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How to Build Loyalty Before the Employee Shortage Hits Believe it or not, before long you could be scrambling to fill job vacancies. The solution? Make yourself desirable <i>now</i>.

The current economy provides wise employers with a prime opportunity to build loyalty among their employees. While there is currently a shortage of jobs, especially in the technology sector, according to a May 20 BusinessWeek article demographers and economists predict we will soon experience a tremendous labor shortage of many years' duration. Some sectors are already experiencing a shortage of workers--health-care and construction industries are scrambling for help.

The reason? In the next several years, huge numbers of baby boomers will retire, and the population coming behind them is not sufficient to fill the vacated jobs. Among the possible effects predicted by BusinessWeek: a greater dependence on older workers and efforts to encourage them to put off retirement, health benefits for part-time workers, and more flexible hours to meet the needs of employees.

Companies that take steps now to make themselves desirable places to work will reap the benefits of well-established loyalty when the employee crunch hits. If you've made your employees happy when jobs are few, they'll have little reason to wander when other companies come calling later. Tom Engibous, chairman, CEO and president of Texas Instruments Inc., has launched a "re-recruiting initiative--asking workers what they need--days off, new assignments, a different boss--to keep them satisfied right now," according to a May 13 BusinessWeek article. Following are some tips for keeping your employees "satisfied right now":

1. Lay the foundation by providing equitable compensation and benefits packages. It is true that most people who leave jobs do so because of how they are treated by their bosses, not because of money. However, a basic requirement of happy employees is to earn a good living wage and enjoy benefits that provide peace of mind for their families.

2. Be that rare company: one that regularly acknowledges the good work employees do. In too many companies, employees get attention only for failing to do their jobs or for making mistakes. Good employees want to hear from employers that they are doing a good job! Too common is the story of the excellent employee who left her job after years of devotion to an organization because she could not get her manager to acknowledge her either through regular reviews of her performance or respectable pay raises. When she tendered her resignation, her boss begged her to stay, offered her any restructuring of her job that she wanted and offered her a significant pay raise. It was a classic case of too little too late. This highly productive employee had long since given up on her current employer and was looking forward to working for a new boss who was excited about using her talent.

3. Create opportunities for having fun. Employees can have fun at work and get their jobs done, usually with greater enthusiasm, energy and creativity. Some companies have already discovered the benefits of making fun a part of their culture. At AGI Inc., the Melrose Park, Illinois, cosmetics packaging company, monthly employee meetings are opportunities to "stump the CEO." The person who asks the toughest question wins a prize, and everyone enjoys the challenge of trying to stump the CEO. The CEO's willingness to face difficult questions and respond as openly as possible, in front of all employees, builds confidence in the company while demonstrating a lightheartedness that boosts morale. For more examples of how to have fun at work, see next month's "The Bottom Line."

4. Provide opportunities for employees to learn. The kind of employees you want are the kind who want to learn. Good workers improve their skills in many areas of work and life. They can either do it on their own, and be more inclined to go elsewhere for continued challenge and learning, or they can learn under your auspices, and develop close ties to your organization while they do. Learning can be job-related or personal; both areas of learning are important to the good employee. Learning a new language, beefing up computer skills, getting a better handle on project management--all are areas of stimulation to the employee and ultimately useful to the employer. There are many others as well. See what people in your company are interested in. If you live in an area where Spanish is heard more and more frequently, put together a Spanish language class for employees. They can learn the language while enjoying getting to know each other in a different setting. They will feel more connected to your organization while building a new skill.

5. Engage your employees in efforts to make their workplace safer and more pleasant. Our surroundings can powerfully affect how we feel about where we work. Is the parking lot safe--well-lighted and well-marked? Are there pleasing pictures or other designs on the walls? Is the lighting sufficient to read and work by? Are bathrooms clean and well-stocked? What kinds of additions to the break room might make it more convenient to use? Ask your employees what would improve their work areas, and do whatever is reasonable to do. They will understand if you can't purchase expensive new equipment, and will be delighted if you make the effort to do even some of the things they've expressed an interest in.

Scott Miller is vice president of Kirk Miller & Associates Inc., a management consulting firm that writes and presents highly interactive workshops designed to improve productivity, retention and morale through developing employees' soft, or interpersonal, skills.

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