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Grand Forks-area companies using sign-on bonuses to attract new hires

Business leaders say it’s a competitive job market and the bonuses are one way to get the attention of potential candidates

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Gretchen Trosen is seen working at Digi-Key’s product distribution center in Thief River Falls, Minn. (Photo courtesy of Digi-Key)

Patrick Manatab moved to Minnesota from Hawaii after being offered a job at Digi-Key Electronics in Thief River Falls. The job wasn’t the only reason he relocated from a warm climate to a sometimes harsher one, but it was one of the main ones. Being offered a relocation expense and sign-on bonus helped get him here.

“I would have moved here anyway, even without the bonus,” he said. “But that made the transition a little bit easier and quicker for me.”

Zack Holloway also accepted a job at Digi-Key with relocation help and the promise of a sign-on bonus. He moved to the region from California.

Offering sign-on bonuses is a tool some companies are using more these days to attract new hires. For Digi-Key, the bonuses help incentivize potential candidates to apply, said Talent Acquisitions Manager Jessica Dahl.

“It's a competitive market,” she said. “Thief River Falls is a small town but we’re fairly large within the region, and there's other organizations and companies within the region that are competing for talent. And so this is another way to intensify, to try to be competitive in the market.”

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Attracting talent

Digi-Key, depending on the position and need to fill it, is not the only company in the Greater Grand Forks region to offer sign-on bonuses to attract potential hires.

According to Dustin Hillebrand, workforce center manager at Job Service North Dakota, he’s seen a number of companies in the area that offer them. The bonuses are nothing new to the job market, but he said they seem to be used more readily these days, especially over the past year or so of the pandemic.

“Certain fields have always had a sign-on bonus – often those fields that are harder to hire for, and so this isn't anything new,” he said. “It's just that now we're seeing them offered in areas where we might not have seen them as readily before.”

According to recent job postings on Indeed, Marvin, a door and window manufacturer, was offering $2,500-$5,000 as sign-on bonuses for production associates. Altru Health System was offering a $5,000 sign-on bonus for an athletic trainer, as well as relocation expenses, the same amount it was offering for a speech language pathologist.

Altru has offered sign-on bonuses for several years, according to Jennifer Semling, manager of talent acquisition at the Grand Forks-based health system, but it has increased those offerings over the past few years.

“I would say it has increased just with some of the shortages in different areas (of the health care industry), but overall the past four years or so there have been additional sign-on bonuses in some selected areas,” she said.

Sign-on bonuses at Altru are offered only with certain positions – those where there’s a need to fill jobs quickly or those that require special skills. In large part it depends on market demand.

“It’s a competitive labor market right now, and so it’s really important that we’re able to fill positions as quickly as possible with qualified candidates,” Semling said. “Sometimes these sign-on bonuses are something that will draw attention to the position, where other times they may not.”

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Valley Senior Living, which specializes in transitional care and assisted living, also offers sign-on bonuses but only after other options have been explored, according to President and CEO Garth Rydland.

“We only offer the bonuses when absolutely necessary. We have offered more bonuses and higher amounts since the pandemic,” he said, noting the use of sign-on bonuses is dependent on a number of factors. “We do not use them across the board.”

Do bonuses work?

Sign-on bonuses may be one tool in a company’s marketing toolbox. But do they work?

Most say yes.

“It has worked,” Semling said. “It has attracted some people from out of state. We sometimes see people who look at us a little differently; it might draw their attention to North Dakota when they see those dollar amounts.”

Dahl, with Digi-Key, said since the company started using sign-on bonuses ($2,000 for full-time positions, $500 for part-time), it has noticed an increase in the number of applications by more than 40%. But, she explained, “one thing I do want to highlight is that our hiring needs also increased, so we had more openings (which adds to the overall increase).”

When staffing challenges exist, companies may have to think outside the box and up their marketing game, or, at times, ask current employees to take on extra demands before implementing sign-on bonuses.

“When we have staffing challenges for a position, we increase our external marketing, ask staff to pick up extra shifts, increase incentive pay, and increase our internal staff recruiter bonuses before considering sign-on bonuses,” Rydland said of Valley Senior Living.

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One question considered: Should the company continue to care for the same number of people and expect existing staff to work more, or hire a temporary nurse staffing agency?

Rydland said the facility has not once used a staffing agency to fill nursing positions.

Another question is, “Should we care for fewer people since we have fewer staff?” he said. “We don’t choose this option because we are committed to meeting our community’s long-term care needs.”

As such, there are times when sign-on bonuses are deemed appropriate.

“This spring, we implemented across-the-board CNA sign-on bonuses of $10,000 paid over four years,” he said.

Hillebrand said it is one of the largest sign-on bonuses he has seen a company offer in the area. (In some cases, Altru has offered bonuses of $15,000.)

But the bonuses upset a number of existing staff members who maybe did not receive the same incentive when they accepted a position, according to Rydland.

“Sign-on bonuses do not solve everything,” he said. “Once you are offering sign-on bonuses, you need to take a hard look to determine if you are paying what the market is demanding. … At the same time, we increased the base wages for all existing CNAs.”

Retaining employees

Companies do not only want to attract new employees; they also want to keep them around for a long time.

North Dakota has an example of people flooding to the area for a few years and then leaving. It’s what happened during the oil boom when people came en masse to the Bakken region to work and fill their bank accounts. When the boom subsided, the workers left.

The lesson, in part, is that what companies do today can have big dividends for the region tomorrow. Relocation reimbursement, good health and retirement benefits, competitive pay, and a company’s culture all are items that attract new hires and, hopefully, keep employees around for a while. Hillebrand said work-life balance also is important for employers to consider in an effort to retain employees.

“Work-life balance is becoming a much more important thing to consider,” he said. “I think this is an added perspective that a lot of people are talking about. What's important, being at work or at home with your family, or traveling, or whatever it might be? I think we'll see more people looking for that work-life balance in their jobs.”

Depending on the company, sign-on bonuses are paid out over a period of time. For Altru, they’re typically given in increments over a one- to two-year period, Semling said. But for Digi-Key it’s usually within a matter of months. The philosophy behind Altru’s extended payout is, in part, to keep new hires around longer instead of giving them quick cash without a commitment to stick around for a while. The same with Valley Senior Living.

But according to Dahl, there is something else that helps employees want to stay: Providing opportunities for people to grow in their careers.

People want to be part of their company’s culture, she said. They want to have the opportunity to advance, and they want to know their contributions are valued.

“People really do enjoy working here and being part of the company and the culture,” she said. “Coupled with sign-on and relocation bonuses … once they get here they see there's that opportunity to continue on and be part of this great organization.” Or “if they want to stay in their role, they can do that too.”

Holloway, who moved to the region from California, started work in late July and is waiting for the rest of his bonus. He works in customer service and said in the short time he’s been with the company he’s been impressed with the opportunities it provides and doesn’t plan to leave in the foreseeable future.

“With all the advancement opportunities, it would be pretty unwise for me to walk away from all of that,” he said. “Digi-Key offers a lot in terms of advancement and the pay is fantastic too, and so it's another really awesome incentive to stay. … I plan on staying here and continuing to advance within the company.”

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