Contributed Column

Personnel Points

by Dave Mount, Westaff

What about the 3 percent?

I heard a story recently about a company in the southern part of the state bemoaning that there are no people available to work. Someone pointed out to the business owner that we did have an unemployment rate of 3 percent, so there were people available. The business owner answered, “Yes, think about it — who would hire the 3 percent?”

Our state has been very fortunate over the 35 years that I have been involved in Vermont business. Our unemployment rate over that time has been two to four percentage points less than the national average. We talk a great deal about the underemployed — and we certainly have those — but the group that concerns me is the 3 percent.

When my wife and I were involved with our staffing business, every morning was a zoo trying to account for all of the people who were expected to be at work. The phrase “No call, no show” came into being. People would not show up for work for whatever reason and did not call to advise their employer (us) or the company they were assigned to.

This has been a problem with the 3 percent. Often, the unemployed are in some way involved with various government agencies who work 9 to 5 and often demand to see a “client” during those hours, regardless of work status. That’s a problem. People won’t get away from government programs if they can’t go to work for the full day every day.

This leads me to training. I served on a Vermont commission looking at the state of economic development. We learned that there were dozens of training programs funded through the state. The state auditor is looking into these programs currently, but I have some advice for the people studying training programs.

We need to concentrate on the 3 percent. How do we change the work ethic of the people in the 3 percent?

I was in a seminar once introducing quality circles. Six people were lined up with the makings for ham and cheese sandwiches. The first person had the bottom piece of bread; the next person put on the ham, and so forth. We worked well together until the leader tapped one of us on the shoulder and that person stepped out. Then, chaos reigned. Unfinished sandwiches piled up at the vacant station, and the people beyond it had nothing to do.

The object lesson here is that when one person fails to show up for the assembly line, production stops.

I have often said that we need to train people to get up every day — on time — brush their teeth, comb their hair, and go to work — on time.

I believe that most of the 3 percent are a group who want to work and want to provide for their families. I don’t think they need a change of attitude, but they need to understand how business works — why it is important to come to work on time and to be there every day. 

So I have some suggestions.

• When you hire someone who is unemployed, concentrate your interview questions on areas of work ethic. Find out if the person is able to go to work every day for the full day (but be careful not to ask questions that are discriminatory).

• Untrained people are fine. Ask the Department of Labor if there are any training programs that you can take advantage of.

• Give special attention to your new hire. Offer every opportunity to succeed.

I also have some suggestions for the state, humbly given.

• Training people to work regularly and to be on time is more important to employers than training them in specific skills.

• Skill training needs to be customized. Companies do things differently and customizing the training will create a value-added benefit to all — the employee, the company, and ultimately, the state. Sometimes, the program will pay a portion of a trainee’s salary.

• Lighten up on the rules that force the employed who are using state services to miss work to see case workers.

Dave Mount is the founder of Westaff in Burlington.

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