People are starting to notice that Des Moines is cool; there’s a real buzz here right now. But how cool? Are we maybe even Austin, Texas-cool? Maybe, but hold onto that thought for a second.

By now, you have probably heard that Greater Des Moines businesses across a variety of industries are experiencing challenges in finding enough skilled workers, especially in certain fields such as information technology. Your business might have already experienced the impacts first hand, and if it hasn’t, it could be in the future.

As the Business Record’s economic development reporter, I’ve covered the issue and we’ve laid out the problem in a number of different ways.

This morning’s Power Breakfast panel on the “talent war” brought a fresh perspective to the issue. Our panelists discussed what area businesses can do, and are doing, to attract and retain the best employees.

Even though this is a large issue with many facets and one without a catch-all solution, one thought that I came away with: People are noticing Des Moines, and our business community has a real opportunity to leverage that buzz into attracting and retaining a talented workforce.

Case in point: Mary Bontrager told a story about a conversation one of the Partnership’s board members overheard in a Chicago airport. The conversation went something like this:

Man: “I’m originally from Austin, Texas, but I live and work in Des Moines now.”
Woman: “Why Des Moines? Austin is cool.”
Man: “Austin was cool before the bay area took it over. Des Moines is Austin-cool now.”

How about that?

Speaking of that buzz, Bontrager gave a call to action to the business leaders in attendance: Let’s turn that buzz into a roar.

Here are some more thoughts I took away from this morning’s Power Breakfast.

Invest in employees:
The momentum in the city is a good starting point, but to win the talent war, your business has to invest in employees - and not just in the baseline salary.

That investment can include a flexible work environment, a good paid time off policy, or even something as simple as having a jeans day, Leto said. At a more complicated level, help them see the big picture and how they contribute to the organization’s success.

At Nationwide, Friedman said, the company has employee programs designed for people not yet in a leadership role who want to be, people who are in a leadership role, and people at the executive level. For young professionals, she said, it’s important to invest in them before they get into a management role, so they will look to your organization for advancement before they look outside the company.

One of the most important things a company can do, added Salowitz, is make the onboarding experience a positive one for people relocating from out-of-state. That goes not only for the employee, but the employee’s family. Help them find a daycare; help them connect to things they are interested in in the community. In other words, invest up front to keep a talented person around.

Give them good things to say:
Even when employees leave your company, Salowitz said, they can still be ambassadors. People can leave for a variety of reasons, but you still want them to share good things about you. That goes for people who leave Des Moines as well; they are potential ambassadors for the region.

Company branding is important, Leto said. Understand, first of all, that current skilled employees are likely being recruited by other companies. Knowing what your employees, as well as potential and past employees, think of your company is an important recruiting and retention tool.

How do you know? Ask them. Employee surveys will often give responses that a person wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable sharing with their boss.

Understand that the recession is over:
There was a prevailing thought by many companies during the economic downturn that their employees were just lucky to have a job. That’s not the case anymore. The environment is competitive. If that was your company’s reaction, our panelists warned that you should now be prepared that your employees are looking for different jobs.

Other Tidbits

Check out CarpeDM
Bontrager made multiple mentions of the Partnership’s new CarpeDM website, designed to give ambassadors a place online to share what they love about Greater Des Moines.

Leto mentioned that Palmer Group will give sabbaticals to people who have been with the company for 10 years or more, as an employee benefit not directly tied to salary.

Generational similarities
So much focus is placed on millennials, Friedman said, but studies show that often times Baby Boomers are looking for the same things in the workplace, if for different reasons.

Family ties
You’ve heard of people moving away and then coming back to Des Moines because that’s where their family is. In a different twist, the region is also seeing Boomers relocate here to be around their children and grandchildren, Bontrager said.