Finders, keepers

Best practices for recruiting and retaining industry talent

By Nick Fortuna

Building blocks

It’s one thing to thank employees for a successful year, and it’s another thing to show them the money. When Richard Phillips was running a commercial diving company bearing his name, each employee got a small slice of the profits at year’s end, a meaningful reward that kept turnover low and served as a powerful word-of-mouth recruiting message.

At Richard Phillips Marine Inc. in Boring, Ore., year-end bonuses ranged from 1 percent to 5 percent of workers’ annual gross pay, depending on their tenure with the company.

“I wrote a lot of bonus checks at the end of the year,” Phillips said. “I had a very low turnover rate all of those years. My core group of people worked for me for many years, and I hired a lot of my employees just from word of mouth through people who were working for me.”

Phillips closed his dive company to open Commercial Divers International, a Goodyear, Ariz.-based dive school where he’s co-founder, president and chief administrator, in 2014. He said commercial diving companies that are struggling to recruit and retain talented professionals should stay in frequent contact with school administrators so the pipeline from graduation to employment flows without interruption.

The two-way dialogue benefits diving contractors and schools, Phillips said. He tracks his graduates’ progress in their careers and asks employers about their strengths and weaknesses, which allows him to tweak his curriculum and produce better-qualified graduates.

“We want to send them the best product possible,” Phillips said.

Todd Matthies, vice president of the Minnesota Commercial Diver Training Center in Brainerd, said diving contractors routinely reach out to him midway through his school’s 11-week program seeking a roster of soon-to-be graduates. The school doesn’t disclose students’ names but will ask the company for a summary of its job openings and will provide that information to students.

By listing their job openings while students are still weeks from graduation, savvy diving contractors can get first dibs on graduates who are raring to go.

“A lot of them will contact the companies right away because they want to make back the money they spent on school,” Matthies said.

Here are some other best practices for finding and keeping talented industry professionals:

• Keep them connected to the outside world. John Wood, president of The Ocean Corp. dive school in Houston, said today’s graduates are loathe to work at jobsites that lack WiFi connectivity, so investing in technology such as a signal booster is a simple way to improve worker satisfaction.

The youngest generation of workers has never known a world without smartphones, the Internet and social media, and if they are off the clock for 12 hours a day, they’re going to want to connect with their family, friends and lives back home, Wood said.

“In their off time, they expect their electronic device to work, and if it doesn’t, that’s a problem,” he said.

• Invest time in the hiring process. Nick Crivello, director of placement for Seattlebased Divers Institute of Technology, said some commercial diving contractors are reluctant to engage with recruits substantively until they arrive at their doorstep, so graduates essentially must take a leap of faith: If they make the trek to the company’s headquarters and do well in the interview, they’ll be hired.

The problem is that many graduates are reticent to use their limited time and money to travel to a new place for a job that may not exist. Since the company hasn’t invested any time in recruiting them, it’s hard for graduates to have confidence that a job awaits them.

“I feel like phone interviews should be used a little bit more thoroughly,” Crivello said. “There’s a tendency to cut the red tape and not go through a formalized process. That’s great to a certain extent, but it can leave graduates feeling that a potential employer hasn’t really taken them seriously or taken the process seriously enough, so the applicant doesn’t pursue the lead anymore.”

Crivello said some busy dive contractors will conduct phone interviews while in the field, but trying to have an initial conversation in a noisy setting that’s full of distractions can leave recruits feeling rushed to get off the phone before their questions and concerns have been addressed.

“It’s to everyone’s benefit to treat that phone interaction with seriousness and professionalism,” he said.

• Help them make it to their first paycheck. Most students are living on a lean budget, so by the time they graduate, they’re scrounging around for loose change under their car seats. Commercial diving companies that assist new hires with temporary housing or a food stipend are addressing a key need and are more likely to have loyal employees.

“Sometimes our graduates really are broke and are in a situation where even a little assistance during that transition can make a difference for them,” Crivello said.

Short of providing assistance, dive contractors should make it clear to recruits how long they will have to wait between getting hired and receiving their first paycheck so they can budget accordingly, he said.

• To the extent possible, offer benefits. Large commercial diving companies typically offer robust benefits packages, including 401(k) plans and medical and dental insurance, which makes recruiting and retaining talent much easier, Crivello said. Smaller contractors may lack the bargaining power to secure affordable benefits for employees, but it’s important that they offer what they can.

• Provide better equipment. Crivello said some graduates have complained about the equipment provided by their employers, claiming that it hasn’t been properly maintained or cleaned. He said top diving schools make it a point to provide high-quality, wellmaintained equipment, so when a diving contractor has substandard equipment, it can be eye-opening and off-putting to new hires. He said routine audits to detect broken or damaged equipment are a simple remedy.

“That’s definitely something that I think would make a huge difference in terms of perception and wouldn’t necessarily cost that much more money for a company to implement,” he said.