Happy Valley HR Experts on Attracting & Keeping Talent in the New Reality of Work

Written by Cara Aungst

September 28, 2021

If 2020 was defined by COVID, supply shortages and hero moments in times of crisis, then 2021 will be remembered largely by the sea change of office life, and hiring challenges. Finding, keeping and cultivating talent within our businesses while delivering on customer success and maintaining company culture, all while managing a work-from-home paradigm shift, is brand-new territory. 

“We never imagined we’d be where we are today,” Chris Marshall, Vice President of Human Resources of Restek told me. “There’s never been an event like this before.”

The talent puzzle is compounded here in Happy Valley. The ecosystem centers around Penn State, a major producer of the most sought-after hires in the world. The businesses in and around Happy Valley are continually making headlines for innovation, global customer success and private equity that is investing millions into the region. Plus, the location is a superstar with small-town low stress and livability mixed with big-city food, fun and culture. 

“The bottom line is we are intent on helping our emerging companies and our emerging workforce understand that they do not have to succumb to the “greener pastures syndrome.”

So why is State College, Pennsylvania, the second-highest city in the nation for population migration, and what are we going to do about it? (Note that while the report does count Penn State students, it still reflects a high percentage of ongoing talent loss for the area.)

We surveyed human resource experts in Happy Valley to ask them about “brain drain,” trends they’re seeing and solutions to today’s workforce challenges. Here’s what they had to say. 

Meet the panel: 

  • Kate Alward, Director of Human Resources & Training at Ben Franklin Technology Partners, which works with 55 small companies in Happy Valley and surrounding counties
  • Chris Marshall, VP of Human Resources for Restek, which was named one of the 100 “Best Places to Work in PA” in 2020
  • Joan Potter, HR Director for Videon Central, Inc., for 20 years. 
  • Lisa Bowman, director of office management for Blue Mountain Quality Resources, a software development company serving the life sciences industry

Alward @ Ben Franklin: The bottom line is we are intent on helping our emerging companies and our emerging workforce understand that they do not have to succumb to the “greener pastures syndrome.”

Our funding source for this initiative is a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Working in conjunction with our partners in career services at the universities and colleges in our footprint and other key economic development partners, we see an opportunity to reverse the tide and retain graduates of our regional institutions of higher education (IHTE’s) through two main strategies: 

1) Dedicated outreach and events to effectively market job opportunities from emerging technology companies to the skilled talent to fill them.  

2) Kickstart or accelerate downtown planning/improvement efforts in Bellefonte and Kane to create more of the lifestyle amenities attractive to this workforce.

We seek to ensure the ready workforce needed to support business growth and a robust entrepreneurial and innovative ecosystem, improve the local tax base and achieve prosperity and a higher quality of life for residents in all of our central Pennsylvania communities.

“Across the board, we’re seeing a shortage of talent — from operations down to entry-level positions — both in terms of quality and quantity of candidates.”

Marshall @ Restek: I think it depends on the demographic. At Restek, we see people come here who want to return to Happy Valley and “the glory days.” We’re very attractive to that demographic: people who’ve left the area and are now looking to come back. It’s a challenge to connect new grads with the community. I find that people who want to leave are looking for an urban area to enrich their experience, or provide opportunities in their area of interest. 

People with a prior connection to the area — Penn State or family — are much more likely to stay, and we try to focus on people who already have those connections. The community has so much to offer: culture, sports, education. It’s all very attractive to candidates. 

Potter @ Videon: Ben Franklin has been a wonderful resource for Videon since our beginning and I applaud their initiative to combat Brain Drain in this area. Videon is currently focused on hiring experienced talent, however we’ve had excellent success with our internship program in the past. We found recruiting students attending nearby schools (Penn State, Pennsylvania College of Technology, Lock Haven University, Juniata College) worked great as they were close enough to allow a student to work part-time while attending school in addition to working full-time during a summer internship. By the time they graduated they were really connected with our culture and the work they were doing here and we were successful in hiring many as full-time employees.

Bowman @ Blue Mountain: We attend Penn State’s career fairs on a regular basis. Although students tend to go toward the nationally-known companies first and Blue Mountain might not be on their radar right away, we work hard to proactively connect with candidates. Once we do, conversations go really well and we can connect on a personal level. There’s a benefit to working with a company that’s not as large, and we stand out among other tech companies. While the initial connections may be challenging, our retention of our employees is fantastic.

Alward @ Ben Franklin: Since the pandemic ushered in the reality of having a remote workforce, most of our startups in central Pennsylvania are very excited at the possibility of capturing new talent from major metro areas.

While it is true a company in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, can recruit and hire talent without the new hire ever having to physically report to work in Happy Valley, what that also means is that the remote worker is still expecting to earn a wage that supports their lifestyle in the area in which they reside, places like Manhattan, Los Angeles, Seattle, etc. 

The trend is very friendly to having a remote workforce, but there is a corresponding challenge to build out a sophisticated, strategic salary structure to account for cost-of-living differences due to geographic location. 

We’re also seeing a talent shortage across the board in all industries and in all job categories from the most entry-level positions to the most highly-skilled jobs. There is definitely a paradigm shift occurring in the workforce.

Companies must become infinitely better at competing for talent and retaining their workers. Retaining and retraining good workers needs to be a crucial component of any good workforce development plan.

“We’ve grown 25% in the last eight months, and our culture is one thing that recruits continue to mention. It’s the people and the job satisfaction.”

Marshall @ Restek: Across the board, we’re seeing a shortage of talent — from operations down to entry-level positions — both in terms of quality and quantity of candidates. We’re seeing some people open to relocation, and there’s also a push for remote work. Teachers and healthcare workers are looking to change careers. COVID is changing people’s career paths. 

Potter @ Videon: As long as positions can be done remotely, there’s lots of interest from far and wide and applications are plentiful. Our challenge is finding the specific skill set and experience needed to be successful in certain roles. 

Bowman @ Blue Mountain: We’re hiring across the spectrum, from new to mid-career level. We have a specific set of skills for which we search, and we’re not seeing a lot of people applying for jobs at the mid-career level range with those skills. Candidates are interested in remote work and not necessarily looking to move to this area, or commit to big change. There’s a lot more remote working. It’s interesting, though, because the ones who do come here are so impacted by the quality of life they have in Happy Valley. 

Alward @ Ben Franklin: Having handled a $3 million budget for corporate relocations with a former Fortune 500 employer many years ago, I clearly understand that recruiting is all about marketing the company, the job and the area. The entire candidate experience should be focused on:

  • Creating a stimulating, welcoming internal company culture
  • Aligning the employer brand with the strengths of the area
  • Targeting candidates who have a potential affinity for the area.

Marshall @ Restek: Restek offers a unique value proposition. Our culture is very important: We are 100% employee-owned, and think differently about our employees, which is unique and appealing for candidates. We have a 12,000-square-foot fitness center and three wellness coaches on staff. We focus a lot on employee development, from tuition assistance to leadership development. We try to make it clear how we are special. 

“Recruiting top talent is an exercise in marketing — you must identify your target audience and tailor your message to them.”

Potter @ Videon: We like to emphasize our comfortable work atmosphere and easy camaraderie, where we work hard and play hard while recognizing that each employee has a life outside of work. The act of juggling family, personal life and work is a challenge we address with flexible scheduling to allow employees time to attend children’s sporting events, for instance. In addition, Videon offers a robust benefits package and focuses on wellness. 

Bowman @ Blue Mountain: We’ve grown 25% in the last eight months, and our culture is one thing that recruits continue to mention. It’s the people and the job satisfaction. We stay true to our core values and really listen to our employees. We provide a lot of opportunities for fun, community service and wellness, both remotely and in person. This fall, we have volunteer activities at Centre Furnace Mansion and the Penn State Arboretum and mini golf, disc golf and tailgates planned. 

Alward @ Ben Franklin: Recruiting top talent is an exercise in marketing — you must identify your target audience and tailor your message to them. So, I use every credible tool available! By that I mean throughout the workflow process I use for recruiting, I’ve built in several touchpoints where I send the most promising applicants links to Happy Valley Industry, the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau or State College.com to start building a sense of place with them. If I learn that an applicant has a particular interest in something like wineries, craft beers, amusement parks or whatever, I’m going to have a running list of “what’s happening” in our area and send that out to them throughout the recruiting and hiring process.

Marshall @ Restek: We are talking a lot about that in our recruitment and selection process. We provide a lot of materials on livability and set them up with a realtor for a tour of the area and available houses. 

Potter @ Videon: Happy Valley’s appeal has always been easy to promote, especially to those wanting to move out of a city to raise a family and to anyone who enjoys the outdoor amenities available in central Pennsylvania. State College and surrounding areas offer easy access to art, music and entertainment, and The Happy Valley Adventure Bureau has been a great resource of information to share with prospective employees. 

Bowman @ Blue Mountain: A majority of our recruits are students who already know the area, and it’s not difficult to market that — they are already aware of it. We just show them more of the “town” side of “town and gown.” But we don’t have many data points for people who aren’t yet familiar with the area. When recruits who are planning to work remotely come to the area to visit the office, they tell us: “This is a great place. I love it.”

Alward @ Ben Franklin:  Collective community has power. We can change things. This is a small area that has so much going for it if it’s marketed consistently. The funding we have received to support Ben Franklin’s Job Link Program and combat “Brain Drain” will be part of the solution. But that’s just a start. Collaboration between the business community and our educational and economic development partners is critical to long-term success. 

What would happen if this initiative is so successful in the next two years that it evolves beyond being a place where great jobs and top talent collide, and becomes more of a concierge service dedicated to handling all the acclimation and assimilation questions of each new employee who is interested in working here and showcasing Happy Valley as a place to live, work and play? What would that mean for our businesses and our local economy? 

“There should be a collaborative, long-term focus on the advantages of living here.”

Marshall @ Restek: I do. I think what’s good for a company is good for a community. Beyond talent, new employees in the area will pour financial donations and volunteer hours into the community and help it grow that way. I believe that finding ways to work together to recruit and retain talent can only help Restek. 

Potter @ Videon: I think a collaborative approach to recruiting talent has a lot of potential. 

Bowman @ Blue Mountain: Absolutely — there should be a collaborative, long-term focus on the advantages of living here. It’s hard for a single company to do that job. People are fed up with urban living, being in lockdown, and are looking for change. I think that collaborative marketing about living opportunities, neighborhoods and industry growth could be really helpful. Now would be a great time to broadcast that out.

Do you agree with our HR panel? What’s your company’s secret for recruiting and retaining talent? Would collaborating with other Happy Valley businesses help? Tell us in the comments below.

Cara Aungst writes about industry, innovation and how Happy Valley ideas change the world. She can be reached with story ideas and comments at Cara@AffinityConnection.com.

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