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This Greenville CEO on how to navigate post-COVID hiring

Krys Merryman //January 30, 2023//

This Greenville CEO on how to navigate post-COVID hiring

Krys Merryman //January 30, 2023//

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With more people wanting to work from home post-pandemic, HTI Employment Solutions is a workplace staffing firm navigating its own staffing issues in addition to finding top talent for its clients.

Herb Dew, CEO and one of the firm’s founders, started HTI in 1999 in Greenwood with co-founders John Knight and David Sewell.

The company started as a white-collar headhunting group with a focus on manufacturing, Dew said, and now boasts locations in Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and Illinois in addition to South Carolina. Their clients include companies such as Bosch and Michelin.

HTI is headquartered in downtown Greenville and has been since 2001. The staffing company has grown from a boutique technical recruiting group to a company with several operating divisions: hiring placement, manufacturing project management, temporary staffing, human resources consulting, and workforce culture-building and talent development.

When the partners made the decision to move their headquarters to Greenville, it was during a time when the city was transitioning from a textile town to a city with a booming manufacturing base, in which they saw potential.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way they had to do things — along with the way they did business with their clients also struggling to hire and retain top talent.

Across HTI’s locations, they have experienced hundreds of job openings left unfilled through the span of 2022.

“We are putting a lot more money into advertising and recruiters ourselves,” said Dew. “All locations are experiencing the same issues with high turnovers.”

An 'unusual' market

Starting in 2019, the unemployment rate saw a drop, said Dew. If you look at the unemployment rate and it’s around 3%, about a third of them can’t pass a background check or a drug screen, which leaves a practical rates of 2%.

“Everyone is competing to try and hire within that 2% of those unemployed,” he added. “I would say the market is still really tough. Hourly pay rates (nationwide) have gone up around 25% over the last two years and white-collar salaries as well, but the labor competition, specifically in South Carolina, remains stiff.”

The last two years have been the most unusual Dew has ever seen in the job market, but in a way, he thinks it’s a good thing because it has challenged employers to be willing to change.

“We realized we were helping all these companies with their hiring and what we also needed to do was to help companies understand what they needed to do to be more attractive,” he said.

During the pandemic, all of sudden people were working from home, and it remains a common practice.

“Hybrid work is now the norm,” said Dew. “It’s not uncommon for workplaces to require maybe two days in the office and three days out of the office. But I don’t think companies were positioned on how to work through that.”

One of the changes HTI made as a result was to launch a new division — workplace strategies — to help companies retain their top talent.

“We still wanted to do our core work, which is to help people hire, but we also wanted to help them develop their strategy on how to keep those people, which in turn helps us hire better,” Dew added. “Our focus has shifted from being a labor provider to being a strategic partner on what our strategy is for employee retention.”

Companies spend a lot of time on recruiting but sometimes don’t stop to think much about first impressions, said Dew. For example, the first week an employee is on the job, how are they being handled and set up for success? Are supervisors also listening to their overall career goals?

“This is really important in the hiring process, but most companies don’t do that,” said Dew. “Having this new division speaks to not just hiring 100 people but focusing on the best strategies to actually keep them.”

Rethinking the workplace

Dew’s company is working on a hybrid schedule for HTI employees as well. Each department head meets with their team and decides for themselves what is most effective for their work schedules, Dew said. Some departments do require workers  to be on-site every day but for others they can work remotely nearly 100% of the time.

“I think what COVID did was cause everybody to sort of rethink what they want out of work and what do they want out of their personal life,” he said. “I think it reset completely how we view work. And I think all companies are just trying to figure that out and adjust to it.”

One of the benefits HTI added to their employee packages last year, Dew said, which has been successful, was a “wellness benefit.” They gave every employee $500 to use at their discretion and two half days on top of their PTO to use as wellness days.

“I think pre-COVID that’s the sort of thing that would have been a benefit we would have never thought of,” Dew said. “But I think post-COVID, it has to do with work-life balance. I think balance is what younger employees are looking for and want to feel connected to their employer and community, family, what they’re doing on the weekends. We also help other companies do packages like this as well.”

In addition to staffing, another challenge HTI has faced over the last few years is people wanting more communication and professional development, which is why they added a $1,500 stipend to their benefit package for those employees wanting to take a class that would help them develop in their current roles.

Another challenge they are facing is simply that there are more jobs available than there are people to fill them, said Dew.

Filling a future need

More than 4 million Americans decided to retire early, and then families with two incomes decided to go to one income post-COVID, according to Dew. In other cases people went back to school, cutting down the workforce significantly in a short amount of time.

In previous generations, such as Baby Boomers, it was normal practice to start a job and stay until retirement, said Dew. But people under 40 don’t think that way now.

“They want to be happy with their jobs and feel connected, they want to understand the mission of their company, they want to be developed, they want proper communication, and I think they have no problem looking elsewhere if their current company can’t provide those things,” said Dew. “So that leads to more flexibility and mobility, and I don’t see that changing, so that’s a change companies have to adjust to. The companies that don’t find themselves adjusting to the wants of employees are going to not retain the people that help them grow.”

South Carolina technical schools are adjusting well to matching the skills employers need for future generations, Dew said.

“We also need to go into high schools and speak to more students,” he added. “There is a misconception that students need four-year degrees, but they can go to technical colleges if they like working with their hands and can make $35 an hour right out of the two-year program.”

Dew said the labor pool is getting a boost from an increase in people moving to South Carolina, but he thinks employers will continue seeing these challenges for a long time.

Also a member on the S.C. Chamber of Commerce board, Dew said their biggest topic of conversation has been workforce development, whether manufacturing, hospitals, banks — whatever industry, people are experiencing the same challenges with finding and retaining good talent.

“As companies, we need to create cultures in which people want to join the team and stay,” said Dew. “And then as a state, we have to train and educate the workforce to be ready or think about how we attract people to come to the state to work. In the sectors we support, most of them have felt short-handed, so they are having to pay overtime or have disruptions in business that are caused by labor shortages, which results in the loss of billions of dollars nationwide,” Dew said.