March 8, 2019

Break rules and create new solutions, experts say at Workforce Summit

By: Andrew Lenderman   Comments: 0
The "Leading with Employee Culture" panel included Tyler Bell, co-CEO for Bellmont Cabinet Co.; Laura McKinney, Northwest government affairs and public relations for Alcoa Intalco; and Wade Larson, chief human resources officer for Wagstaff, Inc.; during the 2019 AWB Workforce Summit on March 6, 2019 at the Hilton Bellevue. (Photo: Brian Mittge/AWB)

BELLEVUE -- Washington employers are breaking old rules, experimenting with new ideas and creating fresh solutions in order to attract -- and keep -- a strong workforce in today's economy, leading experts said Wednesday at AWB's 3rd-annual Workforce Summit. 

More than 80 employers, educators and policy experts gathered at the Hilton Bellevue to identify challenges and create solutions around the workforce. Notably, this year’s event included many first-time attendees who brought new ideas, which were shared in tabletop exercises after a series of panel discussions.

Three main themes emerged:

First, it’s a really tough labor market for employers. If companies want to succeed, throw the old rules out the window.

“This war for talent – it’s here. We’re fighting it,” Dr. Wade Larson of Wagstaff’s human resources team said.

When businesses support employees with children, that can be a fantastic way to “find the most loyal and long-term employees that you can ever ask for,” said Nicole Sohn, executive director at Journey Discovery Center in Spokane. She joined Amy Anderson, government affairs director at AWB, to discuss "Absenteeism & Presenteeism: Working with Childcare & Healthcare Challenges."
Second, employees often face a huge amount of stress that distracts them from doing their jobs. Caring for kids and elderly parents, student loan debt, marriage and divorce – it all impacts productivity.

“Eighty percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck,” Viridian’s CEO Adriel Tam said during one panel discussion.

And third, there are many solutions that employers can implement to solve problems and encourage more loyalty, less turnover and a stronger company overall. Some cost money, and some don’t. But the bottom line is there are now more job openings in this country than there are people looking for them. Job openings reached a record high of 7.3 million in December, the federal government reports. This means employers must adapt in order to keep a steady workforce.

“Very, very few people are working 30 years for the same employer,” Mike Meotti of the Washington Student Achievement Council said.

Financial and mental wellness

Meotti and Adriel Tam, CEO of the financial planning firm Viridian, headlined a panel discussion on how employers can help employees navigate the stressors of modern life and be more productive.

Meotti noted that student loan debt has mushroomed, with total debt reaching $1.5 trillion nationally.

“That’s more than credit card debt now,” he said.

Another thing that’s changed in the last decade is how states support public colleges and universities.

“The Great Recession blew up the model of public support for public higher education in this country,” he said, which put those institutions under great pressure. Despite these challenges, education after high school still delivers a huge return on investment for people and society overall, he said.

Tam highlighted dozens of solutions that could help employers create a stronger workforce and more stable employee culture.

They include giving recognition for good work, providing financial education, team-building and healthy snack offerings. More costly solutions include great benefits like health and 401k plans. Flexible schedules are especially popular.

“Those are things that we have found really resonate with our employees,” he said.

(A full list of these ideas are available here.)

Leading with Employee Culture

The keynote lunch panel focused on how to build a great place to work that motivates people. Trying new things and breaking old rules was a consistent theme.

Click for a summary of the day's ideas as captured by AWB on these two whiteboards. 

Laura McKinney of Alcoa’s Intalco Works said the old story used to be, if you come to work at Alcoa you’ll make good wages, and be able to afford a new truck and send your kids to college. That’s changing with younger workers.

“Some of the young people today, that’s not their first question...Not, how much am I going to make, it’s what do you do?” she said. “What product do you make, and how will I feel about it? And what is my opportunity to make a good impact? How am I going to be involved in the growth of the company? How will you value my contributions?”

Alcoa is engaging with local schools in an effort to make connections with young people, and share the company’s message. Intalco Works is an aluminum smelter that makes the recyclable aluminum used in Ford F150s and Tesla electric cars, she noted.

Dr. Wade Larson, the chief human resources officer at Wagstaff, Inc., highlighted some of the recruiting challenges faced by the skilled trades in this country.

We’ve been telling young people for the last two decades that the trades are a dirty job, and they need to go to a four-year college to succeed, Larson said. “And as a result, I’ve got nobody who is going to be a welder or a machinist,” he said.

Wagstaff is a family company that builds custom industrial equipment for aluminum producers. The company was named AWB’s Employer of the Year in 2018 in part for its positive workplace culture. Still, there’s a labor shortage and Larson is hustling to do things differently.

“Basically, I’m recruiting anybody who’s in kindergarten on up,” Larson said. “I’m serious. And so, I’m building relationships with K-12 through the community colleges, and I am actively recruiting from those ages.”

The company has organized apprenticeship programs for high school students to experience all aspects of the business, from design to production and sales. And, they’ve taken risks with recruiting that include signing bonuses, paying for workers to relocate, and new schedules for some that include three 12-hour days in a row --- with pay for 40 hours worked.

The company’s managers had to get trained on the new model too.

“We have an old model mentality trying to manage this new workforce,” Larson said. “We had to break some serious molds.”

Bellmont Cabinet Co. is offering different, affordable health plans to attract workers, and a new schedule that includes four 9-hour days, followed by a 4-hour day on Fridays.

“Younger workers don’t want to work overtime...especially if it’s going to impact their weekends,” Bell said.

Glynnis Klinefelter Sio asks a question during the 2019 AWB Workforce Summit.
Ask A Lawyer

Top labor law experts from Ryan, Swanson and Cleveland hosted a question-and-answer session that included the issue of

working remotely. More people love working from home, Ryan Swanson’s Britenae Pierce said, making it a good recruiting tool. If companies do allow it, they should draft clear policies with clear expectations for everyone.

Attorney Shannon Lawless advised employers to get ready to update their employee handbooks before the state’s new Paid Family and Medical Leave benefits kick in on Jan. 1, 2020. It’s too early now, she said, because of pending legislation or agency rules. July or August is a good time to update the handbook, and the fall is a good time to train managers.

Employers also asked for advice on how to handle employee reviews. Pierce said this question comes up frequently.

“You’ve got to be truthful,” she said. “You’ve just got to say if there’s a problem.”

Working with Childcare and Healthcare Challenges

AWB’s Amy Anderson and Nicole Sohn of the Journey Discovery Center in Spokane finished the day’s discussion by addressing huge issues that keep many people out of the workforce: child and elder care.

Approximately 20 percent of all female workers in the U.S. are also family caregivers, Anderson said. The average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who’s working an extra 20 hours a week on top of their full-time job.

The economic challenges of elder care are significant, she noted, and what happens at home impacts the workplace. The costs today are about $240 a day for a semi-private nursing home room, or more than $3,100 a month for assisted living.

People who leave the workforce to care for a family member can lose about $300,000 in wages and benefits over their lifetime.

Employers can help by providing support groups, emergency stipends for elder care, or flexible spending accounts that provide tax benefits to those purchasing elder care.

Sohn, who manages a successful childcare business in Spokane, highlighted one simple way that employers can create a stronger workforce: Support employees with children.

“It can be a really fantastic way to respect and earn their trust,” she said. This helps companies “find the most loyal and long-term employees that you can ever ask for.”

AWB is proud to continue the conversation and find new solutions to Washington’s most pressing workforce challenges. A summary of the best ideas from this year’s summit is available in the photos below.