HIre us. (2)Highly skilled employees are hard to find – and keep. That was the persistent theme I heard last week at the Middle-Market Forum 2014 in Minneapolis, sponsored by Twin Cities Business magazine. The panelists, all accomplished local CEOs/leaders, provided insights, solutions and advice on key issues facing middle-market companies (generally those with revenues between $100 million to $1 billion).

The forum featured:

  • Jeffrey Kiesel, CEO, Restaurant Technologies
  • David Martin, President and CEO, Cardiovascular Systems (CSI)
  • Chuck Mooty, President and CEO, Jostens
  • Cary Musech, Managing Principal, Tonka Bay Equity Partners
  • Dan Zdon, President and COO, Liberty Diversified International

Topics ranged from financing growth, acquisitions and divestitures and innovation, to succession planning, government-related challenges and making your company relevant to consumers.

But the subject that surfaced time and time again was talent acquisition and retention. According to Restaurant Technologies’ Kiesel, it’s his company’s “No. 1 strategic initiative.”

And it’s a major pain point for many other companies. Skilled workers are scarce in the market, despite our nation’s relatively high unemployment rate. Most truly talented and well-trained workers already have jobs, perhaps in other industries. Many may be simply unaware of their potential value to other companies and/or don’t know about open positions.

Finding these people and even the right channels to reach them is more challenging than ever.  According to the panelists, searching companies need to get creative, build a wide funnel with many entry points, and target the right people – not just for jobs open today, but for the future.

One of Musech’s portfolio companies in Ohio took that advice and put it to practice. It set up a scholarship fund at the local community college to attract and cultivate skilled workers. Those students were then directed into the company, providing a recurring source of talent.

Another trend: Candidates, especially those with the most skills and smarts, expect more engagement with a potential employer. They choose a company as much as the company chooses them. Factors that influence recruiting success can include the type of company, its culture and employee engagement, along with the candidate’s recruitment experience.

Some final words of wisdom from the panelists: Network with prospects before you have an open position. Raise the visibility of your company’s brand so that candidates want to be associated with it. The advent of social media has made this all but necessary. If your recruiting process doesn’t represent the qualities of your brand, you’re probably losing out on good prospects.

For more information on talent acquisition and retention, my esteemed colleagues in human resources recommend checking out the Society for Human Resource Management.