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How some Minnesota employers are successfully tapping into ‘hidden’ talent pools

Businesses are hiring hard-to-find entry-level employees among groups that have traditionally been less active in seeking — and landing — employment. 

Nonprofit and government workforce leaders speaking about how to tap into "hidden" workforce populations at the Hidden Talent Pools conference in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

Over the last several years, as Minnesota’s economy has improved and more job opportunities became available across different industries, one thing has remained a major hurdle for employers: finding — and retaining — entry-level employees.

To find ways to address the issue, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce last week invited business leaders, foundation executives and nonprofit directors to The Hidden Talent Pools conference in St. Paul.

Among the speakers was Joel Johnson, executive vice president and human resources director at Sunrise Banks, who underlined that entry-level employee retention was one of the biggest struggles his company faced.

Manufacturing employers, like the Brooklyn Park-headquartered Mikros Engineering, have experienced a similar challenge. Jonathan Milks, a manager at the company, said that retaining entry-level workers — especially machine operators — was once a persistent problem for the company.

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Today, though, both Sunrise Banks and Mikros Engineering have reported that they’re enjoying a fairly steady employee retention rate in their workforce. Which leads to the question: How have these companies managed to find the right employees when so many others haven’t?

‘Hidden’ workers

In one recent year, Johnson said, turnover for tellers at Sunrise Bank reached 50 percent, and it wasn’t easy for managers to find people to replace those workers. But Johnson said that changed after the bank started partnering with local nonprofit organizations — including Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota, Twin Cities Rise and Project for Pride in Living — to provide education and job training programs. 

“Some of those organizations have training programs specifically in the financial industry, which has helped us,” he added. “Or they have programs that get individuals ready for [any career in] the workforce.”

Minnesota boasts hundreds of governmental and nonprofit career training programs in various counties across the state, with many serving groups that include high school dropouts, new immigrants, former inmates and people with disabilities — populations that are often referred to as “hidden talent pools.”

Because of their level of education or criminal background, these groups have traditionally been less active in seeking — and landing — employment that pays them well. But in recent years, as Minnesota emerged from the Great Recession, more and more nonprofit organizations have engaged the hidden talent population, providing them with career training and placing them in jobs.   

One of those groups is the Northside Funders Group, which funds a program that not only trains and connects African-American men to various employment opportunities, but also helps them stay and thrive in their chosen professions.

The organization’s executive director, Tawanna Black, said it also works closely with employers advising them about recruiting, retaining and advancing black male employees from north Minneapolis. “We’ve had one employer who just got rid of the GED requirement for a job that its own HR staffers have been saying for years wasn’t really required,” Black told people at the conference. “It’s helping them access a talent pool who’s less than a mile away that they haven’t been accessing before.”

Among the hidden talent pools are also immigrants and refugees — communities that have long sought out the International Institute of Minnesota and other resettlement agencies for career training and job placement services. The institute has an on-site nursing assistant program that trains more than 140 people each year — many of them East Africans, Southeast Asians and Latin Americans who worked as doctors, nurses and in other medical professions in their home countries.

“The American workplace is unique,” the institute’s executive director, Jane Graupman, said at the event. “It requires a lot of independence. Our students have critical thinking skills, but if you’ve been living in Dadaab refugee camp for 20 years, those critical thinking skills are different than what you need to work in a hospital in the United States.”

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She added: “So, we’re making sure people understand all the nuances of the American workplace so that when people get to work, they’re prepared.”

Former inmates are also considered to be in hidden talent pools — and there have been efforts to get them into the workforce, though they’re often systematically excluded from the workforce because of criminal records. Minncor Industries — a program of the Minnesota Department of Corrections — is among several initiatives in the state that offer former inmates career training and employment opportunities.

“The big hurdle for them is, “How do I address that felony?’” said Minncor employer and business developer Michael Hreha. “They have to address that felony at some point in their interview. So, we spend a lot of time with them on how to prepare for that and how to talk to their peers [about their criminal history] once they’re hired.”

Different tactics for increasing retention

At the conference, managers from Sunrise Banks, Mikros Engineering and UPS shared their success stories of recruiting and retaining skilled employees to fill their entry-level positions.

But once new employees join the company, the managers said, employers need to find a way to retain them. To achieve that, different employers use different methods: Mikros, for example, has an internal promotion program, competitive benefits and career development opportunities.  

On top of that, Milks said, having a diverse workforce can also help with minimizing employee turnover. Today, his company is so diverse that if some of his immigrant employees are struggling with language or cultural barriers, their colleagues step up to translate and help them “feel more welcomed.”

UPS manager Stephanie Pleasant also spoke about how the company has made strides in recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce. One of the reasons the company has been successful, she said, is that it has fewer hiring requirements than many large and small employers who are struggling to secure workers.

For example, applicants aren’t required to have completed high school, have a driver’s license or go through a drug test. “That takes away a lot of the barriers,” said Pleasant.

In an effort to keep them, she added, UPS offers entry-level employees up to $25,000 in tuition assistance. To add to that, the company has promotion opportunities and competitive healthcare benefits. “We have a specific career roadmap that we customize for these people who we see will potentially advance in our organization,” Pleasant said, “whether they want to work in accounting, finance or IT.”

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In addition to the employers, the nonprofit organizations that train employees and connect them to the workforce have reported positive retention rates of individuals they’ve helped place in jobs. The International Institute of Minnesota — which has more than 200 employer partners — has a more than 90 percent retention rate for its medical career pathway trainees. “They’re often calling us when our students graduate,” said Graupman of the employers, “because it’s a great investment for them.”