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Hire Learning: To attract the next generation of employees, outdoor companies need to reach beyond their comfort zone

To attract the next generation of employees, outdoor companies need to reach beyond their comfort zone.

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It’s 10 a.m. Do you know where your employees are?


A decade ago, a manager could count on them to be seated at a desk, phone and coffee mug in hand. But today those same employees might be missing. Not gone or fired, but telecommuting from home, doing a five-mile run, attending a parent-teacher conference or using flex-time to work evenings.

What’s changed? Nothing less than how we view our jobs. Workers want more than a paycheck, and their managers need more than a paper-pusher. Both realize that change is always on the horizon. “There is no longer the long-term commitment from the company or the employee in today’s workforce,” explained Lori Herrera, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the Outdoor Industry Association. “No one is taking a job and expecting to be there for 30 years. It’s not the nature of our economy anymore. Therefore, if you demand your employees be at work Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., you’re probably struggling with retentions.”

Of course, merging passion with business was practically invented by outdoor companies like Patagonia, Burton and, of course, many specialty retailers. So why is the outdoor industry struggling to fill positions, attract talent and retain valued employees — even while the economy’s in the tank? Why do key positions go unfilled for months, and why do hiring decisions often seem out-of-step with company strategy? While these problems aren’t unique to Outdoor Retailer attendees, this industry’s perfect storm of insularity, changing demands and gender inequalities are creating new rules that employers — and employees — can’t ignore.

Leaving the Woods
The national unemployment rate hovered at 7.8 percent last November and reached higher in states like California (9.8 percent), North Carolina (9.1 percent) and Oregon (8.4 percent), where many outdoor companies are concentrated. Despite the logic that a high unemployment rate makes it easier to hire the best people, many outdoor companies are struggling to fill essential positions. “At OIA, we have the opportunity to work with a lot of big companies and small companies alike, and many are finding it tough to attract the right talent to their organizations,” said Herrera. “We’re personally dealing with it in filling a job for vice president of business intelligence. Looking for someone who has the cultural fit, the learning ability and the strategic ability to lead a team turns out to be big shoes to fill at the executive level.” Despite a national search and a steady stream of résumés, the OIA job remains open.

Enrique Washington has a theory on why. He’s the CEO and senior consultant at the Generator Group, a Portland-based HR firm that recruits outdoor executives. “The outdoor industry, while prospering and growing and developing, is still small relative to some other industries,” Washington said. “And when you have a small pool to select from, the pool becomes very similar in nature, and people will go from one company to the next without much change.”

Washington, however, considers the outdoor sphere’s insular nature as an opening to discover talent elsewhere: “This recruitment challenge is actually an opportunity to think about bringing in talent with a fresh perspective from outside the industry.” As an example, Washington mentioned an outdoor consumer-products company that recently hired an executive vice president from a completely unrelated field. “While it took this individual some time to get on board and socialize in this particular industry, the move worked out.”

“Whether a candidate was working for Apple or working for a chair company, they were designing products for manufacturability and focused on getting those products to market just like we do in the outdoor world,” he said.

Meeting Employee Demands
While Washington’s outside-the-box approach might work for top-level positions, it doesn’t solve the problem for entry- and mid-level positions, where hiring is often about gauging potential. Plus, younger employees approach their careers unlike previous generations. For instance, the average employee today sticks with a job for 4.4 years, according to surveys by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Members of the millennial generation, born between the early 1980s and late 1990s, switch jobs on average every two years. For younger workers, climbing the corporate ladder is as outmoded as pension plans and 10-year anniversary tie clips. To reach these fast-paced workers, companies need to identify and meet their demands.

“Young employees are looking for jobs that offer them a broader fulfillment of happiness,” said Herrera. Highlighting the foosball table isn’t enough. Instead, Herrera said companies need to promote a safe place — from a corporate culture to the arrangement of offices — where employees can share their ideas and take risks. Herrera pointed out how The North Face designed its new Bay Area campus with flexible office space and meeting rooms to accommodate the constantly changing needs of its workforce. It’s an example of how larger brands are looking to keep the entrepreneurial sprit alive in a corporate environment to attract young and talented employees.

If they can’t find the jobs they want, current and future generations are no different than those of the past — they will create their own work.

“Older companies won’t give designers the freedom they need to innovate,” said Jeff Popp, who founded Mile High Mountaineering to build better outdoor packs at age 22 in 2009. “I was talking to a pack designer at a major pack manufacturer, and he was talking about how much he liked our packs. He said, ‘I wish I could design stuff like you guys do.’ You’ve got to start something because you love it. Not a single one of us behind MHM would consider ourselves businessmen. We like taking control of our destiny.”

The freedom to innovate is key, Herrera echoed.

“Whether you’re a brand-new startup, or you’re the big guy who is still fostering that entrepreneurial environment, you can make your company very desirable to these employees,” she said.

What Employers Want Back
New demands aren’t coming only from the staffing side of the equation. Employers are demanding more, too. While employees are requesting a better work-life balance, their bosses are seeking workers who can accomplish tasks beyond their job descriptions. “From the employer’s side, this means finding and retaining employees who have the ability to wear many hats, who can learn new skills quickly, who can challenge traditional ways of thinking and innovate, understand technology and adapt to a quickly changing world,” said Herrera. “At OIA, we refer to this as an employee’s ‘learning agility.’” Outdoor companies constantly are innovating to stay on top of technology, customer demands and trends, explained Avery Stonich, OIA’s communications manager. “This means companies must seek employees who are technologically savvy and willing to think differently, and challenge traditional ways of thinking. Digital natives are a must.”

While many younger, millenial employees can deliver those skills, they also could work for an app developer, a solar firm or a private company build
ing the next rocket to Mars. That’s why outdoor employers need to identify and nurture the passion that draws people to work for their companies. Ski and climbing bums might not be the best paper candidates for a job, suggested Herrera, but they’re worth a look. “These transient folks who are very passionate and find their way in to the industry are less likely to leave,” she said. “We need to look for these people. If applicants aren’t telling us how much they want these jobs, they shouldn’t get them.”

Indeed, at Mile High Mountaineering, Popp said he’s looking to flip the coin in the hiring process. “We are not going to be a company that puts out ads looking for help,” explained Popp, who wears three hats as president, founder and product development manager. “The right people are going to find us because we’re young and our brand shows who we are. The people who seek us out are truly passionate — are not just fans of our product, but fans of how we’ve built the company.”

The Second Sex
To build a brand that lasts and speaks to a larger audience, companies must consider diversity — not in a sense of filling slots, but by creating a welcoming and flexible workplace that naturally attracts a diverse crowd.

When the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition (OIWC) surveyed 250 of its members in 2008, 100 percent of respondents wanted a job that provided a sensible work-life balance, but only 54 percent said their employer satisfied this desire. The results trouble Deanne Buck, the coalition’s new executive director. “We know that both genders place a premium on work-life balance, flexible scheduling and acknowledgment of a job well done,” she said. “But how well a company does or does not meet those expectations has a greater impact on the retention of female employees, who are often juggling work and domestic responsibilities more than their male counterparts.”

When OIWC conducted another survey of its members last year, they discovered that only 30 percent of female respondents indicated that they have children under age 18 at home. That number is less than half the 71 percent of women in the broader U.S. workforce who have children at home. “This seems to indicate that women who work in the outdoor industry are either twice as likely than the general public to opt out of having children, or women who want a family are leaving the outdoor workforce at a much higher rate,” she said. Both statistics, she said, prove that the outdoor industry needs to make more progress in creating a welcoming environment for female employees. For insight on how to make changes, Buck cites a McKinsey & Co. study that identified 13 human resource policies that companies have used to successfully diversify their workforces, including flexible work conditions; mentoring and networking programs; and programs and facilities to reconcile work and family life. Merely adopting the policies, however, wasn’t enough, according to the study and Buck. “One of the top critical factors to a successful retention program was acceptance as a strategic priority by leadership and follow-up visible monitoring by the CEO and executive team,” she said.

That’s a sentiment shared by Washington, the corporate recruiter. When he conducted a recent presidential-level search for an outdoor company, only two of the 23 candidates he interviewed could tell him their objective system for using and developing employees. “Everyone wants to say they have a flat organization,” he said. “But to achieve that, companies and their leaders need to invest in their people and following-up to make sure they’re getting the right development.”
–Jason Stevensen