Nearly a year and a half after the coronavirus pandemic led some large Springfield companies to utilize technology for workforce recruitment and retention, employers say the approach is likely here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future.
Virtual interviews, video walkthroughs of offices and work-from-home options were among strategies that became more commonplace last year to hire talent or keep existing employees on board. The stay-at-home orders forced the transition for some employers, but it was a path Mercy Springfield Communities already was traveling in part before the pandemic.
As Springfield’s second-largest employer with over 9,100 on staff – part of the 40,000 employees systemwide – Mercy’s hiring mode never ends. The company always has job openings, said Laura Starks, vice president of talent solutions. Around 975 jobs are available in Springfield alone, she said, noting the total briefly declined in spring 2020 but has since increased.
“It’s stayed pretty steady overall. Summer is usually busy as we’re ramping up for the fall time,” she said of filling jobs.
The hiring needs aren’t nearly as vast for Springfield-based certified public accounting firm BKD LLP. Still, the company that employs around 2,900 people among its over 40 offices in 18 states needs more workers, said Pat Cassady, Kansas City-based talent acquisition director. She said the firm has well over 200 job openings and roughly 12 of those are for the Springfield headquarters, which employs 518. The current number of employees needed is higher than usual, she said, but hiring never stopped, even during the peak of the pandemic last year.
“There were still needs and important positions, whether it was in our information technology team or other departments across the firm,” she said. “It got slower, obviously. But we filled positions every month.”
Cassady said BKD employees working from home became the norm for much of 2020, but as they began returning to the office this year, it’s become a hybrid model. Staff can work one or two days remotely during the week, with additional time subject to discussions with a supervisor. Working from home is a topic that comes up constantly when recruiting, she said.
“Two years ago, it was maybe 2% of my conversations, where now it’s in every one of them,” Cassady said.
While Mercy has a high number of jobs that require face-to-face interaction, Starks said the health care provider has quite a few that don’t. She said even before the pandemic, around 4,000 employees companywide were working from home, for instance, in billing or nurse on-call positions. Roughly 2,000 more have transitioned into a work-from-home role since March 2020, she said, with some of the jobs in human resources and finance. However, Starks said she was uncertain how many of those positions were specifically in the Springfield area.
Hiring work at Mercy and BKD continues amid the ongoing low employment rate in the Springfield metropolitan statistical area, which was at 3.5% in May, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Springfield metro area, which covers Greene, Christian, Dallas, Polk and Webster counties, added nearly 4,000 people last year to reach 475,220.
Net migration, which is the difference between the number of people who moved to an area and the people who left, accounted for 80% of the increase, which Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Morrow believes has the city positioned well from a talent attraction perspective.
He said net migration has been a strong contributor to the Springfield area’s population growth for years.
“A lot of people, at least initially, were moving away from some of the really large, urbanized areas and into communities that are a little bit more like Springfield and this region,” Morrow said.
However, Morrow said there is ongoing competition for those people seeking to move to smaller cities like Springfield. The Queen City’s growth rate was just under 1% the past three years, according to census data. That puts it above the 0.5% average of U.S. metro areas but below communities such as Boise, Idaho, and Huntsville, Alabama – two places the chamber has studied on recent Community Leadership Visits.
“There are a lot of communities that are positioned that way, so we want to make sure we are hopefully punching above our weight a little bit,” Morrow said.
Alex Forquer, a talent recruiter for BKD, said the pandemic also has been a contributor to people relocating. The firm has been a beneficiary of that trend locally, she said.
“Especially this last year, I feel like people wanted to maybe move back home near family - have made a lifestyle change and wanted to try living somewhere else. I’ve seen a lot of that and have helped people relocate to different cities,” Forquer said.
Attracting people to Springfield is part of the work the chamber tackles, Morrow said, pointing to its talent attraction initiative that led to the 2014 creation of the LiveInSpringfieldMo.com website. Traffic on the website averaged 26,000 users per year from 2014 to 2019 but increased to 37,000 users last year as the chamber began a proactive marketing campaign, Morrow said. Some of the cities outside Springfield generating the most website traffic are Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and Dallas, he said.
At Mercy, the health care provider was using sign-on and referral bonuses as attraction tools even before the pandemic. Starks said she didn’t have usage numbers but expects the bonuses will continue far into the future.
Sign-on bonuses range $2,000-$15,000 depending on the role that is being recruited and the experience of the candidates, while referral bonuses begin at $500, she said.
Both Mercy and BKD were frequently conducting virtual interviews and using videos to introduce candidates to the workplace and staff for job openings last year, officials say. However, Starks said Mercy tries to employ a hybrid approach for job seekers as much as possible.
“When you’re applying for a position in a hospital, you want to see what the hospital environment is like,” she said.
“We know that has a really big impact on whether the person is going to feel comfortable or feel connected to the culture.”
Virtual interviews continue to be a big component of BKD’s recruiting process, particularly on college campuses, Cassady said. Prior to the pandemic, BKD was allowed on campuses to have interview days for those looking to work for the firm.
There was a complete switch to virtual last year – a change largely still in effect, she said.
“We were still experiencing 80% to 85% of our campus recruiting and hiring experiences virtually this past spring,” she said. “Between our interns and new associates, we’re talking close to two-thirds of our hires are coming from the campus experience.”
As companies continue work to attract and retain employees, Morrow said the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and low vaccination rate in the Springfield area should be a temporary hurdle. As of July 28, the seven-day case rate in Greene County is 188 – nearly double the rate a month prior – and 41.6% of county residents are fully vaccinated, according to Springfield-Greene County Health Department data.
“We really try to focus as much as possible on long-time trajectory while being sensitive to the realities that are on the ground, moment by moment,” he said.
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