A Q&A with David Robb, co-owner and managing partner of Express Employment Professionals
David Robb began his career at Express Employment Professionals in 2015 as director of marketing. He moved up in 2020 to director of operations, working closely with Express Employment Professionals owner and operator Janis Petri, Robb’s mother-in-law who started the business in 1996. This year, Robb became co-owner and managing partner under a succession plan at the Grand Rapids franchise for Express Employment Professionals, a recruiting and consulting firm that plans to soon spin out and launch a new company, Frontline Training Solutions. Robb spoke with MiBiz about the ongoing challenges around employers hiring and retaining workers.
What are you hearing these days about employers’ needs?
We’re talking to companies every day about all of their recruiting and retention and hiring challenges. The top challenges we hear from our clients are hiring new employees, retaining current employees, and the supply chain issues.
HR people have gone through more change and more pain over the last two years than they probably will in their whole career. It’s been very, very stressful. They had to lay people off when COVID hit, then they had to become the COVID police, and now they’re trying to grow and expand and rehire people. In the midst of that, we’re facing a talent crisis like we’ve never seen before.
How do you seek to address that talent crisis with your clients?
For the last year, we’re just doing a lot of discussion and education on what’s really happening in our talent market with our companies. There’s definitely been a lot of misinformation and just misperceptions of what’s really happening in the talent market and where it’s going short term and long term.
We do a lot of education on that and a lot of talking to employers about the strategies you need to overcome that. We spend a lot of time talking about how to become an employer of choice because that’s going to be people’s biggest competitive advantage going forward. That’s one reason we’ve invested so heavily in the training business and the consulting business. We really see those solutions being in strong demand as companies … really have to take it to the next level.
What’s been the biggest misperception?
In 2020 and early 2021, there was a lot of perception of: ‘Hey, we got this extra unemployment money and extra stimulus money, we can’t hire people right now and it’s all going to go away soon. … Oh, once August rolls around there’ll be a line of people out the door.’ We’ve been kind of cautioning people, really that’s not probably going to happen. Yes, it might get a little bit better, but we’re really in a state where there’s going to be a prolonged talent crisis for the foreseeable future.
COVID was a big factor and accelerated a lot of trends that were already happening (with) the retiring Baby Boomers, but lots of things like declining birth rates and demographic shifts we’ve been seeing are going to lead to a challenging landscape. It’s a factor, but it’s one of 10 factors.
What’s the biggest change in today’s workforce that employers need to know about?
At a broad level, the biggest macro trend that we’re looking at is that drop in the labor force participation rate. That is really the biggest factor in why we’re missing people. There’s 3 million to 5 million people who are no longer in the workforce that were in the workforce back in 2020.
On a different level, it’s a whole different mindset shift. The mindset of the worker, the mindset of the employee was already changing, but it really has taken a big shift. They’re not going to put up with places that are not good places to work, that don’t really value them, and I think more than ever the job seeker and the employee know that they have more power than they had before, and they know that they have more options than they had before. We see when people take a new job, they are still aggressively evaluating if they want that job for the first 90 days, and even the first six months. They’re trying to decide if they want to stay there because they know they can probably get a job somewhere else if it’s not what they want.
What’s your advice for an employer struggling through this fiercely competitive labor market?
The first thing we tell them is you really have to get a good handle on what’s going on. A lot of the stats and information out there can be a little depressing because no one’s going to flip the switch and make it better, but the first step for businesses is to truly understand, ‘OK, it’s going to be like this for a while. We’re really going to have to take this to the next level.’
The next thing is strategic workforce planning. HR and anything to do with talent and your employees has to become an executive level conversation. It’s not the HR manager’s job anymore. It has to come to that executive level because strategic workforce planning is going to be just as important as your sales strategy, as your marketing strategy, and bringing a product to market strategy. It has to elevate to that level and then, hopefully, a big part of that strategy is how can you become an employer of choice? How can you become a destination employer? I’m going to boil that down to one sentence. How can you value your employees like never before? They’ve always been your greatest asset, but how can you really start thinking of your employees as your absolute biggest asset and make sure they’re feeling that.