The upper hand

As the job market continues to improve, employees are prone to seek opportunities elsewhere

Improving employment figures mean businesses are growing and the unemployed are finding jobs. Seemingly content employees may be considering a jump into a job market that is presenting better opportunities than it has in the past several years.

Local employment experts agree that employees are more likely to stay in a job longer when unemployment is high, even if they are unsatisfied.

"When there are fewer jobs available people are more willing to stay than in a tight job market," said Tony Johnson, president of La Center-based recruiting and human resources company TJ and Associates. "Employees will put up with less in a really tight job market as it is improving."

Where are the workers?
A recent survey by staffing firm Robert Half International and showed 42 percent of hiring managers said it was difficult to find qualified workers a year ago, and 32 percent said it is even more difficult to find qualified candidates today. Additionally, 25 percent of employers said they were offering more generous compensation packages in the past 12 months and one-third expect compensation levels to increase this year. The survey found 28 percent of workers are actively looking for new employment, and nearly half expect to leave their current job within three years. Meanwhile, only 15 percent of employers expected voluntary turnover to be higher this year, and 23 percent instituted programs to increase retention rates within the past year.

Scott Bailey, regional economist with the Washington State Employment Security Department, said workers will put up with more during periods of high unemployment because it beats the alternative -– the unemployment line. And "greener pastures" may be available for individual workers as unemployment goes down, he said.

A general improvement in the national and global economy has created more demand for products and services, fueling the job growth, said Bailey.

Washington has seen a much improved labor market recently, but Bailey warns that unemployment is far from where it stood prior to the recession.

"If the labor market gets tight enough we (will) see labor shortages, increased competition and higher wages. But, said Bailey, "we are not there yet."

Wages have not kept pace with inflation in the past several years, he said, and are slow to change.

Keeping employees
Bailey said he doesn’t foresee unemployment lows of 4 percent like the state experienced with the dot-com boom of the late ‘90s, but Lisa Nisenfeld, executive director of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council said employee retention is something businesses have to pay more attention to as the job market improves.

"With many companies hanging on by their fingernails, pay and benefits stagnate," said Nisenfeld.

A common incentive to lure employees away from a competitor is with signing bonuses, she said. Nisenfeld said this creates shifting that wouldn’t otherwise take place, increasing turnover and associated costs for employers.

Johnson warns employees seeing green to be very careful when considering leaving. "You have to know what you have where you are," he said. "I know of people who have made changes only to regret it, and find later that door has closed."

While workers may look elsewhere for more money, boosting an employee’s pay to keep them around isn’t the only consideration to make.

"Money is important, but not as important as the culture the company creates," said Johnson.

Employees understand the financial constraints on businesses. It is becoming commonplace, for example, that companies no longer cover 100 percent of healthcare costs, and employees are slowly adjusting to that, he said.

Aside from wages, employees measure their workplace based on several factors.

Creative benefits, career advancement opportunities and a supportive work environment can help businesses keep talent in place.

Columbia Vista does it
Lumber products company Columbia Vista Corp. in Vancouver has several programs in place to help its employees improve professionally and personally, along with some incentives to do so.

Employees are required to participate in the company’s "Columbia Vista University." The classes allow workers to advance within the organization from "beginner" to "competent" and "skilled." They are tested on the environmental, health and safety and quality policies and procedures of the company and receive a dollar-per-hour pay raise at each level.

The company also offers English-as-a-second-language, math and life-skills classes. Millwrights take a 52-week Web-based program.

"We are doing this because we want them to improve their skills, otherwise they cannot better themselves," said Columbia Vista President Bob Lewis. "As we automate and improve our efficiencies, skill levels change. If they don’t develop more skills, then we have a problem."

The company’s employee retention has improved since it began these programs about five years ago.

"Ten years ago we were lucky if they stayed 15 minutes," said Lewis. "The job is challenging mentally and physically. A lot of people can’t or won’t do it, but (Columbia Vista employees) do it with a smile."

Lewis said he also noticed a change in attitudes from the company’s 85 employees.

"There is a recognition that they can control their own destiny," he said.

A unique benefit available to Columbia Vista employees is the company’s forgivable home loan program for first-time homebuyers.

Employees that have worked for the company for three years and are in good standing are eligible after they take a six-month home-ownership class. Columbia Vista puts up $5,000, which is combined with $1,500 contributed by the employee along with federal grant money for a down payment on a home. The $5,000 loan is fully forgiven if the employee works for the company for five more years without selling the home, otherwise the loan must be paid back with interest.

Six employees have completed the program and seven are in progress.

"It has been good for retention," said Lewis. "I think that more (businesses) could look at this as a relatively inexpensive benefit that has a huge impact. The training … and loan forgiveness program are all things that are important to the future of our business."

More than money
Tony Johnson points to the tech industry in the late ‘90s when employers had to do whatever it took to find and keep employees, including "bonuses and skateboards in the hallways."

Aside from money and toys, keeping employees informed through communication and regular reviews gives them a sense of empowerment and will help keep them in their position, said Johnson.

"Employers need to keep lines of communication open," he said, "and be very deliberate to create a culture that is inviting and open."

Offering training and career development not only retains employees, but prepares them for advancement within the company, said Nisenfeld.

"Create opportunities for training and a career path," she said. "Make sure they understand their future with the company."

Jumping back in

The first two months of 2006 saw 24,000 jobs added in Washington, the largest consecutive two-month increase since 1996. Clark County added 1,200 jobs in January and February and 4,100 jobs in the past 12 months, a 3.3 percent increase. The health care sector and continued growth in the construction industry and Clark County’s population fueled the local job market.

Despite the number of jobs added in the state and locally, unemployment rates ticked up in February. Clark County’s rate in February was 6.2 percent, versus 5.7 percent a year earlier, and the state’s inched up from 4.6 percent to 4.8 percent. The strong job market prompted workers who had given up finding employment to jump back into the labor force. The state’s labor pool expanded by 20,500 people in February compared to January.

Clark’s February unemployment rate of 6.2 percent compares to a rate of 7.4 percent a year earlier.

– Shane Cleveland

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