When Alta Resources opened a call center operation in Fort Myers a year ago, executives worried they'd have trouble finding enough qualified employees to fill 400 jobs.
The Fort Myers area was a labor market terra incognita for the Wisconsin-based company. A grand total of four people had moved to Fort Myers from the privately held company's headquarters in Neenah, Wisc., to launch the operation, including Managing Director Paul Makurat.
Nobody knows us down here and I needed to hire 400 people,” Makurat recalls fretting.
But Makurat shouldn't have been worried. Over two days in August last year, 740 people showed up for a job fair and hundreds of others applied online. Many people braved heavy downpours during one of those days to apply in person. “It was a really great turnout,” Makurat says.
Now, Makurat says Alta has been so pleased with the outcome last year that he's hiring another 800 people, bringing total employment in Fort Myers to 1,200 people.
Where the people are
Opening a call center in Fort Myers with 400 positions was a tall order. There are a few other call centers in town, but nowhere near the number in larger metropolitan areas such as Tampa and Orlando.
Making things more difficult for Makurat, a significant part of the call center's business was helping health insurance companies answer phone calls from customers during the winter open enrollment. “I really thought it would be a struggle because it's a seasonal business,” Makurat says.
There was no guarantee the jobs would become permanent, though 125 permanent positions became available. “This is a tryout,” he explained to new hires. “You can earn a spot on the team.”
On top of that, Makurat needed a significant number of bilingual employees who could speak English and Spanish. That's part of the reason Alta picked Southwest Florida for its expansion. “We needed access to a bilingual population,” he says. He estimates half of the staff is bilingual.
Although you only need a high school diploma, this isn't easy work. Employees have to learn the intricacies of the health insurance business and answer questions on behalf of insurers who hire Alta.
The biggest source of labor for Alta has been the universities in the region. For example, Florida Gulf Coast University, a few miles away from Alta's facility, has 14,000 students. “We just had a job fair at Keiser University,” Makurat says.
In addition, Alta says it has found success hiring retired professionals who want to work part of the year for extra income. To find prospective bilingual employees, Makurat says the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and colleges that cater to working adults have been helpful.
At a job fair recently, prospects were invited to the company's offices in Fort Myers where they filled out job applications in a large conference room. While they filled out applications, they watched a video about the company's operations.
A group of 25 supervisors called “team leaders” then interviewed each job candidate for 15 to 20 minutes in a cordoned area. “The team leaders were empowered to hire people on the spot,” Makurat says.
To shepherd prospective candidates around the building, Alta paid another 20 current employees extra money to help with that effort on their time off. “We marshal our resources,” Makurat says. “We have it down to almost a science.”
Once hired, employees met individually with one of seven human-resource employees in another area of the building to fill out routine paperwork for employment. They verified social security numbers and discussed their start date, among other administrative issues.
New employees will then return to the center for the next one to two weeks where the supervisors meet with groups of 20 to 25 of them for training. “We'll have them sit at desks with computers and headsets,” Makurat says.
Finding more workers
Despite the declining unemployment rate in the region, Makurat estimates that 80% to 90% of last year's seasonal workforce will return. He hasn't had to increase wages to attract people, either. “The pay scale hasn't changed since last year,” Makurat notes.
The new health insurance law boosted Alta's business this year. “The Affordable Care Act has created all sorts of extra work,” Makurat says.
This year, Alta will be recruiting with the help of radio and billboard advertising. In addition, it's pushing its JoinAlta.com website on the Internet. (Alta's recruitment budget was not available.)
“One of the largest sources is employee referrals,” Makurat says. “People want to work with family and friends.”
What's more, Makurat says his goal is to turn more of those seasonal jobs into year-round employment. Besides the health insurance industry, Alta handles calls year-round for consumer packaged goods, entertainment and nonprofits. “We'll teach you customer service and licensing,” Makurat says he tells prospects. “You have to be optimistic and positive.”
Alta has made a name for itself in the community, too. For example, the company led a United Way campaign recently and raised $18,000. “I'm passionate about that,” Makurat says. “We're established now.”
Company. Alta Resources Industry. Customer relations Key. Finding people hasn't been as difficult as executives thought.
Finding qualified employees is the top barrier to business growth in Lee County, according to a university survey of area executives.
Now that the recovery is well underway, finding qualified employees is now the top barrier to business growth in Lee County.
In a survey of business executives by Florida Gulf Coast University, 55% of large businesses and 44% of small businesses in Lee County cited the lack of qualified employees limiting their company's growth.
“The workforce was the No. 1 item for small and large businesses,” says Gary Jackson, the director of the Regional Economic Research Institute at FGCU in Fort Myers.
Finding qualified people wasn't as much of a problem a few years ago when few companies were hiring. “As the economy has progressed, it's become more of an issue,” Jackson says.
Jackson suspects that larger companies are having more trouble finding qualified employees because they may need employees with more specialized training. “At small companies, people wear many hats,” he says.
The results of the barriers to growth survey were somewhat surprising. “A lot of folks assumed it was taxes and regulations,” Jackson says.
Jackson says the labor crunch is particularly acute in the construction area. “It was such a long recovery that many of them changed careers,” he says.
As the population growth returns to Southwest Florida, Jackson says other industries will begin to feel the labor pinch. That includes health care and education, he says.
The survey, which classified small businesses as those with fewer than 50 employees, also asked executives to suggest solutions to the growing labor problem. The responses were overwhelmingly for more vocational and technical training. “A lot of companies are looking to work with the educational institutions,” Jackson says.
Still, Jackson doesn't believe the unemployment rate will return to boom times when it was well under 3% in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area. In July, the area's unemployment rate was 6.6%, down from 7.7% in July 2013 but still more than double what it was during the boom years.