Two-thirds of the workers in the Washington area are now people who have come to be called "nontraditional" employees who do not fit the mold of the white male worker with a stay-at-home wife, according to a report released today by the Greater Washington Research Center.
The report chronicles the changes in the makeup and skills of the local labor force. It found that although the area work force is exceedingly diverse, most employers have been slow to respond to changes in the culture and skills of workers with benefits and management strategies that answer new needs.
"Many firms in the Washington area are reacting far more slowly and less flexibly than the dramatic and permanent changes they face now require," the report says. "While essentially all firms ... are aware of work force changes, that awareness has too seldom led to action, particularly action that is strategically and consistently implemented."
Two-thirds of local workers now are what the report defines as nontraditional: either female, minority, older workers, disabled, part-time workers or single parents responsible for both work and family.
The report predicts that companies that do not respond to the new diversity of the area work force will miss an "opportunity to improve their profitability, productivity and competitiveness."
The report suggests an overhaul of a company's management strategy rather than ad hoc responses to specific changes.
The Greater Washington Research Center commissioned Mary Lou Egan and Marc Bendick Jr. of Bendick and Egan, an economic consulting firm in Washington, to interview human resource executives at several dozen area companies.
Many of Bendick and Egan's findings mirror broader national trends identified in a U.S. Labor Department study called Workforce 2000.
The study predicted employers would have to begin hiring from a pool of nontraditional workers as they experienced labor shortages.
"We really parallel the nation," said Bendick. "There's little basis for thinking we're a leader or a lagger. The only difference is that the problem hit sooner and with greater potency. The Washington work force 1990 is Workforce 2000."
In their dissection of a cross-section of retailers, banks, hotels, high-technology firms, business service providers and health-care companies, Bendick and Egan expected to find many leading-edge companies who were responding to, as well as anticipating, future changes in the work force.
Some firms, for example, recognized they needed to find ways to recruit immigrants, the disabled and older workers, but many others held the view that these were less attractive potential hires.
Most companies relied on pay and traditional benefits to keep good employees, while only a few realized that offering special training, career opportunities, flexible hours and benefits that answer child care needs were a key to gaining employee loyalty.
A more common approach was to offer fixed health-benefits packages, instead of cafeteria plans, and 40-hour work weeks instead of flexible schedules.
"The common attitude was non-reaction," Bendick said. "It cut across industries and companies.
"We had one company say they couldn't do a cafeteria plan because they would have to reprogram their computer," he said. Another firm said it could not send a disabled person out on a job because its customers wouldn't accept it.
Despite these reactions, there are companies in the area, such as ANA Hotel, formerly the Westin Hotel downtown, that are models of innovation, or at least smart management. The report does not single out companies for good or bad practices, but ANA did participate in the study.
The hotel, where 70 percent of the staff is minority or female, has at one time or another subsidized child care for employees, rewarded performance with dinner in one of its restaurants, tried flexible hours, offered classes in English and Japanese, and paid employees bonuses for recruiting new workers. The hotel also pays well and works to understand the many languages and cultures of its employees: Its benefits specialist is fluent in French, Spanish and English.
Many Washington companies, Bendick said, may not have felt pressure to change because they generally were able to get the workers they needed. Others were in service industries less subject to international competition.
He said, however, almost all companies complained about a shortage of certain skilled workers, and that the need would not go away -- even in a recession.
"We are not arguing that these things make you a nice employer or they are touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy or that they pamper the employee," Bendick said. "The fact is when management makes these changes, it saves them money, reduces turnover, increases productivity, increases the quality of customer service, fills vacancies and allows access to pools of potentially excellent employees. It helps them make a profit."