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  • Working it Out

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    The River Region’s human resources, employment services and benefits industries have vital roles to play in the COVID-19 recovery and in the everyday operations of our local economy.
     
    The countless negative impacts of COVID-19 on global, national and local economies are now old news. Very few businesses have been spared from at least some form of pandemic-related loss or pain, pushing many to furlough and downsize, as Tara Hutchison, Alabama Department of Labor (ADOL) Communications Director, noted. “Alabama, like every other state, saw a significant increase in its unemployment from March to April, entirely due to COVID-19 closures,” she said. “Years of economic progress were reversed in a matter of two months.” Hutchison’s department is responsible for paying unemployment compensation claims, including the three new programs passed by Congress under the CARES Act: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC). ADOL also assists those rejoining the workforce after losing their jobs.
     
    The numbers speak for themselves. April’s unemployment rate for the state hit 13.8 percent, with Montgomery County hovering around 12 percent. As of mid-June, the state had disbursed nearly $2 billion in unemployment benefits. The unemployment figures are now dropping; in June, the statewide unemployment number dropped to 7.5 percent, and Hutchison stressed that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The lingering question though: How long is the tunnel and will everyone reach the end? “As restrictions ease, and employers recall employees, hopefully we will recover quickly,” she said. “However, it may not be an overnight recovery, as some businesses will delay reopening or be unable to open again at all. Consumers’ mindsets may also change regarding some businesses.”
     

    GETTING BACK TO BIZ

    In this uncertain environment, the River Region’s Human Resources, Employment Services and Benefits industries have vital roles to play in the recovery, according to several of its key members, including Beth Walker McBride, Vice President of WorkForce Walker Personnel, LLC. She first pointed to the important functions her industry provides in our community overall. “The employment services industry greatly benefits the River Region by the many staffing services it offers to the businesses in this area,” she said. “We are able to provide businesses with a wide array of employees ranging from very specialized skills to ones that are more general in nature. We also benefit the citizens by providing a venue for them to seek employment opportunities with ease.”
     
    In direct response to COVID-19, the industry’s role has become even more essential. “With the employment crisis that the nation is currently facing, it is our belief that the staffing industry will play a major role in helping Americans get back to work,” McBride said. “We have seen an increase in our clients’ need for staffing. With many businesses opening back up, there has been an increased need for extra personnel. Some of our clients are having to play catch-up while others have seen shortages due to employees that are no longer available.”
     
    Patrick Hart, License Owner, Spherion Staffing, echoed McBride, noting that helping build a deep base of local talent is the “pinnacle” of the pluses his industry brings the area. “From assisting the next generation in entering the workforce, to working with local veterans transitioning into the civilian workforce, and on some occasions, recruiting and relocating talent to the area from out of state, we are helping local businesses secure the talent they need to be successful, while also assisting the local workforce in finding better career opportunities that are personally, professionally and financially rewarding,” Hart said. On the COVID-19 front, Spherion worked with its parent company Randstad’s to create a national task force focused on safely transitioning people back into the workplace, as well as assisting displaced workers. “At a local level, we also are providing COVID-19 screening solutions for our clients,” Hart said.
     
    Marcel R. McElroy’s companies, Marcel McElroy’s Job Connection, LLC and Top Talent Recruiter, LLC, are outsourced by companies looking for professionals to fill salaried openings in specific fields, including human resources, engineering, IT, accounting, sales and marketing, healthcare and more. But he’s seen the same trends stemming from the virus as his colleagues: people who’ve lost jobs and companies whose employment needs have shifted since the shutdowns in March. “We are getting calls from candidates whose jobs have been eliminated for good, as well as those who are just furloughed employees,” he said. “We are also hearing from some companies who are wanting us to assist their employees where they are having cutbacks due to budget cuts.”
     
    And the industry itself is facing some tough times ahead, as Hart explained. “On a larger scale, Statista [a provider of market and consumer data] reports that the U.S. staffing and recruiting market is predicted to decrease from its market size of $151.8 billion in 2019 to $119.4 billion in 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak, a 21-percent decrease from the previous year,” he said. “We’ve all been affected. With the predicted decrease due to the outbreak, the staffing and recruiting industry will have an uphill battle. Our team in Montgomery is doing everything in our power to stay the course and support our clients during this time.”
     
    But the industry is also realizing some of the same positives that the virus forced many other industries to recognize, namely increased efficiency. “At the onset of the pandemic, we were affected similarly to most businesses due to the stay-at-home orders. However, the challenges of working remotely actually made us look at our day-to-day processes, and we began to streamline procedures,” McBride said. “ COVID-19 has made us become much more flexible and more efficient.”
     
    LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
    Like McBride’s employees, millions of Americans were forced to temporarily work from home due to COVID-19 shutdowns, allowing a lot of businesses to find value in an arrangement they might not have tried otherwise. Even as cities and states “reopen,” work-from-home arrangements for some are becoming permanent. McBride says she believes the trend has staying power. “I think that like our business, many are using the ability to work remotely to become more efficient,” she said.
     
    McElroy agreed, at least in part. “Working from home will increase with the larger companies who employ a lot of your white-collar professionals,” he said. “But with most of your smaller companies and manufacturing companies, I don’t see an increase.”
     
    Hart also sees a mixed bag. “On one hand, yes, there will be an increase in working from home. On the other hand, many, after being forced to work from home due to the pandemic, found out that they miss the human-to-human interaction with their colleagues and co-workers,” he said. With more people not working in office spaces, he pointed to possible consequences for one sector in particular. “There is no doubt that the commercial real estate industry will be impacted the most by this,” he said. “We’ve already witnessed REIT’s [real estate investment trusts] drawing down their credit lines.”
     
    One large factor keeping the work- from-home trend alive is how easy it is today, thanks to advances in technology, and technology is driving rapid evolution in the staffing services industry too. The use of smart phones for job searches and application submissions is now standard — WorkForce Walker Personnel’s process is 100-percent online and mobile friendly — and this came in handy when quarantine measures were at their strictest. “We are now able to recruit, interview and onboard applicants without having any physical contact. The pandemic has also forced the industry to become more dependent on digital recruiting resources, such as job boards and online resume databases, to source qualified candidates,” McBride said. “We are also seeing a lot of agencies utilize outdoor job fairs as a way to attract candidates and provide some face-to-face interaction, while at the same time remaining conscientious of the importance of following social distancing guidelines.
     
    The continued emphasis on some true, in-person interaction is a constant that Hart says will never disappear. “We work with all kinds of new and emerging technologies on a daily basis, which has helped professional recruiters operate more efficiently,” he said. “However, technology can’t replace the human touch, the creativity, the empathy and the engagement that customers prize, which drives innovation and differentiation in an organization or small business.”
     
     
    BEYOND THE VIRUS
    COVID-19 issues have dominated our thoughts, but the pandemic is by no means the only threat the employment services industry must contend with. Workforce readiness remains a critical factor, according to McBride. “I think one of the areas that will need to be addressed in the coming years is the need for more technical training,” she said. “There is a shortage of employees with specific skill sets.”
     
    And the “specific skills” we need in our workforce are constantly changing; now these changes are coming faster than ever. “Temporary workers will need to shift to different industries and adapt as needed,” Hart said. “The most notable trend to watch in my opinion, will be reskilling of the workforce to meet the talent shortage crisis that we are currently facing, and will continue to face, as we move forward. For these reasons, our team has worked to build business continuity solutions and develop plans addressing the business’s gaps, areas of opportunity and potential solutions.”
     
    Hart stressed that the ways companies search the available workforce have been altered too. “We’ve already experienced a huge shift in the way the hiring process works in the last decade, and even more so recently with the commercial adoption of AI and blockchain,” he said.
     
    McElroy predicts increased use of video conference services in the future, as companies have gotten more comfortable with that technology. “You will see more and more Zoom interviews before companies will fly someone in for a formal interview,” he said.
     
    McElroy has identified an additional trend, too: Companies are getting pickier and digging deeper when it comes to new hires. “I see more companies wanting to see what kind of social media presence that potential new hires might have,” he said. “If they see something online where someone appears to not be a fit because of their lifestyle, then some companies refuse to go any further in the interview process.”
     
    At the same time, the struggle to attract and keep good employees is getting harder. “Companies are becoming more competitive,” he said. “They are looking for top talent professionals who have the best skill set to help them provide the best product or service in their industry. Time is money, and they don’t have the time, or the resources in many cases, to find top professionals during low unemployment as well as high unemployment times.” It’s an ongoing battle that businesses like McBride’s, Hart’s and McElroy’s can help companies win.
     
    JOBS WITH BENEFITS
    But even with the help of employment services and recruiters, employers still have to make a compelling case to score the great employee, and as they vie for the best and brightest, salary may not be the deciding factor. “Going forward, I think employee benefits will become a bigger and bigger way to attract employees,” said Stacia Robinson, Agency Principal at The BeneChoice Companies.
     
    But not just any benefits will do; today’s workplace diversity means employees have varied wants and needs. “Sometimes, you have five generations of employees in the workplace,” Robinson said. “The youngest might not care about retirement benefits, but they might want a benefit that helps them pay back school loans. Someone else on staff might be more interested in pet insurance.” Cookie-cutter plans are out, and customization is king. “You can no longer rest on offering some basic health insurance,” she said. “And a great benefits package helps a company that is not paying as much attract the really great employees, places like nonprofits and the public sector.”
     
    Like those in the employment services industry, Robinson also believes remote work will be on the rise in coming years; she sees the option as an alluring piece of incentive puzzles. “Working from home will be a key benefit for the future,” she said. “Remote work is cutting costs for employers, so if employees are being productive, I think we will see employers not only allowing work from home, but in some cases, even encouraging it.”
     
    It will also affect the application of more traditional benefits. “You will see people need different benefits based on their work location,” Robinson said. “So that goes back to being flexible and having a menu of benefits available for employees.”
     
    PEOPLE ARE PRIORITY
    “My industry is still learning how to be high-touch using high tech, and that’s a key point. Because it always has been and will be about people and about connecting.” -Stacia Robinson, Agency Principal at The BeneChoice Companies
     
    Q: What is the No. 1 HR question that COVID-19 has raised and what is its answer?
    A: “What can I do to protect my employees (and my business) as they return to the workplace during the pandemic?” Some of the answers and solutions are:
    • Communicate: Because your communication is a key indicator to what an employee experience might be like at your business, how your business communicates with your employees during this pandemic (or another crisis) will trickle down and could affect your ability to attract and retain top talent in the future.
    • Prepare your plan: Educate yourself. Get buy-in from your leadership team. Proactively plan how to bring your employees back safely. Seek feedback from department heads.
    • Communicate your plan: If your business is returning employees to the workplace, share your reentry strategy clearly with everyone involved. Be empathetic with those anxious and reluctant to return. Listen to their concerns. Engage in interactive discussions with those requesting ADA accommodations. Have protocols established of what will be expected of HR and employees if an employee tests positive and share those protocols with your employees.
    • Follow your plan: Set expectations for all levels of employees and hold each other accountable. Don’t be caught in the “I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing” category. Having a well thought-out plan showing you were proactive will make a difference should you have any future claims. - Marlo Saunders, Human Resources Consultant, Harmon Dennis Bradshaw, Inc.
     
    Q: What changes in health insurance have come about due to COVID-19?

    A: Blue Cross has made many changes in health insurance coverage to further meet the needs of our customers and providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, we began waiving member cost-sharing for COVID-19 diagnostic testing, treatment and in-person or telehealth visits. We also began allowing for early medication refills. Lastly, we have expanded telehealth for physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners; physical, speech and occupational therapists; behavioral health practitioners; ophthalmologists and optometrists; chiropractors; dentists and dieticians. We will continue to work closely with state and local governments, as well as partners within the healthcare system, to address local needs from the COVID-19 outbreak. - Troy Maxwell, District Manager, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama
     

    HIGH-TECH & HIGH-TOUCH
    Benefits packages can be complex, and yet, it is crucial that employers and employees understand them. To ensure they do, many in the benefits business have long relied on relationships and as part of that, at least some face-to-face communication. “We are in the business of educating employees about benefits and enrolling them,” Robinson said.
     
    When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it pushed many to figure out how the latest technology can enhance — not detract from — customer service. “We were always capable of doing what we do using technology, but now, we’re doing that exclusively,” Robinson said. She shared the example of companies who’ve used online sign-up for benefits packages. “In these cases, very few employees participated in actually looking at what their benefits were, and before COVID, we conducted in-person benefit briefings for employees so they could understand.” Now, these events have shifted to a platform that allows Robinson and her team to produce a customized video explaining benefit plans for each company. It has several upsides. “We can capture each employee’s sign-in and their engagement with the video, which confirms that they know their plan’s ins and outs, letting the company prove it has been compliant in educating its employees,” Robinson said. “It takes away a bit of the ‘high-touch,’ but it also has many pros, too. I think we’ll continue doing the briefings in this way.”
     
    Robinson is taking advantage of technology to help employees when benefits change too, working with them one-on-one, remotely. “We used to do that in person, but now we’re doing it over the phone and using co-browsing and screen sharing so we can talk to them and walk them through their choices,” she said.
     
    Despite it being easier than ever before for Robinson and others in her industry to inform employees on what benefits they have access to and how they work, to get the most from company benefits, all individuals need to do their homework. “I think employees need to educate themselves maybe more than in the past on what they really want and what they need,” she said. “As things continue to change in this space, it’s really key that employees get informed on their own behalf and understand their benefits.”
     
    With the possibility of a longer economic downturn looming, one of the changes could be companies cutting benefits to cut costs. “I had a call from a nonprofit that had a platinum plan, and they’re already exploring switching to something less as they anticipate fewer donations coming in,” Robinson said. “But overall, I don’t see an easy shift there; I don’t see employers being able to stop offering these things.” Mike Hicks, President, Alliance Insurance Group, agrees; it’s hard to put the benefits genie back in the bottle, and that bodes well for the benefits industry. “From an industry standpoint, everyone here locally should weather the pandemic storm pretty well,” he said. “On the benefits side, we feel good.”
     
    The picture isn’t as rosy on the national stage. Agencies in areas where the shutdowns were more restrictive and longer (like the Northeast and Western United States) are bracing for major impacts to revenues. “But for us here in Alabama and in Montgomery, for the most part, we see very little impact as it relates to employee benefits,” Hicks said. He noted that some doctors and dentists offices here were hit hard by shutdowns, but many other industries, like construction and manufacturing, were not. Most companies took PPP and so kept benefits in place, and even those that had to do furloughs also kept benefits in place. “Now, most companies have gotten their people back, so there was very little interruption,” Hicks said. “We also do COBRA administration [health insurance that employees have access to for a period of time after losing their job], and we haven’t seen a big rush into that, so that is a good sign.”
     
    That’s now, but what the future holds is unclear. “What’s next is an unknown right now,” Hicks said. “Outside of payroll, medical insurance is probably the biggest line item for any business.”
     
    For years, many businesses have been reducing this expense by taking on higher deductible plans and filling in the gap with a secondary policy. Hicks says this will continue, and some companies may go a step further. “We may start to see companies shift more of the deductible burden to employees to drive costs down,” he said.
     
    There are also rate increases on the horizon, some that were due to come anyway, and some that are past due and were put on pause during the worst of COVID-19. “A lot of insurance carriers put some rate holds and rate guarantees in place due to the virus,” Hicks said, “so a group that may have been getting a 5-7 percent increase this year, the carrier held those temporarily.” But they will hit at some point. “If they were going to get a 5 percent increase this year, and 5 percent more next year, they may see a 10 percent increase next year instead.” Alliance has gone on offense in this regard, looking at its clients cycling out of rate guarantee periods to see if it is time to make a move to another carrier, one offering a multi-year rate guarantee.
     
    Like any industry, the employment services and benefits sectors go through ups and downs. “When one business sector becomes less busy, there is always another type of industry or business sector that has a growing demand for employees,” McBride said.
     
    The constant — people are still the priority. “My industry is still learning how to be high-touch using high tech, and that’s a key point,” Robinson said. “I think that will set benefits companies apart, the ability to combine both the caring relationship and the convenience of technology. Because it always has been and will be about people and about connecting,” she said.
     

    NOW TRENDING:TELEMEDICINE & ASSOCIATION BENEFITS PLANS
    Telemedicine has been around for years, but COVID-19 shoved it into the forefront of healthcare. Gaining a better understanding of how well it can work has been one of bright spots in the pandemic crisis. “The wider use of telemedicine is great because it cuts costs without sacrificing quality, and that’s exactly what many companies feel the need to do in order to survive an unclear future,” said Stacia Robinson, Agency Principal at The BeneChoice Companies. “It has been a part of our benefits offerings for several years, and it has just become even more important.” She stressed that while once, people were wary of it, today, many prefer it. “It’s convenient; it lowers risk of exposure to COVID-19 and any other sickness,” she said. “And again, for companies, it’s less expensive. I think as businesses tighten their belts, we’ll see the use of telemedicine grow.”
    Mike Hicks, President, Alliance Insurance Group, pointed to association health plans as a one of the “next big things” in the benefits industry now that the Trump administration made them easier to set up. “We anticipate an increase in these plans,” he said. “Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama is now playing in this arena and has embraced association health plans.” Alliance is currently managing four of these types of plans, including one for the Alabama State Bar, and Hicks outlined their appeal. “This is an area where smaller companies can come together to get the buying power of larger company,” he said.
     

    THE NEXT BIG THING
    “This is an area where smaller companies can come together to get the buying power of larger company.” - Mike Hicks, President, Alliance Insurance Group
     

    COVID-19 IMPACTS ON COLLEGE-GRAD CAREER OPTIONS
    The COVID-19 pandemic is influencing trends in hiring and in higher education. Auburn University at Montgomery’s Career Development Center is where these two topics meet, so we asked its Director Brad Robbins about the impacts.
     
    MBJ: How is COVID-19 affecting employment opportunities for recent and soon-to-be graduates?
     
    Robbins: In response to the pandemic, the National Association of Colleges and Employers completed a June
    2020 survey of employers to assess their employment strategies for new graduates. Some highlights included: A reported 7.8 percent of employers are revoking full-time job offers to new graduates. In comparison, during the 2008-09 recession, this number peaked at 9.5 percent.
     
    About 31 percent of employers are delaying full-time hires from the Class of 2020, with 73 percent of these employers stating the delay would be 1 to 3 months. Additionally, a majority of the employers stated the primary reason for delay was uncertainty about local governmental regulations. A reported 58 percent of employers who are hiring plan to start their new hires working remotely instead of in-person.
     
    While the data represent challenges, my advice for students is to remain persistent in executing their job search strategy, while identifying and contacting any personal or professional connections that can be influential in helping them finding job opportunities.
     
    Do you think we’ll see an increase in students pursuing graduate degrees, operating with a kind of “I can’t find a job so why not stay in school” mentality?
     
    Robbins: Yes, I believe so. Data from a recent National Student Clearinghouse Center (NSCC) study on enrollment trends at college and universities and the U.S. Census Bureau confirm that the demand for higher education has increased during every economic recession since the 1960s, including graduate programs. Similar to other economic downturns, students will be seeking degree options that offer the biggest return on their investment. One consideration is access to degree programs online versus in-person. Concerns about social interactions combined with an increased number of online graduate program options may grow graduate enrollment more than during a typical recession.
     
    Might we see a decrease in enrollment at four-year colleges and an increase in enrollment at two-year and technical colleges as students try to get job-ready faster?
     
    Robbins: It’s possible. While the NSCC study of enrollment trends during the last recession indicates large increases in enrollment for community and technical colleges, four- year universities, such as AUM, saw higher retention rates. This translates that students are seeking four-year universities to complete their degrees as economic conditions improve and more universities convert to online degree offerings. Still, there will be some non-traditional students who may use two-year colleges as a way to “test the waters” during uncertainty.

     
    Q: What new skills do job seekers need to have and/or are employers looking for in our COVID-19 world and in a post-COVID-19 world?
    A:
    During and after the COVID-19 pandemic, three major skills that job seekers need to have are adaptability, flexibility and effective communication. In a world and a workplace that is constantly changing, an employer needs to know that their team members are open and willing to accept the transition process that comes with change and can thrive and be innovative in a dynamic environment. Along with adaptability and flexibility, employers need team members that are effective communicators. Communicating effectively goes beyond basic verbal and nonverbal skills; it entails being able to communicate in someone else’s world. - Tasha M Scott, Owner, Maximized Growth, LLC
      
    A: Employers are always looking for employees who are dependable and eager to work. These qualities are even more critical now as employers are having to be more flexible with work schedules, and even having employees work from home. - Matt Rainer, President, Career Personnel
     
     
    YOUR CHAMBER: #ATWORK
    We asked our industry leaders how the Chamber has benefited their companies.
     
    “I’ve been a Chamber member since 1991, and it has benefited me greatly, giving me visibility when I first got out of the Air Force and started my business. It then gave me so many ways to get engaged and to connect.
    I’ve been on the board, been an Ambassador and served on committees. In addition to networking, all of these activities gave me credibility, and that led to profitability. I would recommend membership in the Chamber to anyone.” - Stacia Robinson, Agency Principal at The BeneChoice Companies
     
    “When one business sector becomes less busy, there is always another type of industry or business sector that has a growing demand for employees.” - Beth Walker McBride, Vice President of WorkForce Walker Personnel, LLC
     
    “Technology can’t replace the human touch, the creativity, the empathy and the engagement that customers prize, which drives innovation and differentiation in an organization or small business.” - Patrick Hart, License Owner, Spherion Staffing
     
    “The Chamber has been a great benefit to our company from day one. They are the biggest promoters for the city of Montgomery. They are constantly looking to make Montgomery better by bringing in new industry to the community. They work just as hard to help new companies realize the potential they have by coming to Montgomery, with a strong workforce, logistics and lifestyle opportunities offered by living in the capital city. If you’re not a member of the Chamber, then you don’t want to see your business grow, in my opinion.” - Marcel R. McElroy’s companies, Marcel McElroy’s Job Connection, LLC and Top Talent Recruiter, LLC
     
    “We’ve been a Chamber member for a number of years, and the events, the networking, that is all invaluable to meeting new clients and building relationships, as is the access to leadership. The Chamber provides so many great opportunities.” - Mike Hicks, President, Alliance Insurance Group
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