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Human Resources , Leadership , Talk Story – July 9, 2018

Barron Guss, President and CEO, Altres

Photography by Aaron K. Yoshino

The talent management and outsourcing veteran speaks candidly on how local companies excel – and fall short – at recruiting, retaining and inspiring workers. 

Q: Why is recruiting such a headache?

Guss: Businesses are doing what you think should be done to attract talent. So the real question becomes the limited supply of qualified people and there are a lot of reasons for that. At Altres, we will have 20,000 people come through the front doors annually. Only half are employable.

Q: Why?

Guss: Usually it is the lack of prior work experience and skills. There is an exodus of skilled people. If you send your children to get educated on the Mainland, which is the norm here, the main problem is “repatriation.”

It is just simple math: Our children on the Mainland can buy a beautiful home in Portland for $500,000, which easily is $1.9 million to $2.2 million in Hawaii. So many decide to stay and have a great cost of living and a great standard of life.

Q: What are smart companies doing to make themselves attractive?

Guss: Companies are being innovative in developing things like good culture, flex time, etc. But this is not good enough. Everyone wants meaningful work.

If you go back to the end of World War II, everybody was working vocationally, but they had a common purpose. When everybody came back, the president said: You have focused on the nation, now make the American Dream mean something. Buy a home, buy a car.

Then people started to strive for something a little different. President Kennedy said: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. The next thing out of his mouth was: Let’s put a man on the moon. It was something that everybody was able to get behind. It was a social purpose.

Controversial as Elon Musk is, besides wanting to have a clean energy car, he wants to colonize Mars. The guy has a big dream. He provides the leadership in the truest sense. He inspires workers to become something bigger than themselves.   

Q: How does that translate to an everyday business?

Guss: Acme garage door company can achieve something similar because there are three things important to all of us: sustenance, shelter and security. The fear of not having these things is real. As leaders, we have to let people know that when they come under our tent we will alleviate those fears.

We are leaving hiring to the HR department, but what many leaders forget is they are the best magnet because they can inspire. The ivory tower guys are sometimes the worst. Leaders who are known for their ability to inspire, those are going to be the ones who attract folks.

Your organization needs to have a core mission about how you are going to make the world a better place. Look at Zappos, which said: For every pair of shoes you buy, we will donate a like-pair to somebody who cannot afford shoes. That is powerful.

Every business should have a mission statement. Employees should understand that mantra and they will become a recruiting machine for your organization.

Everybody thinks the Millennials are the ones who want to have a social purpose. Go back to 1969. What do you think they were protesting? It wasn’t just the war. They wanted to make the world a better place. That’s a purpose and it doesn’t change.

Q: Would wage increases be helpful to retain talent?

Guss: There are no outside pressures to get companies to pay more. For instance, if things aren’t so good in California, people can drive across the border to Nevada or Arizona. The competitive landscape of interstate commerce keeps everything regulated.

The high cost of living here is rooted in real estate. People say it is the shipping, but I have shipped enough to know it is not really
the shipping.

So the carpenter who is building the house cannot afford to buy the house – and I’m not talking about the luxury homes. I’m talking about entry-level homes, but there is nothing entry level about the price.

Bringing people back to Hawaii has to be a community effort. The challenge is housing. I don’t know how to solve that.

But I know how to attract these people. A great program would be to have the governor’s office send a letter to my daughter (who lives on the Mainland) that says: “Dear Raquel, we heard that you are an expert in logistics and freight. Hawaii companies need more of this. Here are three companies who have an interest in seeing your resume.”

Q: What can be done about the disparity in gender pay?

Guss: I’m the wrong guy to ask. About 80 percent of my company is female. We have women in key positions and they are all paid really well. I love working with women. They come in, get their work done and don’t have time for any of the “good-old-boys” nonsense. They have to go home, pick up the dry cleaning, take care of the kids and do what they have to do. Women are a lot more efficient than men in life.

I think that wage gap is going to get fixed because women are making a stand. In life you get what you negotiate, so women need to negotiate.

Q: What role should outsourcing play at most companies?

Guss: I recommend doing a litmus test. You have to take all of the things in your organization and run them through your customers’ eyes. Everything they value should not necessarily be outsourced, unless it can be done better. But get rid of what your customers have no value for, even if it costs you plenty.

When was the last time you saw a restaurant and said: Let’s eat here because I hear they have a great employee handbook? The customers care about the menu, recipes and cooking – keep that close to you.

Q: Does Hawaii outsource more or less than Mainland companies?

Guss: I have been in this game since 1981. It was a struggle for the first 20-25 years because we tend to be conservative. Now people don’t think twice about outsourcing.

People got used to it. People used to confuse outsourcing with offshoring – moving jobs to overseas. But this work is just down the street with somebody who is a specialist. 

This interview was edited for conciseness.

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