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Worker-Starved Companies Go Hire and Hire

May 09, 1998|ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT and STEPHEN GREGORY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — "Now Hiring."

The sign is up all over America. Businesses can't satisfy their voracious appetite for workers. You name it, they need it: long-haul truck drivers, hospital lab technicians, machinists and veteran writers in the COBOL programming language wooed out of retirement to make sure computers don't crash in 2000.

Many weapons are deployed in the war for workers.

A plastics molding firm in Ohio uses a rap music video for high school audiences. "We show what a great place it is and talk about profit sharing," said manager Charles Obendorfer.

Companies in Indiana pay rewards to workers who refer their friends for jobs. You get a bonus when your buddy is hired, then two more payments if he stays for three months and then six months. "They are stealing from each other," said Jerry Yezbick, president of the Private Industry Council of Southwest Indiana.

Litronics Inc., in Glendale, which hired 20% of its work force through a bounty system, is taking special steps to keep people happy so they will not defect to another company.

Along with the more traditional perquisites, such as 401(k) plans--the salary set-aside program in which the company matches workers' dollars in a retirement fund--Litronics rewards employees with Thursday night volleyball and surprise free lunches.

The company, which makes computer security systems, even encourages workers to let off steam through Nerf toy wars in the office. "They work very hard, and we want to provide them an outlet for a release," said Vice President Chandra Shah. "Of course, a lot of time I have to duck when I go in there."

Southern California's market for engineers, machinists and technicians has gotten so tight that Marty Mechsner, president of Schober's Machine & Engineering in Alhambra, has taken to cherry-picking promising young students he teaches as a part-time engineering professor at Cal State Los Angeles.

He has added five students to his 26-person work force. "It's one of the reasons I teach," he said.

Machinists and engineers are such hot commodities that they will not switch jobs unless they get 10% or 15% pay hikes. It's easier to train newcomers than hire veterans. "So what I do, I hire students and put them in apprenticeship programs," said Mechsner, whose firm designs and builds custom manufacturing machinery.

How does he keep his own workers? Employees are required to put in 80 hours every two weeks but are allowed to work them whenever they want between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. each workday. "If they want to take off three hours in the afternoon, they can, as long as they get the job done," Mechsner said. "I tend to retain my employees."

Good workers are in short supply "across the board . . . from clerical to CEOs," said Bernard Schneider, vice president of corporate development at Solomon-Page Group, a recruitment search firm in New York.

In the financial services industry and on Wall Street, firms are lavish with signing bonuses, stock options and pay raises of 20% to 25%, according to Schneider. To combat these offers, "companies are fighting tooth and nail when they get a resignation," he said. "Counteroffers are commonplace. We encourage clients to make strong offers to put existing employees out of range."

The competition is intense because the pool of skilled workers without good jobs is getting more shallow. "It is hard to find people who are qualified; the market is so thin," said Gary Goldstein, chairman and CEO of Headway Corporate Resources, a temporary hiring service for banks, insurance companies and brokerage firms. "It is very competitive in terms of recruiting. We have to offer them good benefits, better pay and training."

In Minneapolis, where the jobless rate is less than 3%, the Chamber of Commerce is planning "a campaign to get Minnesotans to return from around the country, said Tony Goddard, vice president for economic development. "There is more attention being paid to retention, because the cost of recruitment is astonishingly high and companies are better off keeping the people they have than flogging the woods to get new people."

Recruitment woes are universal. "Everyplace I go, every stop I make, I hear this from our members: 'We can't find workers,' " said Patrick Cleary, vice president for human resources policy at the National Assn. of Manufacturers.

Sometimes the shortages are so great that business is lost for lack of workers. "Here in Charlotte [N.C.], we are having a tremendously difficult time finding the people," said Chris Kronzer, vice president of Advanced Technology Systems, which develops software applications. There are projects on which "we have to either pass or postpone" because of the scarcities of technical personnel, he said.

Anxious employers will be reaching out to groups of workers they might previously have bypassed, predicted Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We've got to have effective programs bringing people from welfare to work. We have to get retired people to come back to work. And there are many people with disabilities [who will be able to work at home]. This is a wonderful window of opportunity."

Rosenblatt is a Times staff writer and Gregory is a special correspondent. Researchers John Beckham in Chicago, Lisa Meyer in New York and Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this story.

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