Tight job market forces companies to coddle workers
Businesses try flex time, mentoring, and concierge services to retain
In one of the tightest labor markets since World War II, companies across the United States are going to extraordinary lengths to retain workers - offering everything from on-site shirt-laundering services to special lounges for Gen-Xers.Skip to next paragraph
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While companies have long been scrambling to recruit workers from the outside, many are now putting increased emphasis on keeping the engineers and accountants they have. It is leading to fundamental changes in workplace culture.
Behind the corporate coddling is the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years - 4.2 percent. Companies not only need to keep their cubicles full as business expands. They're also trying to prevent workers from jumping to other firms at the drop of a bigger bonus. Workplace piracy, in some sectors, has become as intense as anytime since Blackbeard.
"The job market is Spandex tight," says AT&T personnel expert Burke Stinson. "It's hard to hold on to promising workers because other companies have open doors."
"Just about every call we are getting these weeks is about employee retention," says Caela Farren, president of MasteryWorks Inc., a human resource consulting-education firm based in Annandale, Va.
As a result, businesses are taking unusual, and uncharacteristic, steps. Take Massachusetts Financial Services Co., a mutual-fund pioneer in buttoned-down Boston. Last spring, in an effort to become more employee-friendly, the firm introduced "casual Friday," allowing workers to leave their pumps and pin stripes at home. Then casual Friday became a casual summer. Now the company's 2,500 employees can wear "business casual" clothing - not jeans or halter tops - any day of the week.
Layoffs persist, too
To be sure, many companies are still laying off people. Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago outplacement firm that tracks downsizings, reckons that US employers have announced 495,510 jobs cuts so far this year. That is 38 percent higher than in the first eight months of 1998, a record year.
At the same time, however, companies are striving to attract and keep their workers with not just more pay and the standard package of health and pension benefits but a host of other techniques. For example:
*At Lands' End Inc., part-timers who pitch in at the fall-to-Christmas rush can make use year-round of an $8 million "activity center" at its Dodgeville, Wis., headquarters. It includes a swimming pool, gymnasium, racquetball court, and aerobics room.
They can also put their children into company-sponsored summer camps. With that and other benefits, Kelly Ritchie, human-resources manager at the catalog clothier, hopes to bring back some 800 temporary workers this season - part of the 2,600 she needs to attract.
The company also has 23 work start times to accommodate its employees. "People give us their schedules and we work around within them," says Ms. Ritchie.
*At AT&T, 29 percent of managers work at home one day per week. The telecommunications company spends $600 million a year on in-company education and training to improve the "employability" of its workers. Another $20 million pays for courses at colleges.