recruit for different roles that position us as ‘solutions consultants’ to our customers.”

Lindsey Falkowski, corporate recruiter at United Electric Supply in New Castle, Delaware agreed that the unique conditions of today’s market have rendered recruiting and retention among the most challenging issues the company’s currently facing. “Finding qualified individuals and then keeping them engaged in the company and in our mission are critical to our success and the future succession needs of the organization,” she said, noting that the country’s historically low unemployment rate has created additional staffing challenges that have required United Electric to pursue out-of-the-box solutions. Among those, “the current nationwide driver shortage challenged us to be creative and develop a driver training program to ‘grow our own’ drivers and provide employees with the opportunity to learn and move into those driving positions,” she said. “We continue to search out new and better ways to find top talent and to help them understand our value proposition.”

Creating the Right Culture

Our experts assert that a company’s ability to attract the right talent hinges on its success in creating a culture conducive to job satisfaction, teamwork and growth.

“Organizations where employees are successful, motivated and loyal exhibit a number of best practices, including clear vision from senior management on the company’s overriding goals and how the organization will achieve them,” shared Dan Philippi, senior vice president of human resources at East Dubuque, Illinois-based Crescent Electric Co. He noted that regular status reports, updates on strategy changes and the celebration of successes help create a positive team atmosphere. Also within successful companies, “managers are well-trained in leading people, helping employees grow their knowledge/skills/abilities and developing their career goals and plans,” he said. “In addition, individuals have well-defined goals, understand how those goals improve customer satisfaction and are clear on how their performance will help both the team and the larger organization to achieve their objectives.”

Mayer’s Tanner wholeheartedly agreed. “First and foremost is always culture,” he said of the key to success in recruiting and retention. “How you identify and recruit those whose values match the culture can be difficult, but culture always has been and will be the driving force behind a motivated workforce.” Tanner believes that the opportunity for associates to achieve their personal and professional goals is no less important. “Whether it’s simply to provide a comfortable life for their families or to advance their careers and take on more responsibility,” he said, “those opportunities must be present and, for our younger associates, need to be clear and defined.” Behind all of this, companies must also provide the tools to be successful. “For our group, that means ensuring learning and development opportunities, access to technology and expert resources and a clear strategy for success as a company and as individuals,” Tanner said.

In her role, United Electric’s Falkowski said that she emphasizes talent development, flexibility and transparency and notes some of the negative practices that can undermine the realization of a company’s culture and recruiting objectives. Among those, “companies that don’t really listen to what their employees are saying jeopardize their success,” she confirmed. “Today, employees are voting with their feet and leaving organizations that don’t take retention and engagement seriously. There are so many opportunities out there that we have to remain tuned in to what our employees expect from the organization.”


Meeting Employee Expectations

Much has been publicized about the characteristics andexpectations of today’s Generation Yers (also known as Millennials), an 80 million-strong demographic group born between 1980 and 1999 and currently aged 20-39.

Regarding any “generational” differences between these individuals and employees in the previous Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979) and Baby Boomer (born between 1946 and 1964) demographics, Crescent Electric’s Philippi cautions others that believing that all people of a certain age think the same way is short-sighted. “I think that some of the conclusions drawn on these generational profiles do provide value to organizations that want to recruit and retain younger employees in today’s very competitive employment market,” he said. “But if you step back and look at what experts say these younger employees are looking for from their employers, most of what’s recommended—things like clear goals, regular feedback, development of career tracks, access to modern technological tools, etc.—are things that all employees would find valuable, regardless of their age.”

Tanner concurred that the wants and needs of today’s employees aren’t necessarily generationally-motivated. “If you ask our seasoned associates, they’ll say they wanted the opportunity to advance quickly and increase their earnings early in their careers just as much as the younger generations do,” said Tanner, who feels that the differences between generations more often come down to expectations. “While our more seasoned folks came up with the expectation that you earned your opportunities over time or ‘paid your dues,’ our younger associates expect and almost demand the opportunity to advance quickly, try new tasks and responsibilities and be given access to the latest technologies in their work.”

That said, Tanner believes that longing for the “good old days” is an exercise in futility. “The pace of change in our world and in our industry is increasing exponentially and resistance to change is a path to irrelevance,” he said. “Gen X, Gen Y and whoever comes next are here, and they’re beginning to not only influence but lead our organizations. They tend to be energetic and productive and we need to harness their ideas and enthusiasm while integrating them with the tried and true.”

“Having multiple generations in the workforce at the same time is nothing new,” Falkowski contended. “I think that the most important action an organization can take today is to ensure an inclusive culture across all generations by offering benefits that appeal to all.” She noted United Electric’s recent launch of a vacation-buy program for its employee-owners that allows them to utilize the program if they want to or pass if they don’t have the need. “A Millennial could use the extra time to supplement maternity leave, whereas a Baby Boomer could use it to travel,” she said of the program, which is designed to appeal to all demographics. Additionally, she said, “our development initiatives are intended to ensure that employees gain the appropriate skills and knowledge that allow them to excel in their current positions while preparing them for the next one so that our succession needs are met.”


Capitalizing on Other Opportunities—Career Development

All of our experts agreed that successful onboarding and career development efforts are crucial for any company that wants to attract and retain great talent in today’s employment market.

“Career paths are critical to the associates we’re hiring today, who are eager to learn what their near and longterm opportunities will be and how the company will help them get there,” Mayer’s Tanner said. “It’s not just wanting to advance, but wanting to learn and develop so that they can advance. For employers, that underscores the need for a rigorous focus on coaching with development programs tied to the needs of the individual.”

Falkowski agreed that effective onboarding and career planning are must-have practices today. “It’s imperative that new employees experience the company culture from day one, before they even walk in the front door—this is one of the most important aspects of talent development and retention and one most often missed by organizations,” she said. “We start this during the interview process itself, when part of my conversation with candidates concerns the career path opportunities available to them if they choose to work at United Electric. That message is then emphasized by their manager as well as the manager of talent throughout the onboarding process. By the time a new hire hits their 90-day mark,” Falkowski said, “they have a clear understanding of what the future could hold for them here, which helps with retention.”

Philippi noted that Crescent Electric has had a formal succession planning program for all employees since 2008, as well as a comprehensive executive succession plan and a high-potential leadership development program that prepares internal candidates for higher-level management roles. “This year we have a major initiative to enhance our job onboarding training for our most common branch roles,” he said, reiterating the importance of strong orientation and career development programs to a company’s success. “It’s a big undertaking,” Philippi concluded, “but we’re excited about providing new hires with a great onboarding experience and helping them get productive and effective even quicker.”

Susan Bloom
Susan Bloom is a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.