How to find and keep happy workers

Finding qualified workers is harder than ever. Rather than trying to find new staffers, doesn't it make more sense to keep the ones you've got? Here's how to do it.

There are now more job openings in the US than in the last 20 years. At the same time, millions of Americans are looking for jobs, and the unemployment rate stands at 5.8%. That's better than it was during the pandemic's darkest times, but it's not great. Many businesses are cutting back their open hours.

What's wrong with this picture?

If you listen to some people (mainly on the political right), it's all because the government has made things too cushy with generous unemployment benefits for workers without a job. US Chamber of Commerce Chief Policy Officer Neil Bradley recently said the action "policymakers should take now is ending the $300 weekly supplemental unemployment benefit." Many states have cut those benefits. But—surprise!—workers are not streaming back to the workplace, even in those states.

One factor is that unemployment benefits are notoriously difficult to get. If you navigated an often Byzantine system and finally got benefits after months of trying, would you be eager to rejoin the workforce? I think not. 

No one's getting fat off unemployment benefits, but the myth of the Welfare Queen persists. Today, it's been reborn as the lazy no-account worker. Or, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) put it: "This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working."

That's true only if your job paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Or, if you're a server, bartender, or some other tipped job, where you still make only $2.13 per hour. Ever try to live on minimum wage in the last few years? Good luck.

Some businesses have figured this out. The Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity (LISEP), a think tank that follows wages, has found that the True Rate of Unemployment (TRU)—a measure of the "functionally unemployed," defined as the percentage of Americans who cannot find a full-time job that pays above the federal poverty level—improved to 23.7% in May.

As a society, that's still a lousy number. The point to take away from this is that other companies are now paying higher wages. If you want to keep your current crew (and find other good workers), you must up your payroll. It's that simple.

What? You think workers' incomes have improved all these years? Wrong. Wage growth is an illusion. It appears pay went up because highly compensated workers tended to keep their jobs while low-wage workers tended to be laid off during the pandemic's darkest days. As Annie Lowrey, a staff writer at The Atlantic, put it, "This is part of what accounts for the 'labor shortage.' The issue isn’t workers. It's employers."

If you ask people why they're not flocking back to the workplace, you'll get a variety of answers.

First, while the pandemic is getting better, COVID-19 isn't done with us yet. Even more worrying, many workers refuse to get vaccinated. Me? I'd fire staffers who refused to get a shot. It's perfectly legal. Just ask the Southern District Court of Texas, which recently ruled that Houston Methodist Hospital was in the right for suspending workers for not getting vaccinated.

If you felt you were in danger of getting coronavirus from co-workers or customers, would you want to go to work? Even with the vaccine, it's still possible to get and spread the virus, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. You might not get sick, but what about grandma, or your son with a pre-existing medical condition? Insist your workers get their shots. The people you keep and hire will be happier for it.

In addition, lots of would-be workers can't find or afford childcare. The answer? Offer in-house childcare or subsidies for childcare. True, few businesses do it now, but I guarantee if your staff is made up largely of parents, they'll be more loyal if you make this effort.

Finally, and this is an issue near and dear to my heart: millions of workers want to work from home. Let them.

As a recent survey from Dice, the online tech job site, found, many technologists love creating their own work schedules. That's because, as one respondent said: "It’s easier for me to take breaks and step away from work when I am feeling overwhelmed." Others like to avoid "annoying officemates” and even more annoying and time-consuming commutes.

Working from home isn't a one-size-fits-all solution; 24% of workers felt their work-life balance was worse than ever because of increased demands and no firm boundaries between home and work.

The answer depends on your employees. I suggest you try a hybrid work week. Your newer workers can get the benefits of face time with managers and co-workers. At the same time, those who prefer remote work still get uninterrupted periods of focusing entirely on their jobs instead of meetings and socializing.

To sum up, raise your wages; insist that everyone get their COVID-19 shots; offer childcare; and enable people, when and where you can, to work remotely. Do all this and instead of not enough workers, you'll keep the people you have and have your pick of those who want to come on board.

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