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Family-Friendy in Des Moines

July 1, 2003
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Featured Article, Compensation, Benefits
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In the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson emerges from the cornfields to ask, "Is this heaven?"

"No," says the character played by Kevin Costner, "it’s Iowa."

    Few kids grow up dreaming of glamorous careers in the fly-over Hawkeye State. But once those boys and girls become parents, they find that few major cities can rival the divine work/life benefits offered by many Des Moines employers. The bells and whistles so prevalent in benefits packages are in some part driven by competition. Des Moines, a metropolitan area of almost 467,000, has an unusually high percentage of working parents. A full quarter of the population is under 18, and 74 percent of families with children under six have both parents in the workforce. Combine these facts with a shockingly low unemployment rate--4.1 percent--and you get bosses who are motivated to create increasingly alluring, family-friendly benefits.

    But Des Moines is also a place with homespun, hard-wired barn-raising values where affable CEOs, business owners and executives routinely and passionately hold forth on emerging theories in early childhood education and how best to make a positive difference in the world. And they have brainstormed up a siloful of creative benefits to lure and retain family-oriented employees.

    The most amazing perk, collectively created by Des Moines employers, is The Downtown School, a primary school founded by local business leaders who donated $1.6 million to convert an unused theater multiplex into an educational gem. The local school district provides the teachers, but it was a consortium of local companies in the Des Moines Business/ Education Alliance that anted up the space, construction funds and development expertise. The philosophy is that kids do best when their parents are involved in their education, and locating a school just a few steps away from their parents’ jobs might spur more parental involvement. And the theory is working. The Downtown School’s third, fourth and fifth graders score in the top 10 percent of the nation on their composite test scores, according to its principal, Jan Drees.

    The 10-year-old school encourages parents to drop by and sit in on classes anytime because, "It’s a fallacy to think a standardized test score is only related to the quality of instruction," Drees says. "Parental involvement is very important."

    Downtown executives and professionals--who may have no children enrolled--pitch in to solve problems such as how to hire the best teachers, find and design a new playground or balance the budget. "Their attitude is not, You can’t do that, but How can you do it?" Drees says. "There’s an enormous amount of goodwill here. People care about families and they care about other people’s children. They bring in supplies for other people’s children."

Making room for story time
    Parents are able to listen to their kids read stories at 11 a.m. because flextime is standard with almost all major employers. Principal Financial Group, which has about half of its 15,000 employees in Des Moines, found many of its innovations driven by its 72 percent female workforce, half of whom have dependent children.

    Workers are rewarded with stock options that are actually worth something, plus 401(k)s and pensions. The needs of moms and moms-to-be have driven the creation of everything from on-premise "stork fairs" to free on-site childbirth classes and prenatal programs that offer $50 stipends. Employees also get reimbursed for child- or elder-care expenses incurred because of business travel. One of the most popular programs is Principal’s "working caregiver leave." After expiration of a 12-week leave mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act, employees can work part-time for an extra 12 weeks while receiving full benefits.

Perks, from bowling to baby seats
    Some benefits in Des Moines are touches that let employees know that their boss cares not just about them but also about their families and kids. "When someone has a baby here, we send them the highest-quality car seat you can buy," says Ted Townsend, owner of Townsend Engineering Co., a manufacturer of meat-processing machinery. The company has been widely acclaimed for its 30,000-square-foot athletic facility with four bowling lanes, weight rooms, and racquetball and tennis courts, all of which is free to Townsend’s 180 Des Moines employees and their families. Workers receive a free five-hour fitness profile and vie for prizes by performing health-enhancing gestures such as using seat belts, flossing their teeth and giving out compliments and I-love-you’s to intimates. Speaking of love, Townsend pays the tab for each employee to send a bouquet worth up to $80 from a local florist each year.

    To whom are the flowers sent? Their boss?

    "Ha ha! Presumably their spouses," Townsend laughs. Every other year, he pays to send employees and their spouses to a corporate getaway at a location with a balmy climate. Last year, 610 people snorkeled, swam, danced and relaxed in Puerto Rico for six days. "They come back more bonded," he notes.

    Townsend, who is interested in public health (as well as great apes, ecology and education), can implement his ideas easily because he doesn’t have to contend with unions or shareholders. In the 1980s, he became concerned about the spread of AIDS after reading an article about the disease. So he arranged to reimburse a local hospital for conducting anonymous HIV tests for anyone claiming to be a Townsend employee who wanted one. (This benefit has not been utilized as enthusiastically as, say, the sauna at the fitness facility.) Liability concerns long ago converted the monthly on-premise "beer meetings" into juice conclaves, but that’s not to say Townsend doesn’t offer other booze-related benefits. "If anyone anywhere in the world has been over served, they can take a taxi and bring us the receipt and we’ll pay," he says. The first guy to actually submit such a receipt was feted on the shop floor as a hero, Townsend says. And speaking of driving, each employee "gets a parking place with their name on it."

    When people are healthy and happy and respected by management, they are more likely to perform well, Townsend believes. And perform well they do. "What we have in Iowa is a fabulous work ethic," he says. "People are real here, and they’re honest."

A philosophy of public service
    Part of the philosophy in Des Moines--which in May was named one of 30 finalists in the All-America City Awards by the National Civic League--is the corporate encouragement of public service through every echelon in an organization. Both Meredith Corp. and Principal, for example, have programs that match any contributions employees make to charity.

    "We’ll match up to $5,000 and we match volunteer hours, too," says Art Slusark, vice president of corporate communications for Meredith. After an employee volunteers 20 hours for an organization, Meredith donates $10 per hour for each additional hour up to 50 hours.

    One reason why management is solicitous of workers may lie in the fact that virtually everyone in Des Moines--from CEOs to service workers--comes of age in the same public school system. "On the East Coast, people just assume that a part of their income will have to be designated for private school," notes Art Wittmack, president and CEO of Neumann Brothers, Inc., and a board member of the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

Benefits underpin retention
    Innovative, need-based benefits not only attract applicants, but also keep employees on the payroll, "and we all know that retention is a bargain compared to recruitment," says Judi Casey, director of Boston College’s New England Work and Family Association.

    While the current rage among employers is "low and no-cost" benefits such as time-saving onsite banking, post office, dry-cleaning and yoga or massage services, what employees tend to prize most are policies that allow them to manage their own time and have control over their work, says Casey.

    Take Kathy Hill, for instance. The Principal product developer wasn’t immediately available for an interview because she’d taken two hours off to attend a mother-daughter lunch at her four-year-old’s day-care center. Hill says her managers have allowed her tremendous latitude in her flexible schedule to better care for her three kids (the other two are nine and six). The Paid Time Off policy, which allows employees to use vacation and sick time any way they like, has been invaluable not just for taking care of family emergencies, but also for keeping her marriage vital. "Babysitters can get really expensive," says Hill, who occasionally takes a day off with her husband while the kids are in school to go to a movie or shop.

    Principal, she notes, helps defray the family’s recreational costs. "Every once in awhile they sponsor Iowa Cubs games and we get tickets for $1 or $2 apiece."

    She says her positive attitude about work "is a Midwest thing. Everyone wants to make sure everyone else is taken care of. Out here, we really do believe it takes a whole community to raise a child."

Workforce, July 2003, pp. 81-83 -- Subscribe Now!

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