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In Tight Job Market, Software Firm Develops Programs to Keep Employees

June 14, 1998|MARTHA GROVES

It is sweet revenge for workers. Having been treated as expendable cogs in the corporate machine for years, suddenly they are its nuts and bolts. With the job market the tightest in a generation, companies nationwide are scrambling to lure good candidates and then figure out how to keep them satisfied and on the payroll.

Particularly in Silicon Valley and other high-tech pockets, the work force is churning, as technical wizards are lured from company to company by get-rich-quick promises.

"It's a tough one," said Ty Couillard, general manager and chief of human resources at Trident Data Systems, a Los Angeles company that helps government and business customers protect sensitive information. "We're trying everything we can to compete."

For the last year, that has included monthly "employee development meetings," where workers and managers gather to talk about in-house training, mentoring programs and growth opportunities. The forums are designed as a "proactive" approach to keeping workers from darting off to ostensibly greener pastures.

Both sides benefit. Managers learn which employees are seriously considering offers elsewhere or would like new roles within the company. Workers can find out about upcoming job and training opportunities.

Such programs "teach people how to ask for what they want," said Beverly Kaye, a Sherman Oaks career-development consultant. "They will see ways the organization nourishes them."

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Usually, she noted, employees who attend her seminars value a learning environment and challenging work over pay, bonuses and vacation.

"When people leave [an organization], they're saying: 'I felt underutilized and underrecognized,' " she said. "The companies that are going to win this retention race are companies looking deeper than the money to ask: 'What are the development perks I can offer?' "

It would be difficult to find a purer example of this than SAS Institute in Cary, N.C., the nation's largest privately held software company.

Faced with an increasingly competitive job market and steady growth of its business, the company, which develops software that performs statistical analyses, developed a culture and a set of recruiting and compensation practices that differentiate it from rivals. Without offering stock options or out-of-the-ordinary salaries, the company has held its employee turnover to less than 4% annually, contrasted with the 17% or more that is common elsewhere in the industry.

"They don't try to solve a crappy work environment by promising to make [employees] wealthy," said Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University who has studied the company.

Rather, SAS offers exceptional perquisites for its 3,700 U.S. employees. They include a 35-hour workweek, on-site subsidized Montessori day care, a lavish exercise facility with free laundry service and subsidized cafes with live piano music. There is also a 7,500-square-foot medical facility staffed by five nurse practitioners, two family-practice doctors, a physical therapist, a massage therapist and a mental-health nurse. All are employees of SAS, not contractors. The average waiting time at the clinic (free, except for a modest co-payment for massages) is five minutes. There is also a fee-for-service health plan, rare in an era of managed care and health-maintenance organizations.

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Co-founder and Chief Executive Jim Goodnight, who is fond of saying that "our business is a business of intellect," also recently opened a private junior and senior high school on the campus. It is open to the community as well as to the children of SAS employees. The schools will serve as a laboratory for ideas about how to use computer technology in education--and perhaps a source of future employees.

The corporate culture acknowledges that people have lives and families and that employees generally will want to change careers three or four times. Using one of its own databases, SAS keeps tabs on workers' skills and experiences, mapping them against opportunities at the company.

A chief goal is to hold on to people--to cut recruiting and training expenses and let workers know that there are opportunities to develop and grow.

SAS, founded in 1976, last year had sales of more than $750 million, is profitable and consistently enjoys double-digit revenue growth. The company for 21 consecutive years has contributed the equivalent of 15% of each worker's pay, the maximum allowed, into a profit-sharing retirement plan. Employees do not have to contribute.

Why go above and beyond for workers?

"At 6 p.m., 95% of our assets walk out the door," said David Russo, vice president of human resources. "We have to have an environment that makes them want to walk back in the door the next morning."

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Does your company have an innovative approach to keeping employees on board? Tell us about it. Write to Martha Groves, Corporate Currents, Los Angeles Times Business News, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or e-mail martha.groves@latimes.com.

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