Surviving the staffing shortage: A guide for small business employers

Written by Shawn Wellntiz, CEO & President of the Entrepreneur Fund and published by Business North

Finding and keeping staff seems to be the looming cough for small businesses looking to fully recover from the pandemic that put many businesses on life support. 

As businesses seek to ramp back up or try to make the most of their traditional busy season, workforce shortages are bringing many to their knees. As consumers, more and more often we are coming across “closed” signs and reduced hours as a result.  Many are looking to the root causes: Women leaving the workforce during the pandemic, the workforce needinf more flexibility, a remaining fear of COVID-19, and generous unemployment benefits seem to top the list for us armchair quarterbacks speculating on worker intentions. 

While it is likely a mix of many of these, MinnPost recently reported that Minnesota has lost 126,000 workers since before the pandemic. They put it in stark terms: We lost the equivalent of the city of Rochester in our workforce. 

We can certainly see and feel it here in the Northland. 

Regardless of the reasons, many small businesses are facing the same problem: finding & keeping workers. Hospitality and retail seem to get a lot of media coverage but from the Entrepreneur Fund’s experiences with more than 1,800 small business clients, it seems to be resonating across multiple sectors: retail, hospitality, professional services and manufacturing. 

While we may not be able to solve some of the big issues, there are a few things that we as small business owners can do. We have culminated some enduring practices that attract new employees, keep staff engaged and build the workforce you need.  

Give career track (or learning track) opportunities for your staff 

One restauranteur, currently faring well in the staffing shortage, makes sure that cook staff have the opportunity to work in multiple locations and restaurants to expand their knowledge of different menus and operations and get specific training by their head chef(s). As a result, workers seek out this business or get referred by other staff because the intentionality for learning and growth in their industry. Even the most entry-level roles have many opportunities for skill-building and development that can translate to future roles.

Pay at or above the median wage in your industry – especially to your high performers

 If your business provides exceptional value to your customers, costs can be passed on to consumers or disbursed through profit sharing. Paying median or above median wages helps reinforce to high-performing staff that they are valued, and you can use this as a building block for driving a culture of excellence. This in turn continues to attract higher quality employees. Pay, on its own, won’t fix workforce ailments, but it is critically linked with the factors that, when combined, do attract, keep and sustain an exceptional staff over time. 

Provide flexibility (or certainty) in work 

For industries like professional services, offering the ability to leave early for a school function or kid’s appointment can give employers a major edge. In industries with set shifts or customer-facing roles, offering certainty of what days and times employees work in advance can give a strong edge in recruitment and retention. 

While many have reached out for advice and solutions for this difficult workforce shortage, it goes without saying that there are fundamental things that, perhaps more than the items above, will go further over the long-run:

Set an intentional culture in your business

Take the time to identify, live and communicate the values and behaviors that makes your business and culture unique. A sense of belonging, clarity of expected behavior and the culmination of effective teamwork that evolves from shared values is perhaps the most powerful human motivator and attracts people to your business.

Spend one-on-one time with every employee

What motivates them? How do they want to learn and grow? Take the time to get to know every person on an individual level. Caring about each person as an individual is the foundation of every great manager. Lacking this element can be the quickest path to turnover. I suggest meeting once per month to learn goals, check in on their well-being and discuss their work. This isn’t a performance review but a chance for open and honest dialogue that will result in boosting the employee’s effectiveness and give you insights as a manager about where their skills, strengths and aptitudes can be used best as well as opportunities where they can learn and grow.

Be a great boss

The frustrations and stresses of being short-staffed are overbearing, and keeping your cool and “working on” the business can seem like a far-fetched dream. Yet many business owners don’t seem to grasp or take on the role of what it really means to be a great boss: Be clear on what is expected. Provide critical training, support and the resources needed to do the job. Provide regular feedback and let each person know what bad, good and best looks like. Listen to their experiences and opinions to find ways to improve upon the business. Most of all – be caring to them as individuals and support their growth and development. You get to impact people’s lives in a unique way, and the success of your business grows with it. This is one of the greatest gifts of being a small business owner that often builds a legacy for those who do it well.