Recruiting, retaining & fostering talent: West Michigan's changing workforce and a desire for place

The culture of work has changed. Rarely do individuals begin and end their careers in the same position, at the same desk or with the same few titles. What does that mean for West Michigan companies looking to recruit and retain talent? Well, for starters, it's a lot about a sense of place.
The culture of work has changed. Rarely do individuals begin and end their careers in the same position, at the same desk or with the same few titles. With time-commitment benefits like pensions long gone, few spend decades at the same company, punching the clock simply to earn their retirement.

The workforce itself has become different as well. With changes to Social Security and the Great Recession fresh in our memories, many are working decades later than they planned; it's not uncommon for those in their twenties to work alongside those in their sixties, together making up a diverse, multi-generational workforce.

Access to information and a desire to quickly move up the ranks has also increased, enabling the average worker to hold 10 to 15 different jobs in their lifetime, and those under 32 to change jobs an average of four times after college.
So, with all of this, how can companies have confidence that they're hiring the right people, and that these people will stick around long enough for the ink to dry on their business cards? Navigating employee recruitment and retention can be difficult, especially for entrepreneurs and small business owners who don't have the resources to hire someone to handle the issue for them full-time. Here in West Michigan, many companies are carefully navigating recruitment and retention, some alone and some with help, all searching for the best employees, and, most times, finding it in the talented, diverse professionals that make up today's workforce.

One of the biggest things that has changed for business owners and recruiters in the past few decades? The emphasis on place, as in the city in which one lives and works, over position. "Place is extremely important for people now," says Cindy Brown, the executive director of Hello West Michigan, a Grand Rapids-based membership organization that promotes the region as a great place to work and supports the individuals and families that move here to do so. Working exclusively in recruitment a decade ago, Brown notes that place wasn't even on her radar back then.
Cindy Brown

"It wasn't even part of our conversation. We were really focused on recruiting for the position," says Brown. Now, with a greater emphasis on work/life balance, employers have to bring more to the table, showcasing the exciting, family-friendly or entertaining city in which they're based. "People want to be where there family is. They want to be where they grew up. They want to be where they can enjoy life after five o'clock and do things in a vibrant downtown," adds Brown.

In order to attract potential employees to West Michigan, Brown has a two-part strategy: educating people about everything the region has to offer and targeting people with preexisting connections to the area, like individuals who grew up here and former college students.

This sense of place is particularly important due to the decrease in time that the average worker is spending in each position. With a higher turnover rate (think four job changes before aged 32 for the average worker versus two for the previous generation), Brown is especially concerned with bringing employees to a place, not a company, and settling in.
“In the state of Michigan, the trends overall seem to be similar to those of the nation as a whole in which individuals in the 19-21 and 22-24 age brackets tend to have the highest turnover rates and those in the 34-44, 44-54, and 55-64 age brackets tend to have the lowest turnover rates for all industries as a whole as well as for the Professional Scientific, and Technical Services industry,” according to “Turnover Summary for Start-Ups vs. Already Established Companies Regionally, Statewide, and Nationally,” a report by The Right Place, a business and economic development agency.

In addition to struggling with high turnover from younger employees, startups face other difficulties when recruiting. "The talent that we're trying to recruit in that community really has the option to live anywhere," says Paul Moore, the Chief Marketing Officer of Start Garden, an ecosystem initiative fostering startups and business development in Grand Rapids. What's most important, says Moore, is to "create a place that's desirable to live." Part of Moore's work in this arena is to recruit talent in the tech industry across a variety of races, cultures and religions, diversifying what can be a homogenous tech landscape in Grand Rapids.

"The tech industry is heavily white male dominated," says Moore, who seeks to make GR a place where anyone would want to work or start a business, not just the groups generally found here.

[Editor's note: Support for this series is provided by Start Garden, but the organization does not receive special consideration for an article's sourcing, nor are they permitted to view the story prior to publication.]

While the culture of the city is vital, the culture of a particular company is also important. The average employee now desires to feel fulfilled, and to feel that they fit in, at their workplace. They want to feel like their time is well spent, and that their work hours are not simply a chunk of their day that they would rather not think about. "Culture is so important to employees. Especially millennials and the younger generation," says Kim Bode, principal at 834 Design & Marketing.
Kim Bode

Promoting a fun, flexible environment and having confidence in her staff is part of Bode creating an ideal culture for young people, working parents and beyond. Understanding that, now more than ever, employees desire to have their voices heard, Bode also takes great consideration to listen to each staff member's' input. "Every employee helps shape the direction of where 834 goes in the future," she says.

Regarding the challenges of a multi-generational workforce, Bode suggests that treating millennials differently isn't really the answer. "Everyone brings different life experiences to the table," she says. "You have to manage any individual differently regardless of their age." Though millennials may seem to articulate their desires for their work environment a little louder than most, they most likely share those needs with their older coworkers.

Moore agrees that when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent, it's not so simple anymore, and categorizing employees based on their age or background is not effective. "Trying to create a one-to-one-solution (open up a job, fill it with talent) is not going to work anymore," he says.
So the answer to all of your recruiting and retaining needs? In the midst of so much change, perhaps the solutions just aren’t obvious right now. With multi-generational employees, technology enabling work-from-home situations, and work/life balance priorities, business owners need to start looking inward to create an environment where people truly want to work. Even bigger than that, entrepreneurs can look outside their companies to the cities where they live, working together to form comfortable and desirable communities for people of all ages, stages and backgrounds. "People don't live in jobs," says Moore. "They live in neighborhoods. They want friends. They want educational options. They want housing options." So, the really big question? What are you doing to be attractive to potential employees?

Resources for employee recruitment include:

Hello West Michigan
The Right Place
Lakeshore Advantage
West Michigan Works

“Making It In Grand Rapids” is a series about local entrepreneurs and the issues that matter in building a sustainable, startup-friendly community. Support for this series is provided by Start Garden. You can reach the editor of this series, Allison Spooner, on Twitter or e-mail her at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.