This article offers a rare case study of how large employers in a small town in Missouri made hundreds of new and diverse hires per year in the absence of a diverse hiring pool. This is the first time we've seen this initiative executed so flawlessly, especially when your growing organization is located in an area that doesn't already have a diverse population.
Creating a culture of diversity and inclusion is challenging enough for companies in urban areas with a substantial minority population. For businesses in rural America and small towns, it can seem nearly impossible because the residents are mostly white.
Will people of color be willing to relocate to a place where the culture both inside and outside the workplace is not only unfamiliar but potentially unwelcoming? Even if they accept a job and relocate, will they stay long-term or become discouraged and leave within a few months?
Nevertheless, some workplaces in rural communities are facing those challenges head-on through sheer necessity as they can’t find enough potential hires locally. Baby Boomers are rapidly aging out of the workforce, and there’s not enough young people to replace them.
Fortunately, people living in urban areas, who tend to be more diverse in terms of not only race and ethnicity but also age, religion and sexual orientation, potentially have lots of reasons to move to less populated places.
Small towns and cities generally have a lower cost of living, as well as a low crime rate and good schools. Employers can emphasize this when recruiting, and even offer financial incentives such as signing bonuses if their budgets allow it. But getting people to relocate is just the first step.
"For companies operating in rural areas, one of the best ways to succeed in creating this welcoming culture for newcomers from diverse backgrounds is for employers and the community as a whole to work together."
According to a 2019 study by the Federal Reserve System titled, “Strengthening Workplace Development in Rural Areas,” firms located in areas that don’t have a diverse population “may have environments in which new employees feel less comfortable, which could, in turn, hinder attraction and retention of new talent.”
In this report, the Federal Reserve System recommends small-town companies proactively invest in creating a more inclusive and welcoming culture. The report mentions some real-life examples of how they’ve done this, such as securing a philanthropic grant that allowed employers to rethink their company culture and HR practices. One firm formed an external advisory board and hired an employee dedicated to diversity and inclusion.
But for companies operating in rural areas, one of the best ways to succeed in creating this welcoming culture for newcomers from diverse backgrounds is for employers and the community as a whole to work together.
How employers in rural Missouri diversified their workplaces
The Problem—Branson needed more seasonal workers to keep tourism afloat
Hotels, restaurants and attractions in the southwest Missouri tourist town of Branson, whose population was nearly 90 percent white according to the 2010 Census, have long relied on outside labor to fill hundreds of seasonal jobs because the need was far greater than what the local labor force could supply.
"Firms located in areas that don’t have a diverse population may have environments in which new employees feel less comfortable, which could, in turn, hinder attraction and retention of new talent."
For years, those businesses hired workers from outside the United States through the federal guest visa worker program. However, in 2017 the government limited the number of H-2B visas, leaving Branson employers short by about 300 workers for the upcoming season.
“Losing 300 workers in the market at that time was a blow, especially to small business owners who were cleaning hotel rooms themselves due to lack of an available workforce,” said Heather Hardinger, Director of Workforce Strategies and Programs for the Taney County Partnership, the local economic development group.
Hardinger said a few Branson employers pursued recruitment from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, which has an unemployment rate of 10 percent, on their own, “but with mixed results.”
“Many employers were not familiar with the legal requirements to recruit in Puerto Rico,” she said.
The Solution—Employers seek community partnerships to source fresh talent
Although Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, the territory’s laws require companies from the mainland to file an application before they can recruit there. Employers must submit a letter of intent, a certificate of good standing from their state government, a state or local certification of workplace inspection, job descriptions, work agreements written in both English and Spanish, and much more.
“HR professionals and business owners were open to exploring blind sports they might have in D&I and were eager to learn about ways they could better honor the cultures of workers from all over the globe."
Business owners in Branson came to the Taney County Partnership (TCP) with their concerns, “and we helped streamline their approach to recruitment,” Hardinger said.
“Once some of these employers honed in on their recruitment strategy, they saw more success,” she said. “Overall, the employers that were successful also invested additional time and resources to do things the right way.”
A team from the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and the TCP had meetings with officials from the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce and the Puerto Rico Department of Labor offices for guidance.
When a handful of Branson companies became authorized to recruit employees, they scheduled a job fair in Puerto Rico showcasing what the town had to offer in terms of quality of life as well as employment opportunities, according to Hardinger.
“Just because you’re a small community doesn’t mean you have to think small,” she said. “Branson is a town of 10,000 people but we have a big heart, and I think that’s what makes us attractive as a community.”
Branson, which attracts eight million visitors each year, “has a real heart for welcoming newcomers and has done so for decades,” Hardinger said.
The Chamber and TCP team relayed diversity and inclusion strategies to employers based on industry best practices, according to Hardinger.
Just because you’re a small community doesn’t mean you have to think small. Branson is a town of 10,000 people but we have a big heart, and I think that’s what makes us attractive as a community.”
“HR professionals and business owners were open to exploring blind sports they might have in D&I and were eager to learn about ways they could better honor the cultures of workers from all over the globe,” she said.
Thanks to the initial recruitment efforts, more than 60 workers from Puerto Rico came to Branson for the 2017 tourist season. Since then, Hardinger has worked with 18 different employers from the area. Most of those employers are in the hospitality industry, but regional health care system CoxHealth recruited experienced nurses and recent nursing graduates from Puerto Rico to fill the nursing shortage in Branson and the nearby city of Springfield.
“Educating the community on cultural competences and the value of fostering diversity and equity within the community has been a hallmark of what we do from day one,” Hardinger said.
One of the first things the Puerto Rico recruitment team did was reach out to Hispanic leaders in southwest Missouri for guidance. The team also explored what resources regional universities and community colleges had to offer.
Early on the team brought in a recruitment expert originally from Puerto Rico to lead some workshops in Branson.
His task was to “address the community and teach on cultural competence and how they can attract and retain a Hispanic workforce, and to provide internal guidance and advice to our internal team regarding our efforts,” Hardinger said.
The Puerto Rico recruitment initiative team also shared its story with local news outlets to educate the community, explaining how Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and sharing details of what the team was doing and why.
The Chamber and the TCP provide one-on-one guidance to any employer in the area seeking to recruit from Puerto Rico, giving timely information on best practices for successful onboarding, according to Hardinger.
“Educating the community on cultural competences and the value of fostering diversity and equity within the community has been a hallmark of what we do from day one."
Some employers offered starting bonuses, performance-based increases or housing assistance to make the positions attractive.
“CoxHealth does provide a substantial sign-on bonus to assist with relocation costs and any certifications a person may need to begin working as an RN,” Hardinger said.
If student nurses don't have their credential yet, the hospital enrolls them in its nurse residency program for a period of time. Meanwhile, they can work at an elevated nurse assistant level until they receive their credential and end their residency.
Finding quality housing in the Branson area for the newcomers was one of the biggest challenges, especially as the program grew, according to Hardinger.
“One of the major employers had housing on site, but that filled pretty quickly,” she said. “We addressed this by informing regional housing developers of the opportunities available for workforce housing and followed up by commissioning a comprehensive housing study in 2018 that has already led to new housing development.”
The Result—the entire community benefits from diversity & inclusion efforts
Since 2017, employers in Branson have recruited more than 500 workers from Puerto Rico.
Although some of the Puerto Rican workers stay in Branson only for the tourist season and go home for the winter, “I do know of many who later brought their families, purchased homes and set roots in the Ozarks,” Hardinger said.
“Employers joining together to recruit as a community really made us stand out. If your current workforce efforts aren’t yielding results, think outside the box and consider changing your formula.”
Some of the newcomers who arrived as entry-level employees have been promoted to management positions, she added.
Having a more diverse workforce has benefited the community in ways that go beyond filling jobs, according to Hardinger.
“One moment that brought tears to my eyes was having a diverse group of folks from the community march in what was known as The Most Wonderful Time of the Year parade, which was broadcast during the Christmas season and on televisions across the U.S.,” she said. “Folks brought flags or culturally significant items from their country or area of origin and we marched and waved them proudly during the parade to showcase the diversity we are proud to have in Branson.”
The Puerto Rico recruitment initiative wouldn’t have been successful without teamwork and strategic partnerships, according to Hardinger.
“Our organization invested time and dollars to get this started, but the employers joining together and being willing to set aside competition to recruit as a community really made us stand out,” she said.
“If your current workforce efforts aren’t yielding results, think outside the box and consider changing your formula.”
Mary Pieper is a writer and journalist based in the Midwest. She has reported on topics including healthcare, education, business, human resources, and workplace diversity and inclusion.