Use creativity to solve staffing shortages

If the applicants won't come to you, try going to them.

The end of this decade has seen a trend in the United States labor market. Companies are faced with tight labor conditions that will continue into the foreseeable future. Therefore, today's and tomorrow's successful companies have to be creative in meeting their staffing needs. While most companies focus on retaining staff once they are hired, very few actually plan on how they create a pipeline of potential applicants to fill future hiring needs. The question in today's environment remains: How do you maintain a skilled base of potential employees and how do you keep them once you have them?

One answer is to approach it creatively. In the high-technology sector, there is a shortage of skilled labor to meet the needs of growing companies. With the Internet boom, there are more and more "dot.com" companies being created with a demand for human capital than there are people to fill these positions.

Many U.S. agencies have taken steps to increase the labor force, yet many technical positions still go unfilled or the turnover is high. ISP Alliance Inc. (ISPA) was faced with this exact situation and chose to take a completely different approach to the problem. As an Internet company that provides services to the telecommunications and utility industries, our strongest asset is our people, not manufacturing plants, fiber-optic cables, or other infrastructure-based assets. As a result, we need to cultivate the right type of employee to meet the goals of the company.

In addition, ISPA instituted an aggressive business plan two years ago to grow the company exponentially over a three-year period. This plan caused a future need for technically skilled employees for our customer-care center. At that time, the current labor trends were already emerging and it was envisioned that the labor market would only get tighter. ISPA wasn't discouraged, but began to creatively solve the problem by exploring other alternatives--outsourcing certain tasks to entities located in foreign countries or expanding into rural America where competition for labor is not so evident.

Both alternatives were seriously considered, but expanding into rural America more closely met our objectives. One decision had been made, but many more were to follow.

Our corporate headquarters were already established in a suburb of Atlanta, so Georgia seemed like a logical place to start. An extensive study on the economic development policies of Georgia and its contiguous states was conducted. It was important for us to evaluate this decision from many angles as well as identify potential synergies that could affect the company.

With Atlanta as a hub for major technology companies, areas within a 2-3 hour drive seemed logical. Many rural counties were evaluated with the help of chambers of commerce and development authorities. As counties were being evaluated, we became aware of Wilkinson County, located in the middle of Georgia. Wilkinson County is a tier-three county with a fairly low per-capita income. The local city and county officials were so enthusiastic and serious about economic development, along with the strong positives that ISPA could bring to their community, that they wouldn't take no for an answer. Wilkinson County was willing to help make ISPA's vision a reality.

What happened next involved a coordinated effort from many state, local, and community organizations. With a partial grant from the state of Georgia and local city and county funding, an 18,000-sq.-ft. building on 20 acres of land was secured and converted for ISPA's use as a customer-care center.

While applications from eager hires were not a problem, many lacked the technical skills that were required to be successful on the job. Again, the Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education quickly assembled and funded an ongoing training program to equip new hires with both the technical and customer-service skills required for the jobs. While technical skills can often be taught, given the basic aptitude for learning such skills, people skills are often acquired over time and difficult to change over a short period of time. Hence, ISPA's recruiting policies for the customer-care center has been to hire people with good interpersonal skills and provide adequate training in the technical arena.

With our goal in mind, we worked closely with Georgia College and State University and proposed a training plan to the state of Georgia to obtain grants under its ICAPP program, which provides state support for programs that expedite education to meet the work force needs of Georgia companies. ICAPP is a win-win program because Georgia's economy is strengthened when Georgia attracts and grows knowledge-based companies and Georgians get top jobs.

Late October, at the Technology Forum in Atlanta, Governor Roy Barnes of Georgia announced that ISPA's program will create 80 new jobs in the area.

If you approach this problem creatively, there are many ways you can solve your technical-labor shortage. If you bring jobs to where the people are, you will have a more productive, content labor force and you will get the support of the local community, as well as the possibility of other incentives from state and local authorities. Mutual respect is the key to employee loyalty, and if companies make a concerted effort to show their willingness to invest in their employees, the results can only be positive.

Anthony "Tony" Tan is president and CEO of ISP Alliance Inc., a provider of private-label Internet services and products to Internet service providers nationwide.

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