In this article, we caught up with Alice Yoo LeClair, Divisional CHRO at Euromoney Institutional Investor PLC. From digital mentors to sapien evolution, Alice provides plenty of food for thought – and some laughs along the way.

“It was just the perfect storm,” says Tonie Lyubelsky, Senior Director of Total Rewards. “We had open positions that we were having a hard time filling. And then we had an increase in orders.”

Elkay prides itself on the delivery of its products in a timely manner and on its relationships with customers. Lyubelsky said the company had to think innovatively to address what she calls a “horrendous backlog” and stop loyal customers from going elsewhere to buy competitors’ products. It was the HR team in Savanna who came up with the idea to ask others from across the company to come and help out on the manufacturing side. At first it was just magical thinking, she says. But then they started wondering if it could actually work. They began to figure out how to adjust pay, compensate for overtime hours and comply with employment law.

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In the end, they had 15 volunteers come to the plant for two weeks, with paid room and board. Those who volunteered got time and half, plus a bonus, in addition to their expenses. Some staff made some extra special requests: someone wanted a motorcycle shipped out there, while someone else wanted a pet sitter while they were away. “We obliged each of those demands because they helped us break that backlog,” Lyubelsky said. “And they certainly did.”

At first, some people working in the plant were skeptical about having corporate people getting involved with manufacturing. They thought they would botch things up, or slow them down. But in the end, those same people said they felt that for the first time, people in the offices got to share in their frustrations and understand what life is like in the plant. Lyubelsky says: “We got so much more out of it, other than just breaking the backlog. It was a pretty neat experience.”

Elkay wasn’t alone in needing drastic measures to meet demand around October. More than nine in ten small business owners trying to hire workers said they had few or no qualified people applying to their job openings in September 2021, according to a survey by the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Blurring the lines between blue and white-collar
It took the pandemic for HR directors at Elkay to figure out how to make working in the plant attractive enough for someone from a non-traditional background to want to do it.

Many more companies are going to have to follow Elkay’s lead and get creative to fill 2.1 million vacancies in manufacturing by 2030. Deloitte found that a hole this size in the labor force will cost the US economy $1 trillion in 2030 alone. It surveyed more than 800 US-based manufacturing leaders and found that the pandemic had worsened the situation for employers, erasing 1.4 million jobs and undoing more than a decade of job gains. This has compounded an already worsening skills gap in construction and manufacturing – thanks to the galloping pace of technology acceleration. 

In this environment, recruiters need to change tack. Scholley Bubenik, president of Premier HR Solutions, an HR consulting company based in Austin, Texas, told Forbes that it’s no longer enough to look at college education and prior experience when hiring – recruiters need to look for people with potential. She says hiring managers should make a list of traits and skills necessary for success on the job and develop interview questions to assess them. In addition to the interview, hiring managers need to look for previous school and work experience where candidates have utilized these traits in a different role. “Begin by contacting the local community colleges, vocation programs, high schools and other training programs in your community,” she advised. “Collaborate with these programs to create training programs within your company such as internships and apprenticeships where job candidates can develop their skills and demonstrate their abilities.”

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Innovating to fill the gaps
For industries experiencing vast growth, such as engineering and construction company Cupertino Electric, the great resignation presents challenges beyond retention – and this is the need to recruit rapidly at scale. As Chief People Officer Estrella Parker explains, the talent pool is finite and there is a risk everyone is after the same people. This means innovation is essential in workforce planning for 2022.

“You start looking at more innovative strategies to build, buy and borrow the resources that you will need,” she says. “The growth that’s happening to us [as a company] is happening across the industry. And so everybody wants the same resources and there’s just not going to be enough to fulfill that need. So we have to be smarter about how we utilize resources and not be so heavily dependent on experience and then also figure out how we can develop talent faster.”

Organizations also need to look at job roles differently, Parker says, because some roles are more “fluid than constant.”

“A person might be in a job for two years, right? But companies think of jobs or roles as being constant –but they’re more fluid.”

To combat the risk of a lack of engagement in a longer term role, Parker says we need to think beyond skills and experience.

“We have to go another layer down and understand that people have interests. They go through different cycles in their lives of what they’re motivated to do and what they’re motivated to learn.”

Taking a long-term approach
A long-term approach may be essential in a world in which labor shortages are the norm. According to the US Chamber of Commerce, the ratio between the number of available workers and the number of job openings is now 1.4 available workers per job. This has actually improved since the pandemic: in 2018-2019 it reached parity, with one worker available per US job. The ratio has been falling for years, a consequence of the working age population shrinking as the birth rate falls.

In that environment, Lyubelsky says companies that require a physical presence, such as retail and manufacturing, will have to change not just how they recruit and train staff, but the very nature of the jobs themselves. First, she says they’re going to have to think about how to automate – not necessarily the entire job, but certainly pieces of it. “I believe this labor shortage, especially with retail and production, is going to be an issue for a while,” she says. “So there’s the innovation of how the work gets done and automating the work. Then, I think job sharing is going to come into play.” Where jobs cannot be automated, Lyubelsky says that two people might do the job of one so that a single worker doesn’t have to commit to an eighthour shift, but two people commit to four-hour shifts. “Employees have had a taste of flexibility. And they’re going to want that going forward.”

In addition, Lyubelsky predicts wage inflation as more employees hold back their services to get more money. “What we’ve seen is desperation from a lot of retailers and small restaurants because employees won’t go to work in those locations anymore,” she says. In response, employers have had to come back and offer more money and bonuses. “We’re going to see more of these concerted efforts of people to hold back their services in an effort to increase their wages,” Lyubelsky says.

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Communicating values and creating meaning
For Parker, who at the time of writing had been at Cupertino Electric for five months, the challenge has been meeting the demands of rapid growth and balancing the need to retain staff as well as recruit. This has led to a fresh look at how Cupertino Electric communicates its values and benefits.

“It’s really about telling a story. Our benefits tell a story about who we are as an organization and what we believe in.”

Parker, who brings more than two decades of experience in executive management and HR leadership to the role, says it all hinges on the organization’s ability to communicate its core vision and mission with its people. This in turn allows its employees to forge their own connection with the vision, galvanizing them to be proud of where they work.

“Storytelling is a powerful connector for that inspiration and meaning. You have to create environments within your organization that allow that.

“When I walk through the halls or the places on the buildings that we’ve created and think about what we’ve made possible in those buildings – it goes beyond just one life. It’s so meaningful for me in terms of the impact not only of what we’ve created but the pride of the tradespeople whose hands were part of that building. That’s my story, but someone else’s story might be different.

“It’s allowing people to make that connection. It’s not me telling you that you should be inspired because of what we’re doing – it’s allowing people to find that for themselves.”


Hazel Sheffield
Hazel Sheffield, former business editor of the Independent, writes about economics and business for publications including the Financial Times, The Guardian and The Atlantic.

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