by Aaron Green
The beginning of 2010 was still a dark period for most Boston workplaces. Salaries and compensation packages were static, employers and employees were tasked with doing more with fewer resources and in general there was still a lot of fear and unknown regarding the future. Since then, the economy has slowly improved. The unemployment rate has fallen; employers in the state have added nearly 50,000 jobs; and the state is doing better than the rest of the nation in terms of unemployment and economic expansion rates. However, we’re certainly not back to pre-recession levels as unemployment is still historically high and there are still approximately 120,000 fewer jobs than when the recession began. In fact, many Massachusetts residents don’t feel a recovery has begun. A survey that my firm, Professional Staffing Group, conducts each quarter with our HR clients echoes this mixed outlook. Looking back at the quarterly surveys and reports we’ve produced with our clients, as well as the daily interactions we have with hundreds of Boston HR departments, here’s a snapshot of how far we’ve come this year and where we are now:
The Boston economy showed incremental improvement in 2010
Our economy is certainly not robust and not yet back to pre-2008 levels, but employers are adapting. According to our survey, most kept HR expenditures at a static rate throughout the year. And while the BLS projects that overall employment will increase by 10 percent in the next 5 years, Boston-area employers are only mildly optimistic. For the past 6 months, the HR managers and employers we’ve surveyed have said they plan to add staff (8 times as many said they’d add as those who said they’d cut staff). Yet, 52 percent say they expect staffing levels to remain the same.
Employer purse strings are starting to loosen
Employers are starting to offer compensation increases after having shelved these for several months. In our most recent survey, 82 percent of employers said they expect compensation to increase in the next 12 months, up from 77 percent who said they expected an increase in last quarter’s survey. Sixty-seven percent of employers surveyed said they actually increased compensation during the past 12 months, up from 54 percent in our last quarter’s survey.
The labor market is becoming tighter for certain positions
Although the US unemployment rate is 9.6 percent, the US unemployment rate for job seekers with a college degree drops to only 4.7 percent. If we look at rates in Massachusetts we see that unemployment rates are much lower. The overall Massachusetts unemployment rate at 8.1% is 1.5% less than the national average of 9.6%. I’m not aware of a measurement of the unemployment rate for college graduates in Massachusetts but given the 1.5% difference in the overall rate, it seems likely to be in the mid 3% range. Therefore employers seeking degreed candidates and employees with specific credentials and skills, e.g. professional or managerial skill sets, have an even narrower field of candidates to choose from. Our latest quarterly survey found that 42 percent of employers plan to add staff in the next three months and 73 percent of employers say that staffing levels are too low. In what I think is an effort to promote from within, our latest survey shows that five times the number of employers said they’ll increase internal training over the number who said they are reducing that expenditure.
HR departments and resources have been stripped down
One of the most popular areas in the workplace to see cuts during the great recession was the HR function, leaving many HR departments with too few staff and resources. Now that the economy has improved, many HR departments are in re-building mode. Short-staffed firms have difficulty recruiting, screening and hiring new employees as quickly as they need them and, as a result, are turning to outsourced or contract recruiters or are re-tasking HR employees with recruiting to the detriment of other duties.
Retention is still not a major concern for most employers
According to our survey results, about half of employers say retention is a minor problem; only 9 percent see it as a major problem and 34 percent say it’s not a problem at all. These results are consistent with the previous quarter’s survey findings.
My personal feeling is that more employers should be concerned with retention and take actions now that will prevent it. I base my opinion on three factors: 1) Surveys of employees show a high percentage of employees would consider another job 2) Employer are preparing to hire (see above, 42 percent of responding companies plan to add staff in the next six months) 3) There is limited downside to taking actions to prevent turnover.
Aaron Green is founder and president of Boston-based Professional Staffing Group and PSG Global Solutions. He is also the vice chairman of the American Staffing Association. He can be reached at Aaron.Green@psgstaffing.com or (617) 250-1000.