Perspective: Small businesses can attract, retain employees despite labor shortages

Entrepreneurs can apply creativity to address hiring needs

Published 2/3/2023 6:00 a.m. EST

Hospital staff work on computers at a nurses’ station in Butler Memorial Hospital in Butler, Pa., Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022.

As we start a new year, Americans are usually filled with a renewed sense of optimism — a fresh perspective and a positive outlook on what is to come. For small business owners, 2023 hasn’t brought the same excitement.

Labor shortages, inflation and supply chain disruptions are battering businesses of all sizes across this country, and Baltimore-area small businesses such as mine are experiencing all these challenges.

Sen. Ben Cardin said last summer that “our communities have regained a hard-earned sense of normalcy after the worst of COVID-19, but for many small businesses, the nightmare continues.”

As an entrepreneur, I couldn’t agree more. Small businesses are not out of the dark yet. But entrepreneurs have been tested time and time again, and still, we weather the storms that come our way. This kind of entrepreneurial strength is the hallmark of small businesses nationwide, and I have been fortunate enough to still be in my business despite this difficult operating environment.

According to a recent survey from Goldman Sachs, inflation is eating into profits from small businesses. Compared to 2021, 52% of small-business owners say that their profitability has not met expectations in 2022, even as 79% have increased prices. These ongoing headwinds are stirring talks of a recession, but small-business owners can’t live in fear.

My care management firm, The Option Group, started with just me in my basement. It has now grown to 17 people across three states within 12 years, all while weathering the pandemic. Like most local businesses, my company was hard hit by COVID at the onset.

Due to CDC guidelines, our clients were locked inside of facilities, and we were locked out. My team and I pressed forward, despite the rising cases, by being creative, meeting outdoors and leveraging technology. We believed that people needed a health care advocate more than ever before.

Now, rising costs and workforce issues add other layers of uncertainty to my firm’s recovery efforts. But what most people fail to recognize is that we still need to address issues stemming from the proverbial “help wanted” sign. For entrepreneurs and small business owners to thrive, we must fill the gap of workforce needs from within our local community.

I consider myself lucky that I have been able to attract and retain talent in these difficult times, and I believe some tried-and-true strategies can help other businesses like mine. I try to surprise my employees with gift cards, movie or concert tickets and other perks to help enrich their personal lives and let them know they are cherished.

Each quarter, I hold an event meant to focus on my employees’ wellness by offering massage classes and other relaxation methods. During COVID, a truly harrowing time for everyone, I organized food deliveries to employees’ homes. While I’m not able to offer robust benefits that larger agencies can, it’s important for my employees to know I am side by side with them, not lording over them.

Many small business owners are struggling to attract and retain talent through the volatile environment. Nearly 1.2 million people across the state are small business employees, representing almost half of Maryland employees. Small businesses need access to more workers from a strong, local talent pipeline that truly represents our diverse community.

Collectively, we must tap into the talent pool coming out of community colleges — talent that is too often overlooked. We must also tap into programs such as Maryland’s Workforce Exchange and Maryland WorkSmart. This will allow us to turn our businesses around and create a lasting impact not just on the economy, but on the communities we serve.

Government has ways to help alleviate issues such as workforce shortages. One major way would be easing the financial burden for small businesses by renewing the Employee Retention Tax Credit or creating similar incentives for small businesses. Local governments could subsidize the costs related to training and certifications for small-business owners in relation to workforce development.

Finally, investing in work-based learning and apprenticeships for in-demand careers would go a long way to grow talent pipelines.

I know that priorities for small businesses in Baltimore and Maryland will continue to evolve as new challenges arise. It will take ongoing dialogue, collaboration and a willingness to listen to the needs of local businesses, and we need the same approach now.

New ways to support small businesses and our workers should always be a top priority, because when we thrive our entire country reaps the benefits.

Ellen Platt is the founder and owner of The Option Group, based in Hunt Valley, and an alumna of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses.

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