New Strategies for Finding A High-Powered Staff

The very thing that has strengthened the jewelry business—a robust economy—has created perhaps the industry’s most pressing problem: a persistent shortage of qualified employees.

Nearly half (49.4%) of the retail jewelers responding to a recent JCK survey said 1999 has been the most difficult year ever for finding sales associates. Another 40% said ’99 is about as difficult as other years, and only 10.5% said they didn’t have a problem with recruiting.

It’s not surprising that staffing is such a challenge: U.S. unemployment reached a 29-year low of 4.2% this spring. And the shortage may worsen. Ken Goldstein, an economist with the Conference Board, a private research group in New York, predicts that the unemployment rate could fall to 3.8% before year-end.

Our survey showed many jewelers already adhering to tried-and-true techniques for finding workers. Personal referrals are the most common source of employee candidates (40% of panel respondents). Want ads in jewelry publications and newspapers are a far second (22% of respondents), trailed by recruiting from other types of retailers (15.5%), recruiting from the competition (13.5%), and posting a sign in the store (6%). Additional strategies (3%) included using an employment agency, recruiting a loyal customer, interviewing at area colleges, and posting employment information on the store’s Web site.

Store owners are also boosting their salary and benefits packages to attract recruits. In fact, 37% of respondents said they were offering higher salaries (see related story, p. 70). More than a quarter (27%) are offering flexible work hours, 22% are offering more benefits, and 14% are boosting professional development opportunities such as paying for Gemological Institute of America courses.

If you’re using some or all of these approaches but are still having little success, here are some additional things you can try:

  • Do a needs analysis first. “You need to know exactly what you need before you hire,” says Kate Peterson, co-owner of Performance Concepts, a jewelry consulting and sales training firm. “A jeweler will decide the store is short-handed and will hire someone he likes to fill the job. But he’s missing the big picture.” Instead, carefully compare the skills and abilities of current employees to the tasks that need to be done. Then find someone who fills in the blanks.

  • Advertise the position strategically. When placing newspaper want ads, use “Career Retailers” as your heading, suggests Peterson. “That gets you out of the ‘sales help’ section of the want ads and into the ‘career and professional’ section, which attracts a different caliber of person.”

  • Look outside the jewelry industry. “If someone has the right skills and characteristics to fit the profile of a successful retail employee, they could be working anywhere,” says Peterson. Don’t limit yourself just to the obvious recruiting grounds of cosmetics counters at department stores, contemporary furniture stores, shoe stores, or restaurants.

In fact, one retailer at an American Gem Society Conclave session on hiring this year described how she recruited a waitress from a deli she frequented who was “unflappable and was paid next to nothing.” Entry pay at the jeweler’s shop was two times the deli worker’s previous salary, and she was “jumping for joy” about the position even 10 years later. Another jeweler said he employed a dance instructor whose artistic eye and charisma made her a very effective jewelry salesperson. Her teaching schedule dovetailed well with store hours as well.

  • Use your employees as talent scouts. Many jewelers ask employees if they know someone they could hire. More often than not, the answer is no. Peterson suggests asking a different question: Ask them if they recently encountered a particularly good salesperson when purchasing any item. If so, ask whether this is someone the store should be talking to. “You get the best referrals that way,” says Peterson. “If someone is good enough to sell something to a retailer, they’re usually worth talking to.”

  • Recruit from immigrant communities. This is a great way to find talented bilingual workers who may even come with hard-to-find skills such as goldsmithing. In cities with large immigrant communities, place help-wanted ads in ethnic newspapers in the language of the newspaper. Where there are no ethnic newspapers, try a cultural center or a church newsletter. The language barrier may not be as serious as you fear. Many immigrants—particularly from Asia and India—know English because their schools required it. (Be sure to meticulously verify citizenship or work-qualification status.)
    Hiring immigrants may be a good way of finding benchworkers, according to Peterson. “Typically, if you find one or two goldsmiths in an area, you’ll usually find other family members in the business. Goldsmithing is much more of an art form in other cultures than it is in ours, but there are a lot of people who don’t recognize the need for this skill here and try to find work in other areas instead.”

  • Use your storefront creatively. Don’t post a “help wanted” sign on your store window, as other merchants do. Instead, print a sign for your display case, in matching colors, that makes these points: “Thank you! Business is great. Because things are so good, we’re hiring additional staff. Please stop in to discuss career opportunities.” That will distinguish your sign from the millions of others, Peterson says.

  • Give college students serious consideration. Many employers disregard applications from college students, assuming they would be temporary, at best. But many students attend college simply by default, for lack of a clear direction in life. A student might turn out to have just the right skills and attitudes to ensure a long-term, successful career at your store, says Peterson. “Interview them as you would anyone else, and don’t look to them as a temporary fix.” If you’re specifically interested in recruiting a college student, work with the professionals at a college placement office.

  • Create a career path with financial incentives. Some jewelry store owners suffer high turnover and stunted sales because they treat their staff like clerks—in terms of pay as well as professional development. There is a better way. Don’t base your compensation incentives strictly on sales; link them in some way to the overall success of the business, such as through profit-sharing or performance bonuses, recommends Peterson. The dollar amount of such incentives “doesn’t have to be huge. Even a token amount is good for starters if your objective is to illustrate there’s more to it than a sales job,” she says.
    Also, let the position grow with the person, adding responsibilities based on the employee’s level of interest. If training is focused solely on what people can produce immediately, they tend to see the position as temporary and move on, warns Peterson. Instead, provide them with training that builds on their interests, and as they gain knowledge, seek their advice and input. “When someone sees they can make a difference in a business, they start to see it as a potential career,” she says.

  • Sell the unique benefits of a career in jewelry retail. Jewelers may not realize it, but there are several aspects of working in a jewelry store that will help them sell applicants on working for them rather than for another type of retailer. Financial benefits include discounts on jewelry purchases in addition to sales incentives. Intangible benefits include the potential for long-term career development and the opportunity to work with beautiful objects, helping customers select jewelry to celebrate happy occasions. Flexible hours can be another selling point.