By Christina Henderson
Recruiting skilled workers is the #1 barrier to growth for Montana high-tech and manufacturing companies. At the Montana High Tech Business Alliance CEO Roundtable hosted by Yellowstone Bank in Billings, leaders emphasized the role of company culture in finding good people and keeping turnover low. Montana CEOs shared many best practices for tackling workforce challenges.
Based on their experience, here are five tips for employers in Montana. Photo by Thomas Kurdy, Ndigena.
1. Invest in professional development.
In spite of the emphasis in Silicon Valley on lavish perks like gourmet lunches and nap pods, workforce studies by Google show the factors employees care about most are the people they’re working work with and whether they feel the company has invested in them, according to Brittney Souza, Director of BillingsWorks at Big Sky EDA.
Bob Gieseke, Bozeman Market President for Rocky Mountain Bank (RMB), noted that paying attention to employees’ career development has helped the bank keep their best talent. Managers nominate promising team members for a leadership program and help them to envision their future career path with the company. Employees know that RMB is invested in them personally, Gieseke said.
Les Craig, director of the Blackstone LaunchPad at Montana State University in Bozeman, borrowed a tactic from the playbook of venture capitalist Ben Horowitz. He has built high-performing teams in part by scheduling one-on-one meetings with subordinates so each has the opportunity to spend time with their manager. Craig admits the one-on-ones can be awkward at first, but prove invaluable over time.
Given the frequency of turnover in the modern workplace, it can be tempting for companies to avoid investing in training for fear workers will quickly move on and take their new skills with them. Souza offered a good proverb for employers. Instead of asking, what if we train employees and they leave; the more important question is what if you don’t train them and they stay?
2. Help people find meaning in their work.
Workers want to enjoy the work they do and the people they work with. They also want to get a sense of meaning and purpose from what they do every day.
“People want to know why the work they’re doing matters,” said Greg Gianforte, founder of RightNow Technologies in Bozeman (now Oracle). According to Gianforte, finding employees with passion is also key to recruiting. Job candidates at RightNow were asked on the way out what they loved to do outside of work. “It didn’t matter the answer, but they had to be passionate,” Gianforte said.
Kathy Boelter, president of tech recruiting firm Arrow Solutions Group in Billings, agreed it’s essential to help employees see how their job contributes to the larger mission of the organization. “Show people the importance of their position in the company,” said Boelter.
According to Rob Smith, PhD., a faculty member in the Computer Science Department at the University of Montana, top quality candidates also want to be challenged. The best programmers “value being given a hard problem and being able to solve it,” Smith said, and in software, “one top quality candidate can outperform four mediocre ones.”
Smith recommends companies let job candidates spend time with employees outside the HR department while interviewing to help convince them they will like their peers and the work.
3. Foster transparency.
Elixiter in Bozeman was named one of Fortune’s 100 Best Workplaces for Women in 2015 in part for its core value of transparency. “Since our company inception, we have focused on providing a workplace that is transparent and fair to all employees,” said Andrew Hull, president and founder.
Every Monday, Hull meets with the Elixiter team and discusses where the company is financially, clients, and sales in the pipeline so employees understand the bigger picture.
Kampgrounds of America (KOA) has taken a similar approach to transparency with their 80 employees in Billings. Jef Sutherland, senior vice president of franchise operations, noted that KOA shares profit and loss statements at a high level with employees at quarterly meetings.
According to Scott Sehnert, executive vice president of Rocky Mountain Bank, encouraging transparency about failures has improved the bank’s retention rates. Managers at RMB show appreciation for positive performance, but they also help employees view mistakes on the job as learning opportunities rather than something to hide or a reason to walk out the door.
4. Get creative about recruiting.
Gianforte found word of mouth from current employees was the best way to find talent. RightNow offered employees a $2,000 bonus if a new hire they referred stayed 6 months.
Gianforte also adopted a tactic from Apple to turn job candidates they don’t hire into company ambassadors. “Even if the interviewer knew in the first 30 seconds they didn’t want to hire them, they still spent the next 30 minutes selling the company,” Gianforte said. The candidate walked away a fan and would spread their positive experience by word of mouth to other potential employees.
Founded in 1962, Kampgrounds of America leverages its historic brand to help with recruiting. According to Sutherland, job candidates are taken through public spaces with photos of KOA University, depicting the company’s passion for the art of camping. “They see it’s a great place to work,” Sutherland said.
Kyle Pucko, co-founder of GeoFli in Missoula, has found speaking in university classrooms to be an effective recruiting tool. After a presentation Pucko displays his contact information and encourages students to connect on LinkedIn or shoot him an email. The handful of proactive students who do reach out end up being great interns and potential employees.
5. Manage your company’s reputation as a great place to work.
According to Smith, companies who want to hire the best graduates from Montana schools have to keep up with the market in terms of pay and benefits. “Reputation is everything,” Smith said.
Employers that consistently make lowball offers to talented candidates risk damaging their reputation in the student/alumni network. “Less than $65,000 is not enough to keep a good Computer Science candidate in the state.” Smith said.
A growing number of job seekers turn to employee reviews on websites like Indeed or Glassdoor to learn what a company is like to work for. Low ratings can discourage people from applying or accepting an offer. Some firms ask current employees to post genuine positive reviews on sites like Glassdoor so comments aren’t dominated by the disgruntled. They also make a point to monitor and respond constructively to negative employee reviews.
Boosting your company’s online recruiting presence is also crucial, including LinkedIn and the careers pages on your website. One candidate who recently relocated from Silicon Valley to Montana noticed that many Montana companies have limited information for job seekers on their websites. This was in stark contrast to his experience in California where “even two guys in a garage will have an awesome website explaining to potential employees how their product is changing the world.”
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Author: Christina Quick Henderson has served as executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance since its launch in April, 2014. Henderson writes and speaks on Montana business trends, entrepreneurship and high-growth companies for Montana Business Quarterly and other publications. She holds an English degree from the University of Iowa and an MBA from the University of Montana, Missoula.
Publisher: The Montana High Tech Business Alliance is a statewide membership organization made up of more than 275 high tech and manufacturing firms and affiliates.