Human Resources Today

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Covering Talent Issues: A Reporter's Perspective

I sit on the Board of our local talent acquisition non-profit group, RecruitDC. And since the inception, we’ve been lucky enough to have exceptional keynote speakers at each of our sell-out conferences. This year, with so many economic and government factors affecting our local talent landscape, we’re taking a different approach. Washington Post reporter Sarah Halzack will lead a panel of executive HR leaders to address some of these issues.  Halzack, a Capital Business Reporter and Web Editor for the Post, has a unique perspective on the area’s talent market. In advance of RecruitDC’s May 23rd Spring Conference, I sat down with her to talk talent, reporting and her own unique job.

Susan LaMotte: How did you land at The Washington Post? And tell us a little bit about your beat and the topics you cover?

Sarah Halzack: During my senior year at George Washington University, I worked as a research assistant for Laura Sessions Stepp, a journalist who was then working at the Washington Post and was in the process of writing a book.  When I graduated, she pointed me to apply for a job at the Post as a news aide, our most entry-level position. At that point, I was still somewhat unsure about what I wanted to do for my career; I had majored in journalism, but had only done internships in media relations. But as soon as I began working in the newsroom, I knew that I was exactly where I wanted to be.  I loved the energy of the place and I loved being surrounded by such bright and curious people. Currently, I am a reporter and Web editor with our Capital Business publication. I cover employment and workplace topics. That includes anything from how the labor market looks and what it says about the broader health of the regional economy to more HR-specific topics such as talent attraction and retention, compensation and benefits/rewards.

SL: I’m so glad the Post continues to dig into these topics especially since we spend so much time talking about politics in DC. Now, business journalism isn't as contentious as politics, but what have you learned about staying objective?

SH: Fairness is at the core of what we do in any department of the newsroom. I think the best way to achieve it is by thinking about a story from all 360 degrees and making sure you’ve been thoughtful and deliberate about what information you’ve included, what sources you’ve talked to, and whether you’ve given all the stakeholders a fair chance to comment. And I think it’s helpful to not make assumptions in reporting.  That helps ensure that you arrive at the most objective framework for your story.

SL: I think that’s good advice for business leaders too. We tend to have preconceived notions about solutions or even who to hire for a specific role! The 360-degree approach is something we could surely learn from. From the reporting you’ve done for the Post, what are some of the business trends you're seeing in our market?

SH: As we noted in the most recent edition of Post 200 (The Washington Post's annual report on the area's top businesses), it seems that many of the biggest businesses in the Washington region got a little bit smaller last year That manifested in different ways: Some shrunk real estate footprints, some reduced headcount, and others spun off business verticals. And so it seems that this year will be about adjusting and adapting to those consequential changes.  As for the local job market, the unemployment rate is ticking down slowly.  However, we are not adding jobs in the professional services sector at a fast enough pace to rev the engine of economic recovery.  Lately, our biggest job creators have been the health-care industry and the hospitality industry.  However, these are sectors that don’t tend to pay especially well, so that could weigh on income growth in this region.

SL: As part of preparing this year's Post 200, you talked about talent as a primary issue for many CEOs. What particular concerns and challenges do you find them to be facing right now?

SH: As I talk to folks in the local talent industry, a few themes emerge.  Some say that talent retention is a difficulty, particularly amid this climate of tightened budgets that might not allow as much room for compensation increases.  I also hear often that certain jobs remain hard to fill because they can’t find workers with the right skill set.  I’ve heard of and reported on lots of different ways of dealing with this—building talent pipelines with local colleges, creating internal training programs, or recruiting from unexpected places. For example, I reported last year on Merrill Lynch’s Washington office and how they are recruiting veterans, accountants and lawyers to work as financial advisers. In another story, I wrote about how Vocus was hiring a food truck for a day and giving out free pizza to lure people to apply for jobs. In other words, it seems many talent professionals are looking for outside-the-box ways to get the best people to come to their organization.

SL: There has been a great deal of conversation in our industry about a talent shortage versus a shortage of certain skills. But that’s just one of many key topics we’re talking about right now. It’s a crowded platform of challenges and I know we’ll delve into then for our panel.  Now, like many journalists, I'm sure story ideas are constantly crowding your mind. What do you do outside of work to clear your head?

SH: I perform with a professional contemporary dance company called Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co.  We rehearse in the evenings and on weekends and perform throughout the Washington area.  It feels great to get up and do something physical after being behind a desk all day!  And dance calls for a different type of creativity than I use as a journalist, so that is refreshing as well.  I’m also a big fan of yoga. 

SL: Me too. We lead such crowded lives I find yoga a great way to eliminate all that noise if only for a hour.  And with all that you do, we appreciate you taking the time to join us at RecruitDC.  We look forward to hosting you and our panelists on May 23: 

-       Melody Jones, Chief Administrative Officer, CEB

-       Angela Mannino, SVP Human Resources, Inova Health System

-       Jeff Perkins, Chief People Officer, NPR

-       Bridgette Weitzel, Vice President, Organization Development & Chief Talent Officer, BAE Systems North America





Why You Should Care About the Jobs Report

Another day, another jobs report.  That's what it may feel like.  In talent acquisition, we spend so much time thinking about  jobs to fill and plans for our own organizations, that we don't often pay much attention to the larger picture. Sure, we listen to the jobs reports, we grimace when the numbers aren't what we think they should be, and we move on.  What can you do? For starters, you can care.Here at ERE Expo this week, Linda Brenner,  moderated a session with Morningstar analysts Robert Johnson and Vishnu Lekraj. It was just as much an economics lesson as it was a wake-up call. We need to care. We need to pay attention. And we need to understand what's going on beyond the basic 8.1% August unemployment rate (today's BLS data). First, a few key data points and lessons from Robert:

You've probably heard that we've lost eight million jobs in the recession. But dig deeper. The reality is that 50% of that is housing related. Two million jobs were lost in construction and two million in mortgage/real estate related roles. Think about that---specific industry sectors responsible for half of the loss.

Further, we tend to assume that global markets have an exponential impact on our economy. Greece, France, Spain, China...argh! Their struggles become ours.  Not necessarily true. Consumer spending actually accounts  for 70% of the U.S. economy--the most important factor in our growth. And that's because consumer spending acceleration grows industrial production which expands employment and results in increased capital spending.

Bored yet? Don't be. This stuff matters. Take note of the point made by audience member and industry thought leader Eric Winegardner during this session: Sure, unemployment stands at over 8% but for those with Bachelors degrees, that drops to a surprising 4.1% (as of this morning).  The unemployment rate for veterans is down to 6.6%.

Interested yet? You should be.  You should be beyond interested--and actually care.  Here's what to do next with the numbers that are out this morning.

1) Watch the numbers and do something with them.

We typically read an article or two about the jobs report, grimace and move on.  This time around, do something more. Don't just move on. Pay attention to the news stories and let them pique your interest.

2) Read the report

The best way to pay attention? Read the actual report. Really dig in. Ask questions. Share it with your team, or divide it up to read and review. Then have a conversation about it. What does it mean for you and your business? What data points matter more based on your employee population and hiring forecast.

3) Dig for additional data to help you shape your plans

The jobs report should get you fired up to look for more data--other trends that will help shape your 2013 plans. One particular one I like is the report from the National Chamber Federation that looks at the specific priorities, policies and programs of the 50 states and Puerto Rico."   As reported in its June Jobs Summit, 2012, the top-10 performing talent pipeline states in 2012 are FL, MA, SD, VA, NY, MD, CO, ND and CT.  The top talent pipeline states are determined using six measures:

  • Higher education degree production
  • State spending per degree awarded
  • Total student cost at a four-year research institution as a share of state disposable income
  • Share of residents age 25 to 44 with at least a two-year degree
  • Share of high school seniors taking Advanced Placement Courses
  • Attainment of goals for placing adults in open jobs by the state workforce development system

The BLS also offers geographic data breakdowns too. This is powerful data that can help you convince your leaders to hire more virtual workers or rethink geographic distribution.

 4) Look at other economic trends

Consumer spending is an important one.  Consumer income growth was stagnant after an increase in July. So what do we look for moving forward? First, take note of the BEA's consumer spending data reported quarterly. Then look for sector growth.  Retail sales, both back-to-school and the holiday season are great indicators of growth, as are auto sales and housing starts.  Sales of autos have rebounded which according to Morningstar's Johnson, was one of the reasons we had a recovery at all.

5) Try not to get political

Regardless of your political preferences, this isn't a time to grab your soapbox. It's time to be an HR professional.  And that means it's your unbiased job to read, understand and care about the data. And as hard as it is, separate that from your political views for a moment.

Now what? Go beyond this morning's news. Don't just rely on a broad number, dig in and see what it means to you.  Start with reading the news release paying attention to the numbers related to your industry. Then take a look at the charts starting with age and gender. You'll be surprised at how much you might begin to care.