Career development drives best employers
Comfort Keepers' caregiver Margaret Battle works with Robert Stevenson.
Chris George, left, senior vice president at Hefren-Tillotson, and Jim Meredith, executive vice president, attend a compliance training session.
Jason Patrai, sixth grade science and math teacher, works with students at West Mifflin Middle School.
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Caregiving for the elderly is all about treating people right - your employees, that is. For Mame Donohue, owner of the Bethel Park and Monroeville branches of Comfort Keepers, hiring compassionate caregivers and training them well translates to better caregiving services, as well as a better bottom line.
"We believe at this company that our caregivers are our biggest asset," said Mrs. Donohue.
Comfort Keepers, which provides in-home care for the elderly, is a new entry into the top mid-sized workplaces in the Pittsburgh region, ranking second on the list. The rankings were determined by an anonymous survey collected by WorkplaceDynamics.
Other newcomers to Top Five include Hefren-Tillotson, a Downtown-based financial management company that snagged the top spot; Google Pittsburgh, whose Larimer offices took third place; and West Mifflin Area School District, which ranked fifth. ESB Bank, which placed second last year, ranked fourth this time. Last year's top mid-sized employer, Turner Dairy Farms Inc., is not on this year's list.
For mid-sized employers, developing employees professionally can only improve outcomes, whether through increased revenue or student achievement. From internal seminars to continuing education, they cultivate what they believe to be their greatest assets. Their employees have returned the favor with sparkling reviews of their workplaces.
At Hefren-Tillotson, career development is seen as an essential component of sound financial advising. Designations such as CFA (certified financial analyst) and CFP (certified financial planner) allow staff to provide more insightful advice to clients. And those titles increase the credibility of the company's employees, according to Larry Sebbens, director of marketing.
"The majority of our employees are in training. That's part of our culture," said Kim Tillotson Fleming, chairwoman and CEO.
Hefren-Tillotson offers a combination of in-house and outside seminars, such as preparing employees for the "Series 7" exam that certifies stockbrokers and is an industry requirement. The company pays for most of its staff's continuing education, including part-time MBAs. Of the 70 advisers, about two-thirds are CFPs and the remainder have similar degrees or equivalent experience.
Sometimes the training even wanders off traditional paths. For instance, one employee requested funding to acquire a special designation to work with athletes.
"We decided that was a good market ... so we supported that," said Ms. Fleming.
That flexibility has translated to the bottom line. The 170-person company's revenues and sales have tripled in the last 10 years, according to Ms. Fleming. Revenue was $40 million in February, according to data provided by Workplace Dynamics.
Hefren-Tillotson has expanded to six offices throughout the Pittsburgh region and continues to hire - there were 20 people at July's new employee training, including 15 to 16 net new hires, Ms. Fleming said. About 20 percent of the employees have come from the company's own intern pool. It also sports a 1 percent turnover rate, according to Mr. Sebbens.
"We plan for retirement, but they're not allowed to retire," Ms. Fleming said jokingly.
Comfort Keepers couples relevant training with a flexible schedule and fun activities. All employees must complete 20 hours of training per year, between monthly online training and in-person events, according to DeBorah Madden, human resource manager. At biannual, four-hour training events, Comfort Keepers features speakers, such as experts on dementia, who can provide helpful insight for caregivers, alongside festive banquets.
Additionally, the company offers optional online training for additional wage increases.
Comfort Keepers has seen growth in recent years. In 2006, the Pittsburgh-area offices employed 60 caregivers, who performed 800 hours of work per week.
Now, there are 151 caregivers, mostly middle-aged women, retired professionals and college students on break from school, who perform 3,000 hours of work per week. Turnover is 40 percent, a figure that is low within the industry, said Ms. Madden.
Some of that growth could be part of an industrywide trend. As they enter retirement, baby boomers may be less interested in living in nursing homes than previous generations, according to Ms. Madden. And because Americans are living longer, caregivers, too, will be needed for longer periods.
Ms. Madden said, "Seventy is the new 50, and 90 is the new 80."
Unlike private companies, for West Mifflin Area School District, the budget is set by policymakers and student growth trumps sales growth.
The district - which serves approximately 3,200 students in West Mifflin, Whitaker and Duquesne, and employs 210 teachers - has seen its budget slashed from $53 million in the 2008-09 school year to $44 million now, according to Daniel Castagna, the district's superintendent.
While it completed a $40 million renovation on the shared campus of the high school and middle school, financial difficulties have presented a continual challenge. In the last three years, the district has reduced its staff by 90 teachers, while accommodating 100 more students. It closed one elementary school in June.
On top of economic challenges, the district must adjust to changing state exams and national curricular standards. Administrators keep apprised of updates to standards and communicate them to teachers.
"It's a constant plan, review, implement, revise process," said Mr. Castagna.
The financial woes have perhaps flattened the organization, as teachers now have the opportunity to find solutions that otherwise might be left to administrators.
To increase opportunities to hear teachers' suggestions, the district implemented a new district design team, which includes teacher representatives and administrators, to discuss their concerns and ideas. Each school has a communication team, as well, through which any teacher can meet with principals.
"When teachers know their opinions are valued and they know you support them in this difficult environment they're in, they enjoy coming to work every day," said Mr. Castagna. His claim was supported by the highly positive comments submitted to Workplace Dynamics.
And when teachers are struggling, they can receive additional training, such as classroom observations of other teachers, meetings with administrators or recommended books on specific strategies.
"Everyone has room to grow," said Mr. Castagna.
That pays dividends for everybody, according to those who contributed to the Workplace Dynamics survey.
"I feel that what I do makes a difference and directly impacts the future of our community," one respondent wrote.
First Published October 25, 2012 12:00 am