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Retention: Your Most Important Competitive Edge

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No matter what source you choose, whether it's the Department of Labor, the Department of Commerce, the Economist, or what have you, the forecast is the same for the United States:

  • By 2010, there will be 10 million more jobs than workers;
  • By 2013, there will be a shortage of 6 million degreed workers; and
  • By 2020, the shortage of workers will be 14 million.
And these numbers are net for the talent we import and the jobs we export!

The implications of these shortages are numerous and serious.

First, the competition for workers in the future will be intense. Losing good employees to ''better offers'' will be a constant problem, resulting in a 30% turnover rate being comparatively low.

Second, in addition to a quantitative deficit, the country is facing a qualitative deficit.
The US currently ranks 7th among the world’s 30 most-industrialized nations in producing college graduates from the 25-34-year-old age group. This exacerbates the coming shortage of over 6 million degreed workers, threatening organizational ability to sustain both the pace of project execution and the volume of valued services.

Third, these projections reveal a significant and tough-to-manage gap in the ages of workers. Our future workforce will include some workers who are under 30 and many who are over 49, but very few workers who are aged 30 to 49. Managerial talent will have to be sufficient to manage each group effectively and to get the groups to work together productively.

Fourth, as technological advances continue to allow for the automation of physical and technical jobs, remaining positions will increasingly require the ''high touch'' style of management traditionally attributed to females. Current and aspiring male executives will have to achieve fluency with ''high touch'' management in order to compete successfully with women.

Well-informed businesses are already aware that retaining talent is now a top strategic objective. As your firm engages in this highly competitive endeavor, success will be determined by whether you can offer alignment to existing and potential employees in three critical workplace arenas: (1) between job content and the developmental aspirations of individuals; (2) between work environments and the needs or preferences of individuals; and (3) between managerial styles and the needs of a diverse work force.

Let's look at how to achieve alignment in each of these areas.

Aligning Job Content and Individual Aspirations

Job content is typically expressed in some combination of position description and specific outcomes discrete to a given review period. The position description isn't usually negotiable, and no effort is typically made to customize the job description to the specific interests of the employee. Furthermore, although one can be promoted into or out of the position, the job of the hiring manager has always been to find a candidate who, for the foreseeable future, wants the position as described. Today, however, retaining employees means being willing to revise and reformat positions, to mix and match duties, and to clarify, from day one, the path from one's initial position to one's desired position. This requires on-going, substantive communications with resident employees and applicants, integrating their input into both the design of new positions and the redesign of existing positions.

I'm not suggesting that you just snap up any and every candidate and let them design their own jobs, but I am suggesting that you be more flexible about who does what. True, there will always be specific functions that must be performed, and yes, all of us will always have to shoulder some amount of less-than-delightful duties, but giving employees more control over a significant portion of their job content will make the difference between attracting or keeping them, and losing them. Here’s how:

Relevant to existing positions: Allow groups of employees to collaborate to determine how each employee might enhance the work product of the others; how each might help the others grow; and how each might enrich the overall work experience. Also, allow administrative support personnel to review a comprehensive list of all the duties required for all such positions, and let them divide up the responsibilities consistent with their preferences, ensuring that each has their fair share of the more mundane functions.

Relevant to new positions: Let's assume a candidate has interest or experience in two different openings for which you're currently hiring. Why not allow the candidate to work a week or two in each job to determine which job he or she prefers? Or, let's assume you have a candidate who is qualified for a job in your accounting department but whose real interest is in your legal department. Consider collaborating with the managers in both departments to structure the position such that some mix of work becomes reasonable and useful.

Sound impractical? Are you thinking that you can't hold multiple job openings hostage for weeks while a candidate makes a choice between the positions? Are you thinking that managers in different departments won't be willing to restructure jobs to accommodate candidate interests? Think again. Economists are predicting a shortage of 6 million individuals with four-year degrees by the year 2016. Consequently, organizations will soon be turning somersaults to get and keep employees.

Aligning Work Environments with Individual Preferences

You'll be ahead of the game if you recognize now the need to offer a smorgasbord of work environments to align with individual preferences. The more of the following options your organization can offer, the better positioned you'll be to attract and retain talent.

Work Hours: 35-hour work weeks; flex-time; telecommuting; job sharing; sabbaticals
Education: full tuition reimbursement; mentoring; coaching; corporate universities and certification programs
Professional Services: legal; mortgage and other financial; medical
Personal Services: concierge and personal assistant services
Family Services: on-site or paid day care for children; after-school programs; elder care
Facilities: on-site or paid gym; health and recreational facilities; food services; personalized work stations; employer-supplied home offices
Benefits: cafeteria-style; temporary/emergency/back-up transportation; child or elder care; phased retirement plans; long-term care insurance; five weeks vacation from first year of employment
Technology: state-of-the-art equipment; home offices paid for by employers

Aligning Managerial Styles with the Needs of a Diverse Workforce

All this collaboration and customization will necessitate considerable managerial skill, but many of us view management training as a luxury we can’t afford. Wake up now, though, and realize that retention is a strategic necessity and that managerial skill is crucial to retention. A quality of management that elevates the function to an art form will soon be required.

Unless and until senior management gives the same level of scrutiny to the management function as it already applies to the functions of production and finance, the impact of poor management on retention will remain invisible. The "one-style-of-management-fits-all" approach must be shed in favor of a comprehensive template of managerial skills including:
  • versatility in communicating effectively with numerous behavior styles, cultures, and skill levels;
  • the ability to engage, motivate, and appreciate employees not just en masse, but as individuals, ensuring that employees know they are valued;
  • the ability to synthesize seemingly disparate preferences, needs, and opportunities into a blended composite that serves both macro- and micro-level objectives.
Make no mistake, serious retention initiatives aren't going to be optional. That you may dismiss all this as coddling and pampering does not make it any less true. Whether you believe it or not, high salaries and interesting work alone won't be enough to retain employees. You can ignore this advice until the marketplace makes it indisputably correct, by which time your proactive competitors will have snagged all the best people, or you can act now, ensuring that your firm has set the retention standard in your industry.

About the Author

Francie Dalton is the author of Versatility: How to Optimize Interactions When 7 Workplace Behaviors Are at Their Worst. Her firm, Dalton Alliances, specializes in all facets of communication, management and behavioral sciences to C-level clients. She has been a monthly columnist for the Washington Business Journal, taught business management to PhD candidates at the University of Maryland, and maintains a client list that includes Fortune 500 firms. Quoted in Investor's Business Daily, The New York Times, USA Today, Chief Executive Magazine, Selling Power, and the Harvard Management Update, Francie has also appeared on CNN/FN and CNBC's Closing Bell.
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