The second post in our workforce development series, based on the research report Help Wanted by the National Center for the Middle Market and the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, explores no- or low-cost actions middle market HR departments can take to improve recruitment and retention of qualified employees.

In middle market companies, support functions like HR are often lean by design. Sometimes, that can mean that the HR team is tied up with operational activities and does not have much time left to focus on more strategic endeavors.

Our latest research bears out this notion; it shows that 46% of mid-sized organizations say HR is primarily an operational department, with little or no strategic outlook or role. Yet, many of these companies would prefer for HR to be more balanced with more time to invest in activities such as forecasting the demand for talent and developing the human capital a firm needs to grow.

As the research suggests, these types of strategic and proactive HR efforts can help middle market firms address one of their key recruiting challenges: a shortage of qualified candidates to fill open jobs. If your business, like many middle market firms, struggles to find candidates with the right skills, the good news is that there are several low- or no-cost actions your company can take to improve its effectiveness at competing for skilled talent.

Here are a few of the top suggestions:

  1. Keep better tabs on the talent pool. Most mid-sized firms (60%) look for talent only when a job opens up. This can hinder their ability to find a range of good candidates for that position. Companies that engage in talent pooling, however, keep track of people, both within the company and externally, who could make future good hires. Companies that make the effort to stay familiar with their local talent market on an ongoing basis will be in a much better position to find qualified people when a specific need arises.

  2. Understand the skills needed to do the job right. The process of skills mapping can help your organization understand the competencies needed for success in a specific role. This process requires you to detach the current individuals in the role and what they do on a day-to-day basis from the actual skills and behaviors that would make someone successful in that particular position. This analysis should include not only technical capabilities, but also soft skills—or skills that help workers effectively interact with others and succeed in the workplace, such as communication, conflict resolution, problem-solving and teamwork skills.

    The process can be a bit tricky, but it’s worth the effort. It not only lets you know where you have gaps and may need to invest in training, it can also reveal positions that may have unnecessary barriers. For example, are you imposing a college-degree requirement on a job that doesn’t really require college-level skills? If yes, removing that barrier can make it easier for your business to fill open roles.

  3. Build career ladders. Middle market companies lack the layers that larger firms have, making it a bit more difficult to provide employees with clear paths for upward mobility. Yet, it’s important to provide the talent on your team with opportunities to advance, or you may risk losing them to other companies. One alternative to a formal skills ladder that moves up through the ranks is to give people opportunities to get involved in other areas of the company. Even if these are lateral moves, it provides a way to challenge your people, help them develop new skill sets, and find out what motivates and interests them.

  4. Start an internship program. Fewer than half (42%) of middle market companies currently offer internship programs. But those companies that do report considerable success with the effort. Internships provide a way for companies to tap into up-and-coming talent while building awareness for their brands among professors and students at area schools and universities. Providing summer internships to students going into their senior year, and making an offer of full-time employment before a student graduates, is a great way to secure promising talent before a competitor scoops it up.

  5. Make your presence known. Middle market firms often have to work harder to get recognized than larger companies do. But mid-sized businesses also tend to be deeply rooted in their communities. They have opportunities to build their reputation as a great place to work by participating in community outreach events. Companies can also promote their brands through social media channels, using current employees to help tell the story of what it’s like to work for the business. Offering referral incentives to existing associates can also help businesses find more candidates for available positions.

Get more tips for addressing your workforce challenges.

To learn more about the workforce challenges shared by middle market companies and how your organization can more effectively build and keep a qualified team, download the Center’s full report, Help Wanted: How Middle Market Companies Can Address Workforce Challenges to Find and Develop the Talent They Need to Grow.

Next in this series
Post 3: Partnering for People: How the Right Partnerships Can Help You Find the Right People for Your Jobs

Others in this series
Post 1: Market Failure: Why the supply of talent falls short of demand in the Middle Market
Post 4: Supplying the Demand: How Talent Development Resources Can Better Support Middle Market Needs