By Jill Cowan
Andy Jacobsohn/ The Dallas Morning News
Economy Reporter | The Dallas Morning News
Professor Roger Ward leaned forward on the ball of his foot, his eyes widening as he prodded for answers about the Civil War. “What federal property might southern states have wanted?” he asked.
Several students sat around a U-shaped conference room table at State Farm’s new Richardson campus, pushing highlighters across the pages of paperback textbooks and sipping from coffee cups.
Rebecca Lovell furrowed her brow. Wendy Watkins, another student, offered tentatively: “Forts?”
It certainly wasn’t the longtime Collin College educator’s typical teaching environment. Nor were Lovell, a 38-year-old State Farm claims associate, and Watkins, a 48-year-old agency technician who hadn’t been to school in decades, Ward’s typical pupils.
They were part of a pilot program aimed at giving the insurance giant a leg up in an increasingly tight labor market that has spawned stiff competition — not for jobs, but for good employees.
And while hefty salaries are nice, that competition means the region’s corporate employers are locked in a kind of work perks arms race, with employers offering everything from child care to in-office bars.
“If you’re a company that offers the same base salary, there could be one little thing that’s going to help edge out the competition,” said Mark Malone, Dallas regional vice president of the Robert Half staffing agency.
Though smaller companies can stay in the game by ensuring bigger roles for new hires, major corporations — and the tailored benefit packages they have the scale to provide — raise the stakes for everyone, he said.
In November, Dallas-Fort Worth’s unemployment rate was 3.5 percent, according to the most recent Texas Workforce Commission data, while the U.S. overall stood at 4.6 percent, a number that economists say indicates the country is approaching full employment.
D-FW’s rate consistently clocks in much lower than the national figure, which essentially means there are more jobs than there are qualified people to fill them.
And even within the D-FW area, the Dallas-Plano-Irving division — where huge employment hubs have earned flashy nicknames, like Frisco’s $5 Billion Mile — typically has an even lower jobless rate: 3.4 percent in November.
That low unemployment stems in large part from North Texas’ success in attracting corporate headquarters, prized for the white-collar jobs they bring and the economic development new office campuses spur.
Layer that over a broader shift away from work in lifelong careers at one company, and you’ve got a recipe for a labor shortage.
So, in D-FW, for companies spending hundreds of millions of dollars on gigantic, glitzy new offices that they expect to occupy for a long time, figuring out ways to hang on to employees has become an imperative.
“I think companies are getting more savvy in understanding the importance of retention and being able to attract good people,” Malone said.
‘Culture of respect’
Exhibit A? Toyota.
The automaker is slated to move its North American headquarters from Southern California by the middle of 2017, bringing over 4,000 workers to Plano.
Executives have said they expect 70 percent of the employees asked to make the Texas move to accept. From a logistical perspective alone, that’s no small feat.
But when you consider that the company offered to fly out its prospective Texans to take tours of the area, visit schools and look for housing, that number is a little less surprising. The company even hosted a job fair for spouses who might be reluctant to leave their work behind.
“It all starts, frankly, with our culture of respect for people,” said Cheryl Hughes, Toyota’s chief human resources officer. “We have team members with an average tenure of about 13 to 15 years. They are the ones who have made us successful, and as we made this big transition ... they will allow us to continue to operate successfully as an organization.
”Still, Hughes said the company’s community-minded ethos and strong culture have been guiding principles as the company builds its state-of-the-art new home — and hires 1,000 more workers.
“Our employer branding is about challenging what’s possible ... helping us to define the future of mobility,” she said. “We’re creating an environment that’s flexible, that’s fun — we’re asking team members to be innovative and giving them work that matters to them.”
At Capital One’s Plano campus, Jana Etheridge said managers hope to create a kind of startup vibe.
“We start with entrepreneurial roots — a tech company that focuses on banking for customers,” said Etheridge, chief of staff for the company’s Plano-based financial services. “That’s a unique value proposition for talent.
”The company offers many of the trendy amenities that are becoming standard among corporate employers, she said. Employees can tool around campus on bikes. Food trucks park along a manicured outdoor space to serve lunch.
But Etheridge said the support to think creatively about a financial services industry that’s ripe for innovation is the major selling point.
“The people that fit with Capital One start from a place of, ‘Tell me the complexity of what I’m going to get to work on,’” she said. As a result, Etheridge said, the company takes more of a “feathered approach” to employee retention, aiming for a mix of “longer tenured with newer tenured.”
“That’s a recipe for power,” she said.
Back to school
At State Farm, which has hired over 2,000 just over the past year to work at its Richardson campus, executives said they set out to gauge the needs of employees in various markets where the company has a presence.
“The No. 1 thing we heard was education — our employees wanted to go back to school,” Lori Manning, the company’s director of philanthropy, said of the North Texas offices.
Manning had been tasked with coming up with programs for local State Farm workers, as well as at similar new campuses in the Phoenix and Atlanta areas.
State Farm’s campus at CityLine, a massive development with still-staked trees and a growing roster of high-end retail and restaurant tenants, eventually will have 8,000 to 10,000 workers.
Based on conversations with lots of employees, Manning helped develop the pilot program, which brings local community college educators to CityLine, where workers can take accelerated core courses for free — State Farm covers the books and fees.
Students won’t be able to complete an associate’s degree without leaving the office, but the course credits will be fully transferrable. And State Farm also offers tuition reimbursement to keep that work rolling.
Employee education isn’t all about benefiting workers, though. It’s a way of building its own committed labor force ready to ascend management ranks in a labor market where the pool of college-educated workers is edging closer to being tapped out.
“When we’re looking to bring people into the organization, we’re intentionally not looking at people just to fill a specific role we’re hiring for,” said State Farm enterprise recruiting manager Chris Martin. “You ask, ‘What’s in it for us?’ It’s about having the ability to bring people in and having them continue to grow throughout their career and having them fill those needs we know we’re going to have for talent.”
For Lovell, a single mom, the on-campus classes were the final push she needed to head back to school. Earlier this year, she moved here to be closer to family after she and her kids had lived in California.
In the past, Lovell had tried taking online courses, but she could never gather the momentum to complete a degree. Plus, it was too expensive.
“This is kind of a do-over for me,” she said with a grin before a recent class.
Now, Lovell said, not only does she feel better about juggling life and school, she’s more confident at work. In fact, she’s already been tapped as a leader.
“For me to be training people after I only did my training in March,” she said, “that’s huge.”
An expert talks benefit trends:
Mark Malone, whose office meets with hundreds of job candidates every day and works with employers around the region, said that starting in late 2013, “everyone got aggressive,” about benefits.
For companies that only started hiring again recently, Malone said, it’s been a rude awakening. Executives, he said, are finding, “I’m not competitive like I used to be.
”Malone said he’s seen a wider variety of offerings. Many, he said, are the kinds of work perks made famous by tech giants like Google and Facebook. Free, catered breakfast and lunch sound alluring, but they’re also a way to encourage employees to work longer hours. And workers with unlimited vacation might actually end up taking less of it.
Other benefits fall into something of a different category, Malone said — necessary for new parents, especially single moms, to work at full speed.
Economists and labor experts have long advocated for removing barriers for working parents, including providing onsite day care or allowing more scheduling flexibility. Malone said those benefits are increasingly make-or-break factors.
More recently, Malone said, companies based in D-FW’s major suburban employment hubs have had to figure out ways to attract workers who want to live in more urban areas, like Dallas’ downtown core. That’s meant more companies are offering onsite gyms or memberships to gyms close to the office.
Finally, there are benefits driven by those ever-maligned millennials, shaking up expectations for their employers.
Malone said that culture and environment do tend to be more important for millennials — but that’s translated into more companies offering charity matches, or paid days of community service.
And, of course, cold, hard cash never hurts: Malone said that in a market where companies are increasingly poaching workers with skill sets that translate across industries — say, accounting — from one another, some people are getting signing bonuses.
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