The secret to recruiting great talent to Birmingham

Jen Dent & Walton Foster
Jen Dent & Walton Foster

Today’s guest columnists are Jen Dent and Walton Foster.

People ask…

How do you consistently recruit the very best talent to Birmingham?

Our answer is that secret is hiding in plain sight.

I recently was having lunch with a candidate being considered for a high-level position at UAB.  She and her spouse had never been to Birmingham, so I asked them their thoughts about the city in anticipation of their visit here. This is often when we hear concerns about safety or lack of progressiveness. But in this case they simply said, “Why in the world would we ever have thought about Birmingham before?”

And therein lies the challenge of recruiting top talent to our city from around the country.  Candidates are drawn to job opportunities here because of the prestige of the many institutions and companies we are fortunate to house in Birmingham. They bring with them either deep- seeded stereotypes about Alabama or a complete lack of interest. We are either on their radar for all the wrong reasons or not on their radar at all.

The great news is that these preconceived notions ultimately have little to no bearing on a successful recruitment. In fact, it provides us with the opportunity to blow people away with all we do have to offer that they were not expecting. We have found that the added layer we provide in the recruitment process moves the needle time and time again.

This added layer can be summed up in one word:  connection. People can make a living in any number of cities, but it is our job to help them make a life. To do this, it is vital that we understand the needs of the recruit and their entire family so that we can introduce them to what a connected life in Birmingham would look like for them.

Introducing them to people they can relate to in the community is the most powerful tool for accomplishing this goal. We are fortunate to live in a diverse city full of citizens ready to share their experiences and way of life. There has never been a time that I have had a community partner unwilling to have a coffee or share a meal with our recruits.

Not surprisingly, what is important to each recruit varies widely.  A “one size fits one” approach is the only answer to getting to the heart of what someone needs to feel at home.

Cultural considerations are often at that top of that list. Prospective employees considering our city are incredibly diverse.  They are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh. They are Asian, African American, Eastern European, Arab, and Latin American. They want to understand how and where they can find community in Birmingham. They are seeking temples, mosques, churches and synagogues.  They ask about ethnic cuisine and grocery stores.

Spouses and partners often have career needs that are vital to a successful recruitment.  Helping them job network ensures they can find meaningful work.

Families with children are often overwhelmed at the prospect of transitioning to a new city. They seek resources like daycares, schools, extracurricular activities, and sports leagues.  This can be more complex if a child has learning differences or special circumstances.

Because of ever demanding work schedules, people need the balance of hobbies and activities outside of the workplace. Each new recruitment brings with it a unique set of interests that we help identify locally.  Our recruits are runners, hikers, beekeepers, spear fisherman, cyclists.  They enjoy playing pickleball and ping pong and like ballroom dancing. They want to find parks for their dogs and land where they can have chickens, geese, and llamas.  They want to experience theater, the arts, and ways to give back to their community.

Birmingham’s rolling hills, vibrant food scene and southern hospitality never cease to surprise and delight recruits. But the biggest surprise of all is that no matter how distinctive their needs or interests are, our city’s resources are deep, and our community is passionate about sharing them.

We all know that the competition for talent is greater than ever.  The power of connection is our community’s secret weapon and competitive advantage. If we get it right on the front end of a recruitment, our experience shows that retention will organically follow.

We take pride in the fact that each person we work with goes back out into the world with Birmingham on their radar for all the right reasons.

Jen Dent is Co-Owner and Co-President of Chalker Group, a recruitment and retention firm.  She earned her undergraduate degree from Birmingham-Southern College and her MBA from Pepperdine University.  She previously owned and sold a retail business which focused on the wedding industry. Jen is a proud Birmingham native.

Walton Foster is Co-Owner and Co-President of Chalker Group. She graduated from Washington and Lee University and spent much of her career working in art museums and galleries before joining Chalker Group in 2016. Walton is originally from Birmingham and lived in New York and Nashville for 14 years before moving back to Birmingham in 2011.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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11 thoughts on “The secret to recruiting great talent to Birmingham”

  1. Brilliant! You two are moving the needle. Thank you! We who live here know that once recruits see and experience BHM, they are hooked!

          1. WHAT??? You really don’t know BHM if you think for some reason that FP is not a part of the fabric that is BHM.

          2. Even if all the other 34 municipalities were added Birmingham would still not be to inviting.
            The problem are the headlines about shootings and killings almost every week.

            Four people were wounded when gunfire erupted in a bar parking lot in Birmingham’s popular Lakeview District.

            At approximately 2:45 a.m., South Precinct officers were dispatched to a Person Shot call at Mel’s Lounge, which is located at 3921 Richard Arrington Junior Boulevard North.

    1. Every time I get those headlines I can’t help but think of you.

      Off-duty police officers who were working private jobs heard gunfire in the Lakeview District at approximately 3 a.m. Saturday, police said.

      Birmingham Fire and Rescue crews responded to a shooting after 12 noon near businesses in the 1100 block of 12th Street South.

  2. A few questions for Mss. Dent and Foster:
    1. As a former resident of Birmingham who’s lived in several other cities and states, are you aware of the other cities your recruits are investigating and have a basis for describing Birmingham as a better choice? Do you ask or is that considered inappropriate or unethical for consultants such as yourselves?
    2. As a proud graduate of a small liberal arts college in another state, I’m curious what Ms. Dent thinks about the precarious situation of her own alma mater, Birmingham-Southern. If—heaven forbid—BSC should close, how might that affect their efforts to recruit “top talent” to the city? As arguably Alabama’s leading liberal arts college, how much value does BSC add to the city’s overall favorable image that you espouse in your sales job?

  3. If Birmingham wants to attract talented and progressive people and companies Birmingham needs to become a progressive city. Birmingham needs to replace the headlines of shootings with headlines of innovation. When you wrote about the things that are of importance to the type of people you want to attract nowhere did you mention a downtown stadium or a fifty million dollar amphitheater. Those don’t seem to be factors in the equation. Birmingham is behind the curve.

    1. Sadly, it’s not the headlines that should change!

      Reporting is not the problem. Don’t you get it?

      It’s the reality of one of the highest crime rates in the nation — the “elephant in the room” that no one talks about or works hard to change. Instead, the discussion is on self-serving gratitudes on racial issues and the deflection of narratives like “centralized government” as the boogeyman.

  4. I wonder how many of the high level people they have recruited actually live within the city limits of BHM. I know personally that when it came time to put my daughter in school, I sold my house and downsized to a 2bdr condo in Homewood just for the simple fact of the lousy system that is place.

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