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WANTED: A hard day's work

In Grand Forks, employees are hot right now. They are so hot that local employers are adopting new workforce retention and recruitment strategies because losing an employee or filling an open position equates to venturing into a competitive labor...

In Grand Forks, employees are hot right now.

They are so hot that local employers are adopting new workforce retention and recruitment strategies because losing an employee or filling an open position equates to venturing into a competitive labor market. At the beginning of February, Job Service North Dakota released statistics showing Grand Forks' unemployment at 2.9 percent for the month of December 2006, which was up slightly from November's mark of 2.7 percent. The national unemployment rate remained steady at 4.5 percent for December.

With Grand Forks' economic growth and an increasing job market, low unemployment means a lot of things. It's a good thing for workers, but it presents challenges to businesses with jobs to fill. Workers are in demand, which means their value has gone up.

"What we're finding is that because the labor supply is so tight, we're seeing some upward movement in wages and employers trying to offer other things to attract workers," said Job Service area manager Keith Reitmeier.

Employers are finding it necessary to make sure they are competitive with their compensation packages -- both to bring in new people and to retain current workers. "The most important thing you have is your people. You don't want to lose good people because you're not aware of what's happening in the labor market," Reitmeier said.

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Local employers are aware of this and are shifting recruiting efforts to deal with the change.

While Reitmeier said the most recent Job Service wage data highlights the second quarter of 2006, the average weekly wage in Grand Forks County between the months of April and June was $582 -- a 6.4 percent increase over the previous quarter last year.

Rachel Skavlem, human resource manager at J.R. Simplot Co., said Simplot had about 14 vacancies at the end of December. The company decided to try some new recruitment strategies to fill these positions, many of which were mechanics.

"Over the past six months, we've started to ramp up our recruitment efforts," she said.

Simplot dropped a 20 percent probationary wage reduction for new employees implemented during the first 30 days of employment and started two new bonus programs. Skavlem said the first is a $150 bonus to current employees who refer a successful applicant to the company. The second is a $500 signing bonus for individuals who become qualified mechanics.

The company also started to make more of an effort to market and explain its benefits package. "We really hadn't blown our horn that way," Skavlem said.

While it is too early for Simplot to gauge exactly how effective its new policies have been, Skavlem said the company has cut its number of vacancies from 14 to eight in about a month.

One of those new mechanics is Dale Bulmer, who began working with Simplot through Kelly Services, an employment agency, at the beginning of the year. Bulmer said he was unaware of the incentives for new mechanics when he started the job, but he did take advantage of the elimination of the probationary wage decrease and a $500 sign-on bonus.

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With 25 openings out of 240 program positions, workforce recruitment and retention has also been on the radar screen at Development Homes Inc. "We're running at about 10 percent vacancies at any given time," said CEO Sandi Marshall.

To confront the issue, Development Homes has been trying a number of new strategies to attract workers. Marshall said they've increased pay for staff who work less desirable shifts, the entry-level wage has gone up, and signing and training bonuses are now more attractive.

Over a six month period, new hires have the opportunity to earn an extra $600. The bonus is broken down into $200 increments, which are distributed after the first, third and sixth month of employment -- provided the employee meets training specifications that are required to receive the money.

Residential services director Nancy Ulrich Crotty said Development Homes also puts an emphasis on welcoming new employees to the job. She added that internal statistics show the highest rate of turnover for Development Homes' employees occurs during the first six months of employment.

"Being connected and feeling welcome is very important in the first few weeks on the job," she said.

Nationwide, the health care industry has been hit hard by a lack of workers. "Our labor shortage is probably more severe than the community's because health care in general has been a very tough industry, but we've been very successful at what we call growing our own employees," said Dennis Reisnour, administrative director for corporate development at Altru Health Systems.

He said the hospital emphasizes internal training and encourages employees to get more certifications and go back to school.

Despite challenges associated with hiring new employees, Altru has big plans to add to its staff in the next five years. Dave Molmen, chief operating officer, said the hospital is attempting to recruit 40 new physicians to the community as well as expand its total employee base from 3,500 to about 4,000 workers.

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Altru has been fairly successful in its recruiting efforts and should meet its goals, Molmen said. During a recruiting drive in early December, the hospital hired 20 new nurses in one night.

"We have been trying to work ahead of this issue," Molmen said.

For new nurses, Altru has a mentorship program to help them feel welcome at work. The program was implemented in 1996.

In mid-January, Rebecca Rustvang began working as a RN/BSN at Altru under the tutelage of her mentor, Kathy Alvestad. She said her ability to use Alvestad as a resource has been a positive experience because she realized the workplace was quite a bit different from the classroom after she graduated from college in December.

"There's no way I could orient for one to two weeks as a new graduate and know what the mentors know," Rustvang said.

She added the program was one thing that attracted her to Altru. "Having a mentor for three months is a luxury," she said.

In addition to the mentorship program, Rustvang took advantage of a nursing scholarship program. With a three-year commitment, she received an $8,000 check when she started her job.

Solutions

Fortunately for businesses, help is out there.

"We do everything we can to try to help anybody that's looking to add to their employee base," Reitmeier said.

He said employers should contact Job Service and list their openings. Job Service also facilitates industry or employer-specific job fairs and offers specialized training, such as a welding course in Grafton, N.D., and a commercial driver's license course in Grand Forks.

Perhaps the strongest local example of a business looking for help in expanding its workforce is LM Glasfiber, which grew from about 320 to more than 700 employees in the last few months of 2006.

"We have more than doubled in employment within one year, which is exciting in itself, but we're not near the end of the cycle at all," said general manager Blake Seas. "We have potential to grow more."

The company has been very aggressive in its workforce expansion, and Seas said the hiring of production technicians went ahead of schedule after a slow start in the summer of last year. LM Glasfiber is still in the process of hiring some supervisors and workers to fill upper-level jobs, a process Seas expected to be complete by March 1.

So how did LM Glasfiber add so many new jobs?

The answer is two-fold. First, the company took advantage of local and state programs to help spread the word about its job opportunities. Second, LM has put a strong emphasis on human resources.

Seas said he met with the Grand Forks Regional Economic Development Corporation and the Office of Urban Development to discuss the company's hiring plans. Human resource manager Dan Gordon added that Job Service North Dakota has helped by posting openings on the agency's job bank.

"They've been very instrumental in working with us to assist us in our growth plans," Seas said.

The goal, he said, was to raise the profile of LM Glasfiber both locally and regionally.

Internally, LM Glasfiber has been looking for ways to attract and retain workers through benefits packages and an enhanced training program. "We're spending a considerable amount of resources on improving our HR systems," Seas said.

Human resource manager Dan Gordon said the company gave employees two 5 percent general pay raises in October, and will announce a new wage structure this month. LM Glasfiber also started to offer tuition reimbursement to employees as part of its existing benefits package.

Community perspective

Despite its impressive workforce expansion, LM Glasfiber remains just one of many Grand Forks employers. For local leaders, the solution to a worker shortage is going to involve more than just pay raises and improved benefits packages.

Schenkein said the community might have to take a new approach to the idea of workforce development. While many communities face challenges training and retaining workers, Grand Forks' problems are more related to the population -- or lack thereof.

"The bottom line is we don't have enough people here to support the jobs that are available," he said. "It's about how do we recruit more people to here."

Reitmeier said Job Service has started to tap into new areas to spread the word about job openings in the area. "We've sent out information about some of the things that are happening in Grand Forks to some of the Minnesota workforce centers and they're helping promote that," he said.

In addition, Job Service is trying to encourage employers to target new demographics in the state. "We're also trying to grow from within. We know there are maybe some pockets in North Dakota where we can look for more workers," he said.

He referred to demographics that sometimes fly under the radar, such as immigrants, veterans from the war in Iraq and baby boomers or other individuals considering retirement who would potentially be interested in part-time work.

Edison reports on business. Reach him at (701) 780-1107, (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or jedison@gfherald.com .

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