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People Who Need People

Sat, 06/30/2001 - 8:00pm
Michael Lafferty, CED Associate Editor

In the well-worn Streisand ballad of old, it says people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. If that's really true, then the broadband telecommunications industry contains some of the luckiest damn people around today.

Technology can be a fantastic thing. But it won't calm an irate customer. It won't walk a confused subscriber through a complicated electronic program guide. It won't climb a pole or scamper in a crawl space to find out what's wrong with an errant cable connection.

As competition heats up, the industry needs the people who can keep customers coming back for more. Easily said, but far from easy to do.

This past May, during the SCTE's Cable-Tec Expo, three "people experts" made presentations five times to concerned Expo attendees on the issues, challenges and rewards of putting and keeping a good technical team in place. Their insights, and those of the people who attended the seminars, deserve special attention, especially by everyone outside the industry's human resource departments.


[*A fourth presenter, Alan Babcock, vice president of technical training at NCTI, introduced seminar participants to the importance of knowledge management (KM), or ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of employees by capturing and sharing knowledge. For more details on what KM is and can do, see the April InDepth (“Putting and keeping the right team together”), page 28; or www.cedmagazine.com/ced/2001/0401/id6.htm ].

Babcock


Casting a net

"Wanted. A dedicated, enthusiastic and motivated person who has great people skills, likes working on 24-hour call, enjoys difficult, frustrating situations daily, can do their job with little or no training or career prospects, and loves getting paid as little as possible. Resumes? Who needs them! Walk in the door, you're hired!"

Arnholt

As implausible as that ad sounds, it's not all that far off the mark of reality in one way or another, according to many in the industry. Any one of those hiring points by themselves makes recruiting a real chore. In her presentation to attendees of the Expo seminar, "Managing your technical workforce," Beth Arnholt, vice president of recruiting and career development at Comcast Cable Communications, stressed the fact that finding good people takes much more than running a want ad, no matter how accurate (or inaccurate) it may be.

"I'm a firm believer that recruiting has to be proactive versus reactive," says Arnholt. "Historically, recruiting has been reactive–you put an ad in the paper, you set up a table at a job fair, etc." That, she says, won't fill the holes in many company ranks.

Recruiting, says Arnholt, goes far beyond the cubicle walls of the HR department. Everyone in the organization should have their eyes open for potential staff members. She has 45 people involved with recruiting at Comcast and 19,000 employees. Obviously, she says, those 45 people can't find all the people they need by themselves.

In the recruiting breakout groups held at the end of each presentation, Arnholt had group participants list the places they look for employees, which provided a good list. But, she also had them talk about those sources and the pros and cons of active recruiting.

But, is proactive recruiting just a euphemism for stealing? "When you're at the grocery store and the clerk is wonderful and you ask if he/she is looking for a job; or if you're at the SCTE Expo and happen to be working in a breakout session with someone you really hit it off with, by telling them they're doing a really good job in the session and if they're ever interested, they should call you, some people think that's very unethical. They feel like it's theft. But, it's not. By complimenting someone on their work and telling them that if they ever want to call, that's not theft. That's networking."

The breakout groups also discussed the idea of "prescreening" potential candidates even before they come in and fill out an application. She uses the SCTE seminar scenario again to explain. If she sees someone who is very involved in a seminar, making comments or asking questions, and presenting a professional image, "I'm seeing the real them. Because they don't know I'm watching them for a possible job. They're just being themselves, and I can get a better feel for what they're really going to behave like in the workplace."

As a recruiting professional, she says, many people know her role and will act differently than they would with someone who has nothing to do with human resources. Therefore, "regular" employees have a better chance to see potential hires actually being themselves. They can engage these people in polite conversation and learn a lot about them without them really knowing "you've got in the back of your head whether they might fit as an employee."

Arnholt and the breakout groups also discussed the idea that, no matter what the minute details of a particular job description are, essentially, everyone is looking for the same thing. Hiring managers, in particular, have to remember that fact.

"A lot of times," says Arnholt, "the hiring managers get very wrapped up in the (required) technical skills of a particular job opening. They think the candidate must have five years of experience with a certain product or piece of equipment. Or they must have an Ivy League degree.

"But, they forget to look at their current employee base and think about what's made them (all) successful. In most cases, when I made the folks in the breakout sessions sit down and talk about the ideal employee and what they would look like, I would get one technical item–everything else that came up were things like work ethic, enthusiasm, ability to work well within a team, and the ability to learn, etc.

"When you break it down to what's really making companies succeed, no matter what particular spot you're trying to fill (e.g., someone with an engineering background or degrees), the "real" required baselines are always the same."

Learning to commit

The idea that training is valuable has few, if any, detractors. The idea that training should be conducted continuously, consistently, almost religiously, in many instances gets more conversation than actual implementation.

Nobles

Pam Nobles, director for technical training at Comcast Cable Communications, took seminar attendees through the often frustrating ins and outs of implementing meaningful training programs. Breakout participants were asked to list the barriers they often face in getting training programs started. Not too surprisingly, says Nobles, each of the five breakout groups came up with several of the same barriers.

"When I looked at it," says Nobles, "based on statistics and just the conversations that came up in every group, the top barriers include lack of good training programs, lack of management commitment, and then employees who are just looking for a paycheck."

She says the lack of training materials is the easiest barrier to overcome with help from organizations like the SCTE, the NCTI and other training companies. These organizations often have training leader materials as well to help those who want to learn how to train others.

When it comes to a management commitment to training, that is a much more complex issue to deal with, says Nobles. "I think that goes back to operational issues. I think that when it gets around to the techs coming to class, if there is other work they have to be doing in the field, the business takes priority."

Nobles and breakout participants all agreed this is where those committed to training have to get creative. One option is to offer training outside normal business hours, possibly with some sort of incentive like extra pay or time off. Another solution put forth was "breaking training (courses) into smaller bite-sized pieces."

"Having modularized training so that they offer short pieces of training," says Nobles, "is easier to fit into a day. At Comcast, we actually do it several ways. Some people come in for training all day or all week. But, we also give them the option that they can come in just for 30-minute blocks. That way, it doesn't take such a huge chunk of their day away."

While creativity will get you so far, Nobles and breakout participants all agreed, "what it all comes down to is that employers have to consider the cost of not training." That means employers have to make a real commitment to breaking the vicious cycle that keeps both operational costs and employee turnover rates far higher than they should be.

"We can't send anyone to training because...the techs are busy repairing installs...that were not done right the first time." Sound familiar?

Keeping what's yours

Once you got 'em, how do you keep 'em?

That's a question that's increasingly getting asked in broadband telecommunications. While competition may be great for bolstering laissez-faire economics, it's wreaking havoc on operator efforts to keep the talent they already have.

Manoff

Debbie Manoff, director of training for the SCTE, led seminar participants in a number of discussions on this critical issue. Participants were asked how their companies could improve retention efforts. Again, there was overall agreement among the groups on a number of ways to keep employees close to the corporate home.

Number one (big surprise) was money. Again and again, participants bemoaned the fact that too many employers (and their shareholders) are not coming to grips with a very elementary, cold and hard fact of the competitive marketplace they've been espousing for so many years. A competitive market means just that, competitive–not exorbitant–wages.

As one breakout participant succinctly put it, "If we don't realize that we're paying $2 an hour less than the guy down the street, we're going to continue to train people and lose them to the competition."

Manoff says breakout participants also stressed the need for employers to really communicate with their employees in a wide variety of ways. When it comes to recognition and rewards, participants said employers and their managers have to make it standard operating procedure to go out of their way to compliment, congratulate and reward employees verbally and materially, especially when that compliment/reward makes a "positive" example of someone to the rest of the staff.

Breakout participants also said it was vital for companies to show their faith in new employees by providing them clear career paths within the organization. "People," says Manoff, "need to know the organization is there to help them build a career.

"They need to know that they're not just considered to be a warm body that's expected to be out the door in 24 months, no matter what they do. They have to prove to them that they actually have faith in them and that they're willing to help them progress in their career. That came out over and over again."

Manoff said one participant came up with a great example of what one executive is doing to communicate with his staff members. He called it "lunch with Doug."

This manager makes it a point every week or so to invite people to have lunch with him. It doesn't matter what their position is in the company. They are welcome to join him for lunch, address him on an equal level, and talk to him about anything they want to talk about. While some may consider this too "New Age" or "touchy feely," others recognize it for what it is–a crucial (and creative) survival tactic in a very competitive marketplace.

Another recurring point that came up in the breakout sessions was the need for employers to "empower" their employees. In "Old Age" speak, that means giving employees the power and the responsibilities they need to do their job right.

"I'll give you the one example that I heard several times," says Manoff. "Let's say you have an installer and he has a very unhappy customer on his hands. You need to empower him sufficiently so that he can, for example, give that customer one month of free service.

"That way, he can appease the customer on his own, without having to go through all kinds of channels trying to help that customer. It's the same thing with customer service reps. What the breakout groups talked about is that when you tie the hands of the front line people, it just leads to increasing and unnecessary frustration on the employee's part."

End-to-end solution?

Much like the technology side of the business, when it comes to hiring, training and retaining employees, despite all the hype, there really is no end-to-end solution. Like the technology, every system is different. Each system has its unique twists and turns, its singular workforce pools.

But, when it comes to finding, training and keeping talent, there's no disputing the cold, hard facts of the competitive marketplace. Broadband service providers, no matter what their size or the markets they serve, have to get their employee act together fast. Simply put, the market (and their employees) won't wait around for them to see the writing in the classifieds.

Bringing it down to the exalted bottom line, that means more wide-ranging, creative recruiting...a dedicated commitment to training and career building...and continuous, determined efforts to keep the best and the brightest.

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Competitive Telecommunications.

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