By Jennifer Vogel
Produced in partnership with Greenspring Media
Photography by Ackerman + Gruber
Bethesda has been housing and caring for seniors in Willmar, Minnesota, for 125 years. With additional locations in Olivia and New London, the faith-based nonprofit employs about 500 people who do everything from office work to cleaning and cooking to providing medical care for hundreds of clients and residents. In a way, Bethesda’s Willmar campus, with its many skilled nursing beds and senior apartments—along with a café, gift shop, and chapel—is a city within a city. It takes a lot of effort and care to keep it running smoothly.
Lately, however, it’s become more difficult to find and retain employees at Bethesda and other companies in Southwest Minnesota. The area is facing a worker shortage and an unemployment rate in the low single digits. Healthcare providers have had an especially hard time due to COVID-19, which continues to place heavy demands on employees. “Through the pandemic, we have had a team of rock stars who have been here for our residents for 100 percent of it,” says Baillee Krieger, Bethesda’s director of human resources. “From a recruitment standpoint, the pandemic created some interesting challenges. It didn’t make us the most sought-out place for people to work.”
That’s where the Hutchinson-based Southwest Initiative Foundation’s new Employer Resource Network [ERN] comes in. Launched in the summer of 2021 with support from a Bush Foundation Community Innovation grant, the network flips the typical approach to attracting and retaining employees on its head. Rather than starting with what perks businesses need to offer to reach a desired pool of prospective employees, the ERN focuses on what employees need to do the job and stay with it.
The network goes beyond the purview of traditional HR departments to address issues affecting employees at home and in their personal lives, including obstacles that might keep someone from showing up on time, accepting a promotion, or switching from part-time to full-time.
Still in its pilot phase, the network provides a highly customized mode of employee support. A Southwest Initiative Foundation [SWIF] “success coach” engages directly with workers on issues related to transportation, childcare, housing, documentation, mental health, substance abuse, financial insecurity, and family conflict. . The assistance is confidential—an employer may never be aware that an employee is working with a coach.
“This program is proactive and innovative,” says Krieger, noting that Bethesda was one of the first companies to join the network. “We are in the business of caring for people. We also need to provide care for the people who are caring for them. Anytime we can be in a better position to do that, we want to explore those opportunities. This model creates a holistic approach to doing that.”
On Fire About the Idea
SWIF President and CEO Diana Anderson first heard about this mode of employee coaching in 2017 at a meeting of the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, an initiative focused on rural prosperity and economic development. She was immediately interested. “A United Way out of Burlington, Vermont, had partnered with employers to create [a network],” says Anderson, who formerly worked as a human resources director at a rural hospital and empathized with a small organization trying to support employees in both their work and personal lives. “The director of the program spoke to us, and it just resonated with me.”
“I was on fire about the idea,” Anderson says. “Given that we are experiencing one of the most significant workforce shortages I’ve ever seen—unemployment is especially low in Southwest Minnesota—I thought, how can we bring this concept into the region?” One of SWIF’s overarching missions is to foster greater economic mobility, which Anderson says boils down to three components: economic wealth, power and autonomy over one’s life, and a sense of belonging.
“It’s not just about having the money, but the other things that are so important to a person’s overall success,” she says. “We saw how the ERN concept could support all three aspects of economic mobility. We started talking to employers. They were enthusiastic about it. We thought, let’s pilot this program and see what happens.”
The model SWIF is using launched in West Michigan in 2007. According to the ERN-USA website (ern-usa.com), there are currently 28 area networks utilized by more than 250 employers in 11 states, with a return on investment for employers of more than 700 percent. One of the main benefits is a reduction in employee turnover, which is expensive when you consider hours lost and the cost of retraining. The Southwest Initiative Employer Resource Network is the first in the state.
It wasn’t difficult to find companies to sign on, says Anderson, describing the ERN as a grassroots effort. “One of the things about a community foundation, we are on the ground and in the community. We have relationships with many businesses, whether through workforce development programs or finance programs.”
The SWIF network launched with five employers: Bethesda, Minnesota Rubber & Plastics in Litchfield, Jonti-Craft children’s furniture in Wabasso, Towmaster Trailers in Litchfield, and Jackpot Junction Casino Hotel in the Lower Sioux Indian Community. The companies pay a fee for the service but, because of the Bush Foundation grant, their contributions are discounted during the pilot phase.
“I think SWIF did a really good job in steering the ship to bring the best to us as employers,” says Bethesda’s Krieger. “Even at the first meeting, the employers got to talk about the challenges we were facing. Knowing that we had the same goals and challenges was helpful.”
As members of the ERN, employers connect regularly, often via videocall, to compare notes and share ideas. “Monthly, we are examining the data from different companies to look at trends and the services [our employees] need,” Krieger says. “It’s a good network for talking through HR things and employment challenges. Coming up with solutions together is really powerful.”
Anderson notes that collectively, employers can affect concrete change. She relays an example from Michigan, where a company was having trouble with employees showing up late for work. It turned out that the local bus routes didn’t coincide with shift start times. Through the ERN, “those employers went to the municipal transportation department to get the bus route changed. Rather than having a punitive response, they took collective action.”
The ERN’s Secret Weapon
The lynchpin of the program is success coach Jean Spaulding, whom SWIF hired just before the ERN launched to provide guidance, encouragement, and problem solving to employees and employers alike. A South Dakota native with a background in economic development and human resources, along with a master certification in health and life coaching, Spaulding takes an employee-centered, solutions-based approach to the job.
“What is new about this is a lot of the conversations I’m having with employees fall outside the areas where HR traditionally operates,” Spaulding says. “It’s an employee’s home life. Attendance issues can be the heart of what brings us together. HR might say you have to improve. I look at what is keeping them from being successful or keeping them from being on time. Whatever it is, we work on solutions.”
A sticking point might be financial, logistical, emotional, or mental. Perhaps an employee needs education or to develop new skills. Spaulding meets with people one-on-one or in groups. Sometimes, she coaches a person just once. Sometimes, the sessions can go on for months. The driving goal is to remove barriers to success, to foster the kind of economic mobility prioritized by SWIF. Her clients might be frontline workers, who are disproportionately low income and people of color, or managers overseeing many workers.
“We just really believe that setting people up for success is critical,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s the small things they need that make all the difference.”
Careful to protect client privacy, Spaulding describes one situation where an employee’s child was having a health crisis. The employee was at the same time going through a divorce and it was unclear which parent’s insurance might cover the child’s treatment. Spaulding got on the phone with the employee’s insurance provider and found a program that would cover the needed medical care. A big part of success coaching is understanding complicated bureaucracies and having the contacts needed to connect people with resources.
In another case, Spaulding helped an employee with documentation. “One new hire wasn’t able to provide their birth certificate,” she says. “They didn’t have an active credit card to order one. So, I helped them.” In yet another instance, she called an employee’s landlord and worked out a plan for paying overdue rent.
Spaulding has fostered partnerships across Southwest Minnesota, with economic development professionals, other community nonprofits, county departments that license childcare providers, and chambers of commerce. Currently, she’s working with a local lender on a program that will issue small emergency loans and help employees open and build savings accounts. Another initiative will improve financial literacy by assisting people with their personal budgets. “If they are not staying on track, what adjustments need to be made?” she asks. “That’s where my coaching comes in. What is the barrier that is stopping you from getting what you want? What’s sabotaging you?”
By helping employees, Spaulding is helping employers and the communities where they are located. “There is a lot of research that shows the employees, or the millennials, they don’t want to be just a number,” she says. “They want to feel connected and supported. I think this program has the opportunity to do that, to make that connection with them.” And maybe those employees will feel supported enough to stick around, rather than moving on. “Anytime we can keep any talented employees and young people in their communities, it is a win for sure.”
Contemplating the Next Steps
While SWIF’s Employer Resource Network is new, it’s having an impact already, according to Krieger. “There is a lot of volatility in the world today,” she says. “Our team members are facing hard things outside of work.” But now, thanks to Spaulding and the ERN, “Instead of saying, ‘This person isn’t a good fit for senior care because we can’t count on them to be here,’ we can resolve some of the issues they have outside of work so they can be successful here.”
The ERN helps Bethesda recruit new employees, too. “We are offering something most workplaces don’t provide,” Krieger says. “It’s helping our goal of being the employer of choice.”
The network provides employers with an advantage, in other words, a potential leg up in a competitive hiring market. It also gives them the opportunity to connect with a broader pool of potential employees, including from the region’s sizeable immigrant and refugee communities.
That might be because Spaulding and the ERN can smooth the way through constructive problem solving or due to the employer collaborations fostered by the network. “Where we have businesses with large numbers of immigrants and companies that don’t, getting together helps the businesses who have great need but haven’t thought about recruiting in the immigrant community,” says Anderson. She adds that employers are increasingly looking to hire people with differing abilities and those moving out of incarceration as well. “We’ve got employers thinking about the entire workforce landscape.”
Eventually, Anderson and SWIF would like to expand the ERN concept across Southwest Minnesota and make the network self-sustaining—that is, entirely paid for by employers. “We’re just coming up on the first year,” Anderson says. “Our backbone organization, ERN-USA, collects data on who is using the program and how many employees are being retained. I’m anxious to look at the first year’s data to see the utilization rates and retention rates. That is the compelling information to take to other communities. Slow and steady, we’d like to have another one up in the next two years.”
She believes the program has the potential to alter the very way people think about the employer-employee relationship. “It’s changing our mental models,” Anderson says. “It’s changing our mindsets about the intentions of our workforce. It’s creating more connectivity between management and front line.” In these tumultuous times, that’s good for everyone.
About the author and photographers:
Jennifer Vogel is a longtime writer in Minneapolis. She is senior editor of American Craft magazine.
Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber are a husband and wife photo team living in Minneapolis, MN. Despite their work taking them around the globe they love documenting life around the Midwest. They’ve been fortunate to work regularly for clients like National Geographic and The New York Times. While the camera is a simple tool they love that it has been a catalyst for experiencing so many new things in life. When you don’t find them behind a camera you can find them going on neighborhood walks or bike rides soaking up the best nature Minneapolis and Minnesota has to offer.
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