What Great Resignation?: Three local businesses driving retention through employee growth and development

“No one wants to work!”

A plethora of employers – both locally and abroad – have uttered some variation of that phrase over the past two years, as the pandemic has reshaped the job market and the habits, values and expectations of job seekers.

Certainly, the numbers show that something historic is going on here: The TCBN has already written a bit about the so-called “Great Resignation,” and about the staggering 20 million Americans who quit their jobs in the latter half of 2021.

But do workers really not want to work? Or has COVID simply changed their perspective on what they want out of a job and what they believe they deserve from an employer?

Several local employers are testing that question by doubling down on policies and protocols aimed at making employees feel trusted, respected and valued. Those efforts go beyond pay and benefits, and simple perks like more vacation time or half-day Fridays.

Instead, these employers are investing big money, time and energy into employee training, development and growth – tactics that employment experts have long pointed to as being crucial for strong team morale, long-term employee retention and successful word-of-mouth-driven recruitment.

Recently, the TCBN put out a call to local professionals, asking them to gush about employers they felt were going above and beyond. We received more responses than we even expected – dozens of people telling us about local organizations that are prioritizing the employee journey as part of their bottom line. Below, we’ve profiled three of those businesses – a restaurant company, a financial institution, and a manufacturer – to take a closer look at how employers can navigate the Great Resignation era by simply being more people-centered.

Dallas and Heather Dziedzic, Adrienne Brunette and John Larson.

Honest Hospitality (Mama Lu’s, The Flying Noodle, The Burrow)

Staffing a restaurant in downtown Traverse City is no small feat, as evidenced by the number of local restaurants that have cut lunch service, shortened their hours, or have transitioned to four or five-days-per-week schedules in the past few years.

When Adrienne Brunette and her husband opened their first restaurant, the downtown taco mecca that is Mama Lu’s, she knew staffing would be a key hurdle. When they opened their second, the Italian-centric Flying Noodle – right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, no less – Brunette knew the difficulty level had gone up even further. Rather than back down from the challenge, though, Brunette and her business partners adopted an operational philosophy that is largely grounded in employee growth.

“(Employee development) has always been at the forefront of our mind, in terms of how we open restaurant locations and how we staff them,” Brunette said, adding that when the couple first moved back to Traverse City, they noticed that the town was “extremely seasonal” with a small talent pool.

With a plethora of restaurants, Brunette says their aim became to find a way to get people excited about the industry.

“We wanted to show that people can do what we’ve done, which is work our way up from being dishwashers to now owning three restaurants,” she said. “It’s not just a job; it’s a great career path.”

Mama Lu’s opened in 2016. In 2020, Brunette and John Larson teamed up with Heather and Dallas Dziedzic to launch The Flying Noodle. Now, Brunette and her partners are preparing to start their third restaurant, a “California-inspired American cuisine” establishment that will take up residence in the old Tuscan Bistro space in Greilickville.

That new business, Brunette said, was inspired just as much by a growing team of ready-to-advance employees as it was by a desire to open a new restaurant in a different culinary lane.

“We have people on our team ready to grow beyond their current roles, and to do that as a company, we have to keep building space for them to grow,” Brunette said.

She added that she currently has three people on staff who are hoping one day to open their own restaurants. Opening new restaurants under the umbrella of Honest Hospitality – and therefore creating new opportunities for those workers to move up to the next tier of responsibility and leadership – can bring them closer to their dreams.

Already, Honest Hospitality has a track record of its growth mindset, yielding powerful results. One example is Austin Burt, whose journey at Mama Lu’s started in November 2016 when he was hired on as a dishwasher. In the years since, he’s moved up the ladder at the business, pivoting first into busing and serving positions, then becoming a bartender, then getting promoted to lead bartender, then taking on front-of-house managerial responsibilities, and finally moving into the position of general manager, which he holds at the restaurant today.

Brunette sees The Burrow – as well as any other future Honest Hospitality restaurant – as an opportunity to give more employees those types of career arcs, rather than just letting good people stagnate at lower-level positions until they decide to leave.

“We’ve got several people who are at that plateau, where they’re ready to make the next move into a bigger position, but the position just doesn’t exist yet,” she explained. “And so that’s always been our philosophy in terms of opening locations: It’s that these people, if I can’t give them that growth, they’re going to find it somewhere else.

“And being that I’ve coached them along this far, I see it as, ‘I’ve got this NFL player, I don’t want them to go play for another team.’”

TBA Credit Union

Traverse City’s TBA Credit Union (TBACU) knows the value of having a strong employer brand. For two years running, the company has been named a recipient of Gallup’s Exceptional Workplace Award – and has seen how that recognition causes job applicants to light up.

Given out each year since 2007 by the Washington, D.C.-based analytics and advisory firm Gallup, the Exceptional Workplace Award “was designed to identify excellence and celebrate clients who incorporate employee engagement into their culture.”

Per Gallup, recipients of the award are businesses that “put their people at the heart of their business strategy” and that focus on “coaching talent to its full potential to get extraordinary business results all while helping employees thrive in their wellbeing.”

TBACU was one of just 41 businesses nationwide to earn the accolade in 2022, alongside household names like Verizon and Nationwide.

According to TBACU Human Resources Director Abby Smith, businesses opt into the Gallup rating process as a means of assessing “employee engagement.” The ones that rate particularly highly in that regard end up as recipients of the Exceptional Workplace Award.

“To be truly ‘engaged’ is to have connection to the work you do, to feel good about the work that you do, and to feel good about the organization in which you work,” Smith said.

TBACU started measuring engagement six years ago, choosing to use Gallup as a provider because of its reputation for spearheading the research around engagement.

Gallup uses a 12-question survey, asking questions about the well-being of each team member and how they connect to their employer.

“And the idea is that, if an employer is checking all these boxes (of things that indicate strong employee engagement),” Smith said, “that employer is really able to perform at the optimum level and reap the benefits of that.”

Survey responses from TBACU’s 61-member team indicated high levels of employee engagement, landing the organization on Gallup’s prestigious list in both 2021 and 2022.

When asked how TBACU’s employee engagement score came to be so favorable, Smith credited the business’s years-long commitment to team training and development.

“The credit union was started by educators, so I think we have always had a really strong foundation of that being a focus,” said Smith, who joined the credit union nine years ago.

She says that for about five or six years, the credit union has “really tried” to become more intentional about the training opportunities that are put in place for people, and about building better paths or clearer visions of how employees get to their goals.

Every TBACU team member, Smith noted, has an employee development plan that tracks not just their current role and job performance, but also their future goals and steps necessary to get them there. Managers can use those plans to map out employee development processes – such as classes, job shadowing, certifications, or consideration for new internal jobs or promotions – which Smith said helps not just with employee engagement, morale, and retention, but also with succession planning.

This year, for instance, the credit union’s CFO and one of its branch managers will both retire. The organization will likely fill both roles internally, thanks to its long-range employee planning process.

That outgoing CFO, Robin Wybenga, is also an example of how TBACU’s employee development process works. Wybenga started at the business years ago as a marketing assistant and got promoted to marketing director before moving into the executive role. And another member of the credit union’s C-suite, Chief Services Officer Meghan Chenoweth, also started as a marketing assistant.

Judging by employee turnover numbers, the opportunities TBACU provides for growth and development are working to keep team members around for the long haul. Smith said that the company’s average turnover since 2013 has been 15-18% per year. In 2020, it was 11.5%. And last year, even amidst all the talk about the Great Resignation, TBACU’s turnover dipped to 6.5%.

RJG, Inc.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Traverse City’s RJG, Inc. would be a company invested in the training and development of its employees.

In addition to being a trusted manufacturer and global supplier of the types of sensors and software that help ensure quality control for injection molding processes, RJG also offers training and consulting services intended to help injection molding manufacturing professionals do their jobs more effectively.

RJG’s “participant-centered learning” philosophy gives these workers hands-on experience in the skills that help them not only use RJG products effectively, but also deliver substantial time and cost savings to their employers, whether it’s through developing new products or managing existing projects.

Now, RJG is working to apply a similar employee training and development philosophy to its internal operations – and not just when it comes to team members working directly on the manufacturing side of things.

Case-in-point is Karla Carrender, who joined RJG as an executive sales assistant in February 2019. Carrender came from a background in hospitality – mostly focused on venue, hotel and food and beverage management – and the RJG job marked a career pivot for her.

“(RJG) took the risk of hiring me as executive sales assistant even though I had never worked in that role before,” she said. “During my six-month review, I asked my boss where I could learn the lingo required to fully understand and contribute to strategic, financial, and executive-level meetings.

“His answer was simple: Get an MBA.”

Within two months of her conversation with her boss, Carrender was starting her first semester of her MBA, “fully backed and supported” by RJG.

“The entire company got behind me to support me through the process,” Carrender said. “Every department head and director helped me along the way to ensure my experience was valuable and applicable.”

The director of human resources sat down with her for several hours to coach her through the leadership and HR portions of her MBA. The RJG finance team set aside time to tutor her; one of the owners helped her interpret data analytics.

Carrender graduated with her MBA in November, with the degree paid for entirely by RJG. Since then, she’s continued to work as an executive sales assistant, but with new opportunities and responsibilities that have allowed her “to explore some paths that require me to put my new skills to the test.”

“I owe my future career to the incredible leaders and team members of RJG,” Carrender said.

Barbara Jordan, director of talent and organizational development, told the TCBN that Carrender’s experience is something for a test case for RJG as it moves forward and strives to be more focused on growing its employees internally.

“We are still in the early stages of building our employee development process,” she said, noting that the company is on a journey of figuring out how best to emphasize staff growth.

Current offerings include tuition reimbursement, free employee access to LinkedIn learning – a database with over 16,000 learning videos spanning a slew of different subjects and specialties – and a personal style assessment at the time of onboarding that seeks to learn more about every person, how they work, and how they can best complement their teammates.

“We still have a long way to go in creating a more built-out training program for our employees and managers,” Jordan said, describing RJG as “an example of a smaller company with limited resources finding a few ways to develop our employees.”

“(Our strategies) might be of interest to those companies who are in a similar situation as us,” she said.