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The Five-Alarm Job

January 30, 2004
Related Topics: Candidate Sourcing, Staffing Management

Gayle Lee is convinced that she has a dream job. And she’s not going to let anyone tell her differently. While others moan and complain about long hours and bad bosses, the paralegal at Alston & Bird, a prominent Atlanta law firm, is eager to show up for work and doesn’t mind putting in a few extra hours, if necessary. "I’ve got a tremendous amount of responsibility, and the lawyers respect me," she says. "I feel stimulated and challenged, and there are terrific opportunities to grow professionally. I can’t imagine a more interesting job or a better place to work."

    At a time when job satisfaction is declining and loyalty is diminishing, Lee might seem like a throwback to another era. Yet the 17-year veteran of Alston & Bird offers clear proof that an outstanding job and an excellent employer can redefine the physics of the labor universe. While pay and benefits play a key role in drawing talent, organizations that offer attractive and rewarding jobs are far more likely to slash turnover, pump up productivity and bolster the bottom line.

    "The specific jobs that people are attracted to change, but the underlying qualities that comprise a great job do not," observes Peter Cappelli, author of The New Deal at Work and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania. Some jobs, such as those in the entertainment industry or in political circles, might appear glamorous or offer plenty of cachet, but long hours, tough working conditions and a lack of advancement opportunities can shred employees and send them fleeing to other companies or industries. A hot job, more than anything else, offers opportunity and meshes with the current values, attitudes and desires of the workforce.

    For employers, it’s no trivial matter. Although it’s possible to earn a profit with lackluster benefits and mediocre working conditions, there’s a huge difference between "pay to play" and "play to win," says Laura Sejen, national practice director for strategic rewards at Watson Wyatt Worldwide. Those who monitor the pulse of the market and understand what categorizes a job as hot, as well as how to develop effective recruiting strategies and how to create a compelling work environment, will emerge as the winners in today’s high-stakes business derby. Companies that hit the mark in creating great jobs, such as Alston & Bird, reap huge rewards. The firm offers job sharing, flexible working hours, and ongoing training and learning and has designed jobs to provide maximum responsibility and autonomy. The 1,500-employee firm, rated number two on Fortune magazine’s "100 Best Companies to Work For" list for 2004, has a low 7 percent turnover among its attorneys, compared to an industry average near 20 percent. Overall, it receives approximately 15,000 applications a year for about 200 openings.

The specific jobs that people are attracted to change, but the
underlying qualities that comprise a great job do not.

    Low turnover fuels the bottom line. Every time an associate leaves the firm, it costs Alston & Bird about $300,000. So, in order to make jobs interesting and appealing, the company focuses on three primary job-satisfaction issues: professional growth, good communication and respect. "Partners understand that if they get a reputation for running associates off, they’re going to get a lot of personal counseling," says Ben Johnson, Alston & Bird’s managing partner.

    Depending on the company and the industry, the average cost of a new hire ranges from $1,000 to $5,000. Thus, a 20 percent reduction in turnover at a 5,000-employee firm results in a cost savings of $1 million to $5 million annually. Of course, it also affects productivity and efficiency, including the number of worker errors.

Hot is cool
    For most people, an intrinsically interesting and rewarding job incorporates five key ingredients. University of Illinois professor Greg Oldham and Harvard professor Richard Hackman identified these qualities in 1975: skill variety and personal growth; identifying with the task or with the entire job; the belief that the work has some significance and impact on the lives of others; independence, freedom and autonomy; and feeling a sense of accomplishment, either internally or through the comments of others.

    A janitor at NASA is likely to adopt a very different mind-set and attitude about his work than a person pushing a broom inside a grocery warehouse. An assembly-line worker who handles a single repetitive task will usually take less pride in her work than someone who helps build a product from start to finish. At the same time, a worker might make trade-offs. Cappelli says that a person might recognize that his job isn’t particularly interesting "but that it is a good experience and that the skills or knowledge will be useful in the future."

    A hot job is at least partly a reflection of the times. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, advertising was a magnet for many bright young college graduates. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, many viewed strategic planning as a path to success. During the 1980s, consulting and investment banking gained prominence. And by the late 1990s, dot-com start-ups served as a draw for young business school graduates. "Every era reflects the demands of the marketplace and the thinking of young, ambitious college graduates," says Kerry Moynihan, managing partner at executive recruiting firm Christian & Timbers.

    Yet it’s clear that every action causes an equally strong reaction. When the dot-com industry collapsed, many young people who had mortgaged their personal lives for a chance to hit pay dirt reacted by looking for work that afforded them far more flexibility and leisure time. MBA students who had dropped out of school to grab high-paying jobs began to trickle back. And after the corporate scandals at Enron, WorldCom and Tyco, many job applicants began asking recruiters and human resources directors about the ethics and value systems of prospective employers.

    Changes in the economy and personal values also opened a door to an entirely new set of hot jobs such as forensic accountant and financial auditor. The events of 9/11 spurred demand for an array of security analysts, disaster-recovery specialists and law-enforcement experts. In fact, the CIA and FBI experienced an almost fivefold spike in applications after the terrorist attacks.

"The more you can learn about what’s going on in people’s lives, the more you can attempt to tailor your jobs or emphasize the things that you think are going to appeal to (employees)."

    Today, any lists generated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics or by magazines such as Smart Money mention jobs in these popular fields: biosciences, health care, teaching, engineering, financial services and security services. Growing numbers of college grads are gravitating toward jobs in these areas, and employers are willing to pay generously for outstanding talent. Yet the challenge that organizations face is more than just filling the most popular and appealing positions, and attempting to keep the brightest and best talent away from the competition. It’s also making the entire spectrum of jobs attractive and building a motivated workforce.

    One thing that makes the task so challenging and causes the list of "hot jobs" to swiftly change is the constant evolution of underlying values and attitudes. One generation might value professional freedom more than security, independence over tight management and free time more than 60-hour workweeks that promise promotions and kill relationships. As working conditions have improved and society has become more affluent over the last century, the desire for personal satisfaction and a work/life balance has catapulted up the list.

    Cappelli points out that the definition of a hot job also reflects a person’s stage of life. "If you’re a teenager, working at a summer camp might seem like an ideal job because it’s possible to hang out with others who are the same age. Even if the actual work is boring and there’s no room for advancement, it might meet your needs." A senior citizen might view a part-time job as a greeter at a Wal-Mart as an opportunity to stay active and build a social network.

No formula for sure-fire heat
    In today’s transient workplace, creating hot jobs and boosting job-satisfaction levels is a complex task. "There’s no set formula for making jobs appealing," says Al O’Connor, executive vice president of corporate client services at Right Management Consultants in Phoenix. "It’s partly about company culture, partly about the structure of individual jobs and partly about understanding the needs and desires of today’s workers."

    Cathy Benton, director of human resources at Alston & Bird, says that the firm pays close attention to what makes a job hot. "It’s not about how much money an attorney brings in. If you’re impossible to work with and you don’t fit into the culture, then you have to change your attitude or you will be out the door." Alston & Bird has worked to mold and reinforce the qualities it wants through training and performance evaluations.

    Achieving success requires more than an attractive work environment and positive interaction with other employees, however. Just as a marketing department must identify the needs and desires of customers, an organization must understand what makes workers tick and what exactly they’re looking for in a job. At SRA International, a defense and information technology security firm in Fairfax, Virginia, tapping into the attitudes and values of workers is a key commitment. "The more you can learn about what’s going on in people’s lives, the more you can attempt to tailor your jobs or emphasize the things that you think are going to appeal to them," says Kerri Koss Morehart, vice president for talent acquisition and development. SRA, which has about 2,600 employees, spends a great deal of time gleaning such information at job fairs, during interviews and through ongoing employee feedback.

    The goal is to transform all the information into a highly focused strategy. As a result, SRA International structures jobs to reflect the basic desires and needs of workers, including flextime, education reimbursement and the nature of the actual work. It creates succinct job descriptions that communicate to employees and applicants what is offered and expected. The company uses classified ads as much for marketing as to attract candidates, and it relies on behavioral testing and interviewing to ensure a good match.

    When a company puts all the pieces of the puzzle together, the results are often impressive. Brian Fogg, who has worked at SRA International as an electrical engineer since graduating from college seven years ago, has steered away from other employers that might dangle a larger paycheck in front of him. "The ethics and value system of SRA mesh with mine," he says. "I like the entrepreneurial spirit, and I value the freedom and latitude to grow professionally." Fogg, who hopes to spend at least the next 10 years at the firm, also finds that the collaborative nature of the work and the opportunity to participate on different projects and in different roles suit him well. "There is a risk-taking mentality," he says.

Winning on appeal
    When workers believe that they have snagged a hot job or work for a hot company, the resulting synergy can boost a company’s image and bottom line. Firms like Southwest Airlines, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, SAS Institute, SRA International and Alston & Bird ultimately become magnets for outstanding candidates, and in many cases, they are able to skim off the brightest and the best. Employees serve as a marketing tool, bringing in additional high-quality candidates through referrals.

    Tony Lee, editor in chief of, points out that while lists of the current hot jobs come and go, the underlying characteristics of a great job or employer change little over time. Even companies that aren’t on the leading edge of biotechnology or computer software development can turn the market in their favor. "Companies that offer good pay and benefits, a sense of autonomy and responsibility, work/life balance and an attitude that employees are really appreciated are in a much better position to succeed," he says.

    Creating attractive jobs and an appealing company is an elusive task, but one with a huge payoff. "It’s flattering to be rated as a top employer, and it is great to treat employees well and offer a terrific work environment," Alston & Bird’s Benton says. "But in the end, it comes down to economics. Increased loyalty, improved efficiency and a better product or service translate directly into a more profitable and prosperous company."

Significant factors in employee motivation
  Employee Rank Employer Rank
Desire to maintain reputation 1 4
Being appreciated 2 1
Belief that the work is important 3 3
Interesting assignments 4 2
Enjoyable and friendly atmosphere 5 7
Prove capabilities to self 6 6
Prove capabilities to others 7 5
Opportunity for promotion 8 8
Expect significant financial reward 9 9
Pleasing their supervisor 10 10
Source: Watson Wyatt Worldwide, 2003/2004
Strategic Rewards: Maximizing the Return on Your Reward Investment

Workforce Management, February 2004, pp. 43-48 -- Subscribe Now!

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