High-skill perks work for low-skill workers

Turnover doesn’t have to be a fact of life for employers using unskilled labour

The same perks that attract high-paid, high-skilled workers — such as recognition and training — also attract and retain low-skilled, low-paid workers. Unfortunately, too few employers pay attention to this large, and largely underappreciated, segment of the workforce, according to the author of a new guide for employers.

Many employers in hospitality, fast food, retail and telemarketing industries accept high turnover among hourly workers as a cost of doing business and mistakenly believe they’ll be able to easily find replacements, said Carol Clymer, author of Here to Stay: Tips and Tools to Hire, Retain and Advance Hourly-Wage Workers.

“You can find tons on companies and how they retain their higher paid workers, but you can find very, very little focused on the lower paid workers,” said Clymer, who works for Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization that works to improve social policies and programs in the United States. “There’s a huge talent pool in the low-wage earner market that’s not being tapped.”

And that’s something many employers can’t afford to do in an ever-tightening labour market where oil and gas companies in the West are willing to pay signing bonuses and more than $20 an hour for unskilled labour. The local Tim Hortons or Zellers won’t be able to compete.

The good news is employers don’t have to match the astronomical compensation levels or introduce expensive programs. A lot of what they need to do is easy and inexpensive, said Clymer.

“Employers really need to be creative in how they’re going to work with different entities to get the workers with the skills that they need. They can’t just expect them to come to their door,” she said.

To start off, employers need to understand the challenges many low-wage workers face, said Clymer. Many of them can’t afford formal daycare and are reliant on public transit. This means they can’t always control when, or even if, they can make it to work. And once they’re at work, they might need to call home to check on their children, or their company-paid uniforms may be wrinkled or dirty because they can’t afford the dry cleaning bill, she said.

Instead of disciplining or blaming employees when these circumstances arise, employers need to “put themselves in their workers’ shoes” and be more flexible around scheduling, allowing personal calls and providing support for the upkeep of work-related items such as uniforms, said Clymer.

It is often the flexible nature of shifts in retail, where employees can choose the shifts that meet the needs of their personal life — be it family or school — that attract workers to a particular job, said Iain Morris, a principal and member of the total rewards strategy faculty at consulting firm Mercer in Toronto.

Workers are more likely to stay in a job if they’re the right fit for the position, said Clymer. At the recruitment stage, employers need to let go of the belief that anyone can fill a lower-skilled hourly job. They need to talk to successful employees to identify the personality, attitude and skills needed for the position. Just like not everyone makes a good product engineer, not everyone is going to be a good sales associate, said Clymer.

Employers should also take the time during the interview process to explain what is required in the position so if the candidate has a personal situation that won’t allow her to meet those expectations, she can take herself out of the running, said Clymer.

Too often, employers use lower-skilled hourly positions as a dumping ground for all the menial and undesirable tasks that need to be done in an organization. As a result, workers can feel unappreciated and get fed up with the job, said Morris. Employers should look at the job to see if there are undesirable tasks that can be removed or reassigned to someone more appropriate, he said.

One of his clients, a chain of convenience stores in the U.S., made its cashiers clean the toilets every shift. The chain had very high turnover until it reassigned this task to the external cleaning service it employed, said Morris.

“People who are hired in retail don’t necessarily think of themselves as cleaners,” he said.

Employers know onboarding and orientation is important for high-skilled workers, but they often let this fall to the wayside when it comes to hourly workers, said Clymer.

“That’s the time when you can really lose somebody easily,” she said. Once the employee is hired, it’s critical the employer introduce her to her co-workers and help her understand the way the company operates, she added.

One way to do this is to match new employees with a mentor who can guide them through the workplace.

One of the companies Clymer visited when working on the guide posted employees’ pictures and names on the lunchroom wall so everyone could easily learn each other’s names.

These kinds of initiatives enhance the social component of the workplace, which is key to retention, said Clymer.

“The reason why people stay on the job is because they get along with other people. The research shows it’s not the money, it’s because they like going to work,” she said.

Another idea is for employers to give out a new employee fact sheet, with the not-so obvious things people might not know, such as workplace jargon, how to get supplies or how to read a paycheque to check for errors.

Proper supervisor training to ensure a good employee-supervisor relationship will also increase the likelihood of an hourly worker staying on the job, said Morris.

“You need to be really thoughtful about making sure the front-line manager, whether that’s the supervisor or store manager, is as well prepared to do their job as possible,” he said. “Assuming you have any choice, if you’re earning relatively little money I just don’t think you’re going to be prepared to put up with somebody who doesn’t communicate well, doesn’t treat people fairly.”

Hourly workers also appreciate the ability to learn on the job, grow within the organization and be recognized for their work, said Morris.

“People want to be recognized for doing a good job and if you do recognize them, people are more likely to stay,” he said.

Recognition can be simple praise or even a modest increase in wages.

“You don’t need to see a huge difference in compensation but people like to see and know that they’re moving forward,” said Morris.

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