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Virtual hiring events have replaced in-person job fairs such as this one hosted last year by PPWFC.

A growing number of employers are changing their hiring practices to focus on the skill sets a company needs for particular positions rather than on traditional requirements such as education.

Skills-based hiring widens the candidate pool and may result in filling positions more quickly, higher retention and greater diversity.

According to the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, about 1,900 businesses in Colorado are using skills-based hiring practices.

“Skills-based hiring is more important now than ever, in a COVID environment,” said Traci Marques, PPWFC’s executive director and CEO. Many people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, such as those in the hospitality field, have skills that can translate to other industries but may be overlooked by employers using traditional hiring practices.

Skills-based hiring is one major trend in recruitment as local employers aim to fill vacant positions. Employers also are looking to capitalize on the region’s assets for people who can work remotely and for those who hope to escape from big cities like New York and San Francisco and their higher costs of living.

Early last year, the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade launched an initiative to attract remote workers.

The Location Neutral Employment incentive provides cash initiatives of up to $6,500 per remote employee to companies that hire new employees in certain rural areas of the state. 

While this initiative targeted areas of the state that are less populous than El Paso County, word has gotten out about the state’s friendliness to remote workers.

WalletHub recently ranked Colorado No. 4 in a list of the best states for working remotely. The state scored high because, of all 50 states, Colorado had the largest share of its population working from home before COVID-19. 

WHAT DO PROSPECTS WANT?

While those two trends are showing up in recruiting efforts, many employers are still touting the Pikes Peak region’s outdoor amenities and relatively low cost of living.

“We’ve adjusted our message a little bit to reflect the teleworking opportunities,” said Cecilia Harry, chief economic development officer at the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC. “But other than that, it’s been very consistent messaging about the quality of life that we have here.”

But although housing prices have been rising steeply for the past several years, that’s only one factor people contemplate when they’re deciding whether to relocate. 

“A data source we use surveys the greater workforce on a regular basis, and they like to frame it — and we do as well — that there are internal and external factors for any job decision for an individual,” Harry said. (Harry could not name the source because its data is not available for public distribution.)

External factors include quality of life; internal factors are the elements over which an employer has control — salary, benefits, work environment and company culture.

“That source reinforces that the internal factors carry more weight for a job seeker than the external factors,” she said. “So while an external factor like cost of living is very important for us to pay attention to, cost of living isn’t as scary if the wages are strong or if it’s a wonderful cultural environment that the person is excited about. So it’s really a balancing act.”

Harry points out that recruiting practices vary by industry.

In the defense industry, employers require specific and specialized skills and certifications for high-paying positions. 

“So if they can find a person with the experience, degrees and clearances that are needed, they’re going to snatch that person up and put them to work,” Harry said. 

The same is true of the health care industry — in which worker shortages have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The latest data from the UCCS Economic Forum December Dashboard indicate registered nurses top the list of the 10 most in-demand jobs, with more than 900 job postings in November 2020.

“A lot of those positions that were in demand prior to the pandemic are still in demand now, and the reason why you haven’t seen a real change in that is simply because this is a pipeline issue, where it takes more than six months to meet the demand,” Harry said.

At the other end of the wage scale, Marques noted that the minimum wage in Colorado increased Jan. 1 to $12.32.

“That’s affected a lot of people,” she said. “Right now we’re seeing starting wages at Walmart or Target at $15 an hour. Some of your smaller businesses are struggling to find that talent because they may not be able to pay those higher wages.”

In that case, it’s important for employers to showcase their corporate culture and benefits.

“We’re starting to see that company culture is really a key player in a COVID-19 environment,” Marques said.

TO HIRE OR UPSKILL?

In some cases, businesses are looking not to recruit, but to retrain their current workers to help fill skill gaps.

“So someone who is a receptionist now does all the marketing,” Marques said.

The Workforce Center launched Upskill Pikes Peak last year to provide free training for both businesses and job seekers that would help them develop new skills.

“We looked at those who were laid off their jobs due to COVID unemployment, the skill sets they had and the last position that they left,” Marques said. “We compared that to the data of open positions and the skills needed to fill the open positions that we have in our market.”

They were somewhat surprised to find that the missing skill sets involved knowledge of basic office programs like Outlook, Excel and Microsoft Word, as well as basic office protocols such as email etiquette.

The pandemic has added the need for people seeking any type of office job to learn how to use virtual platforms like Zoom and Google Meet.

Many people take those skills for granted, but people who have been laid off from jobs in the hospitality industry may lack proficiency in those areas, Marques said.

Through workshops and online courses offered through PPWFC and the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center, “people can get those skill sets on their own and on their own time,” she said.

PPWFC offers more than 70 training modules for employers and job seekers, Communications Manager Becca Tonn said. Information is available at ppwfc.org.

For employers, the center’s Road to Recovery campaign provides training in recruiting, hiring and development, as well as business support, data and resources.

Among the support PPWFC offers is assisting employers in rewriting their job postings to emphasize the skills they’re seeking. 

For those who are hiring, there has been high demand for virtual hiring events, Tonn said. 

“Prior to COVID, we did all our hiring events in person,” she said. “Now we have a very easy-to-use software platform that allows us to offer hiring events and job fairs virtually, and that

has been very popular.”

Employers can engage with candidates through the platform’s chat function and move to a video interview if they are interested, she said.

Both employers and job seekers are having to get used to virtual interviews.

Most people are finding virtual job interviews more stressful than face-to-face interviews, Tonn said. Employers may miss mannerisms and other visual clues that they would pick up in person, and job seekers “might not understand that they need to be dressed just as sharply as in person.”

EDUCATION HIRING WOES

School District 11 has lost about 800 personnel through resignations and retirements since March 2020.

“We have certainly seen a higher than usual resignation rate,” said Danniella Ewen, executive director of human resources. “That includes our teachers, our support staff, substitutes — it runs the gamut with all of our employees. We’ve also seen a tremendous increase in our employees requesting a leave of absence.”

COVID-19 is the main factor spurring the losses, Ewen said. People are leaving because they’ve contracted the disease themselves or have to care for a family member, “or just that fear of being around people and getting COVID.”

Ewen said the district has been successful in filling many positions with student teachers, both those who have graduated and those who are completing student teaching in order to graduate. The district draws most of its student teachers from colleges in Colorado Springs and other areas of the state, along with a few from other states.

The district pays special attention to student teachers because of the nationwide teacher shortage.

“We’re seeing less and less people go into the teaching profession, so it is a competitive field,” Ewen said. “When they’re doing their student teaching in your building, you want to treat them right, and you want to make sure that when they’re done, District 11 is where they want to come back to.”

Recruitment is even more challenging for support staff positions, including classroom assistants, clerical staff, bus drivers, food service workers and maintenance workers.

“We’re continuing to recruit in much of the same ways that we’ve always recruited,” Ewen said. 

The district uses LinkedIn, Indeed and the Workforce Center and attends virtual job fairs, but it is also trying to be more creative in finding employees.

“For some positions, we’ve looked toward our retirees,” she said. “We’ve contacted former employees, both at the teacher level and the hourly level, and asked them if they’d like to come back and help.”

RECRUITING CITY STAFF

The city of Colorado Springs implemented a hiring freeze from March to July 2020, Lead Communications Specialist Kim Melchor said. In August, the city transitioned to a four-month delay policy, which means that a position must remain vacant for four months before a replacement can be hired. The policy is still in effect.

“This caused a bottleneck in recruitment,” Melchor said via email. “At this point, most of these jobs have been filled, and recruitment levels have remained strong with an 86 percent acceptance rate.”

The city has not had to offer any special enticements to prospective employees, she said.

Although it takes a conservative approach to compensation, “even if we can’t fund market increases, like in 2021, we do move our structure to match the labor market (not cost of living) with our midpoint at the 50th percentile of the market,” Melchor said. 

“We use fair pay practices to ensure that employees are paid equitably and consider the living wage during our job pricing.”

The city strives to create a culture that values each employee and fosters an inclusive environment, Melchor said.

“We continually promote career opportunities with the city through partnerships with the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, Black and Latino Coalition, Urban League Pikes Peak, Veterans Affairs, Mt. Carmel Connect/Prep, The Independence Center and many other local organizations,” she said.