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Quarterly Leadership Roundtable: Recruiting and Retaining Top Talent

April 27, 2022 News

Our last CFDC quarterly Leadership Roundtable focused on the need to build a strong leadership pipeline as our economy continues to grow and businesses within our community scale. This quarter we are turning our attention to the topic of recruiting and retaining top talent.

The pandemic has prompted numerous societal and workplace transformations.  Most notable is a shift in the mindsets of the labor force.  Many employees are re-evaluating their career goals, and some are quicker exit workplaces that no longer serve their needs. Polk County business leaders are turning their attention to recruiting and retaining talent.

To gain diverse perspective on this pressing topic, I spoke with the following CFDC investors:

Despite growing recruitment and retention challenges that businesses across the nation are facing and the unique challenges that are specific to Polk County, these three leaders are persevering by filling staffing needs in thoughtful, creative, and resourceful ways.

This month's Emily Rogers Quarterly Leadership Roundtable focuses on recruiting and retaining top talent in the workforce

Describe the greatest challenges your organization has faced in recruiting and retaining top talent over the past 12-18 months?


We’ve all been challenged with COVID. As a healthcare organization, recruiting has been especially difficult. We’ve experienced turnover with our licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and dental assistants. These are key support roles to our medical and dental providers, and we have been challenged but successful in filling those roles. Burnout in the clinical field is real! We have provided opportunities for our staff to work from home (if their jobs allow) as well as being supportive as we operate in unprecedented circumstances.  


The greatest challenge for us is that it takes a long time, up to 10 years, to develop engineers to be ready to fully contribute professionally. We had an entire generation of engineers and AEC professionals wiped out during the 2008 recession because they had to find work in other industries. We are recruiting from a finite pool of candidates.

Superintendent Heid    

Like many school districts and private sector employers across the nation, we have had a high number of retirees and a lower number of incoming applicants for positions. We were so focused on filling gaps on the instructional side that we didn’t anticipate the current gaps in other areas, like food service, custodial service, and even transportation. Polk County faces a combination of factors that create recruiting and retention challenges. Revenue into the school system is an issue that is unique to our county. Historically, Polk was a very small school district, and we did not always receive our proportionate share of statewide funding as we grew. The recession several years ago further cut into funding, and Polk’s way of managing that was to recede within itself by minimizing staffing allocations and eliminating unfilled positions in some core areas, like school counselors. Fundamentally, Polk has had to make do with less. Our challenge is that we’ve had suppressed salaries and positions for so long. 

Now that we’re growing and looking to fill vacancies, not only are we trying to find new applicants, but we are also trying to catch up our current employees to the competitive salaries offered by surrounding school districts. Other challenges, not isolated to the education field that we face, are housing costs and marketplace competition for lower-wage jobs. We are struggling to compete with Amazon and Target for many custodial and food service positions. Even when we can find new employees, finding affordable housing for those earning $15 to $20 an hour is becoming increasingly difficult here in Polk. 

As you have experienced success in recruiting and retaining talent, what has contributed to that success? 


We have an excellent HR team who are always looking for creative ways to recruit talent. Our HR professionals have dedicated significant time to building partnerships, especially developing relationships with local post-secondary schools. We partner with Nova Southeastern University which is a feeder for many of our medical and dental providers. We work closely with local schools like Polk State College, Ridge Career Center, and Traviss Technical College to fill our LPN and dental assistant positions. By providing internships and clinical rotations it allows these students to see what we can offer them and how they can fit into our organization. Nurturing these relationships and positioning ourselves in front of these students as they approach graduation allows us to showcase our community health center, share our excellent benefits program and commitment to work-life balance, and promote Central Florida Healthcare as an outstanding place to work.  


From a retention perspective, one of the things that I’m very proud of is our quarterly career pathing for all employees. We approach it not as a report on performance from the supervisor to the employee but more of a two-way street. We ask the employee – What are the things you want to work on? What do you want to learn, and what skills do you want to develop? These questions help hold the supervisor accountable for giving the employee new opportunities during the upcoming year. Looking back on the prior year, we ask the employee, did you get the chance to do X, Y, and Z? If the answer is no, this starts a new conversation about why those opportunities weren’t available. We are constantly working on communication and adjusting the lens we use to see our employees both personally and professionally. 

The key to our recruiting is that we are intentional about who we hire in management positions. These positions are crucial to future recruiting because people want to work for people they like, who have their best interests at heart, and who are willing to give them chances for advancement. 

Superintendent Heid 

More and more research has been done concerning employee retention, and we’re learning that pay alone is not the greatest driver or indicator of employee satisfaction. We’re finding that workplace conditions play a more significant role than was expected. Employees want to feel encouraged and valued, and we are looking for creative ways to provide this support. In many instances, employees are looking for advancement and professional development opportunities.

We recently created a recruitment and retention department, and we have found it incredibly valuable. The focus of this department is to serve as a liaison between the district and current and incoming employees. They travel locally and across the state, attending graduation events and recruitment fairs, trying to entice and bring candidates here to Polk County to pursue a career in public education. In addition to recruitment, this department is charged with keeping our first- and second-year employees engaged throughout the year. They host a series of events to provide social interaction, allow for professional networking, and most importantly, they provide mentorship opportunities. The School Board has approved my recommendation for funding to expand this department as we move into the hiring season because it has seen so many benefits.  

Describe the role you’re playing in your organization’s employee recruitment and retention efforts.


Once we find quality candidates, we put a lot of effort into making sure they develop and progress quickly. Our onboarding process has evolved from “here’s the book, read it, and we’ll check back with you in a few weeks” to a fully developed, one to two weeklong orientation to introduce topics like our commitment to quality, training opportunities, and company values. We’ve done a better job to meet regularly with our employees to assess employee satisfaction to help with employee retention.  We send out new hire onboarding experience surveys at 30, 60, and 90 days to take the pulse of our new employees and see how they are doing. During our new hire orientations, Dr. Cara Nelson-James, our Chief Medical Officer, talks with the new hires about work-life balance and the importance of self-care. The healthcare industry is stressful, and we want our employees to feel connected and supported. 

We also want all of our employees to know that we practice what we preach. We’re always talking about our expectations for customer service and how important it is to our organization and patients.  Our leadership meets regularly with their teams to ensure everyone is held accountable for meeting those standards. We feel that this level of accountability helps retain employees by gaining their trust. 


My primary role is to keep our staffing needs as a top-of-mind issue for the company. To do this successfully, I am constantly evaluating how our recruitment and retention efforts are working.  I strive to be available to all our hiring managers during the hiring process. If they want me to be a part of the interview, I make the time to participate.

and say, “Hey, we really want you to join our team. What’s important to you?”. I’ve heard from several employees that this interaction made a difference for them, and they came on board because the President stopped what he was doing and made time to speak with them. My priority with recruiting is to connect with the candidate in a way, beyond signing bonuses and incentives, that this person feels like they will be a valued member of our team and that they can entrust their career to us. 

Superintendent Heid 

My role is to be present and vocal about my support for all our employees. They want to hear from their leader. It is critical to maintain a connection with employees, keep them excited about the work, and assure them that they have my sincere commitment – not just to our shared philosophy, but the commitment to putting resources where they believe it is important. The other part of my job is approaching employee engagement from a well-rounded perspective. I must continue to strive to talk about fair wages and benefits – both at the negotiating table with our collective bargaining units and with our non-union group employees. Additionally, my role is to advertise all the great things that we offer employees here in Polk County.  I’m the organization’s public face, and I reflect the interest of our Board and our community to many external stakeholders. But I’m also the conduit through which change happens.

Our core mission is educating kids. To attain that mission, we must have a solid, dedicated, happy, and healthy workforce. My focus is to make sure our salaries and benefits are competitive, maintain and improve job satisfaction ratings, and ensure a positive learning environment for our students. If I can meet all those metrics, we should continue to see steady improvement in student outcomes.

How have the benefits and incentives your organization offers employees evolved over the past few years? 


When I became the CEO in January 2014, our benefits package was nothing to write home about. We did not have a good health plan or a 401k retirement plan. Today, I am proud to say that we have a wonderful employee benefits package, a 401k retirement plan with a company match, and a PTO plan that starts building time as soon as you begin working with us.  Additionally, most of our employees work Monday through Friday, no weekends – which is unique in the healthcare field. We offer our employees (not dependents) free medical and dental benefits. They can have their medical and dental care at any of our CFHC health centers at no or minimal cost. We also offer behavioral health lunch and learns and counseling, which is very helpful for team members working in a highly demanding field. 


Benefits and incentives have evolved radically. It is an absolute arms race in our industry. The biggest challenge we have is that multiple market forces are colliding. You’ve got a finite amount of talent and huge demand in our industry. Not just in Polk County but across most of the country. Demand for talent will continue in engineering, not just with the population growth in Florida but also with the need to fix aging infrastructure. Salaries are the highest they’ve ever been, we have drastically increased our 401(k), and we’ve done a comprehensive review of all our benefits to make sure we are competitive. 

One of the unique things we are providing is Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace as a company administered benefit. This online content helps folks set budgets and develop personal financial management skills. Our company can build rewards and activities for individuals or groups based on how much they use the product. We’re offering this because I’ve noticed over the years that the company is entirely dependent on how employees feel about their disposable income level, particularly with more industry-level workers. This means they’ll go across the street because they can get a couple of extra dollars, even though they readily admit that you’re a better place to work. If we can help our employees with money, they will feel more empowered to work in a place they genuinely like and feel valued, rather than chasing a dollar or two more per hour. One of our big goals is for all employees to be debt-free in 10 years. We talk about this at every town hall and tell the team that we commit to growing compensation, but that’s only half the puzzle. We show them that their responsibility is to make sure that they are making good decisions and paying down debt.  

Superintendent Heid 

I’m proud that Polk County is one of two school systems in Florida that offers no-cost health insurance, other than co-pays, for our employees. We do a lot here in Polk County to reward and retain our employees, but it’s my job to keep moving the needle by improving the culture and focusing on improving working conditions. If I can’t offer large pay raises to help financially, my challenge is to put enough resources at a school to relieve our staff from the workload placed on them due to staffing shortages.  

We also offer tuition reimbursement for advancement, honoring and recognizing individuals for their personal and professional growth so that as they learn, they can earn. Micro-credentialing is something we’re evaluating now. We should have that for everyone, even custodians, food service workers, and bus drivers. The system is in place for educators where if you have your bachelor’s and then you earn your master’s, you move commensurately in your salary. We don’t have lanes and steps for our non-classroom instructional positions. We should reward each employee based on the skills they master and certifications that they earn.

What more can we, as a community, do to enhance Polk County’s reputation as a great place to work, live, and play?


Making our community a better place is a priority. It’s as simple as taking the time to meet and partner with other organizations to continue to understand what our roles are in terms of serving the citizens of Polk County and how we can best collaborate. In my role, the focus is on the health and wellness of our county. I believe more partnerships can be developed to leverage different strengths and create better solutions for many facets of the community. Our partnerships with local schools like Polk State College, Ridge Career Center and Traviss Technical College are just the beginning of the bigger picture of connecting people with the right resources to make meaningful change.


The feedback I get from candidates is that the school system is not drawing them to Polk County. When they weigh their options, our schools’ ratings are a negative factor in their decision-making. We’ve got to figure out a way to change that. The second biggest challenge is affordable housing. Our candidates are high wage, high skill, and strong financially, but they can’t find houses. The last challenge is making Polk County attractive to young professionals and families. We must continue to find ways to create an environment that appeals to a younger generation and help them feel connected to our community.

Superintendent Heid 

The best thing that we can do is to tell our story. The more people we have out in the community who are willing to say, “I’m a product of Polk County Public Schools, and I had a great educational experience,” and sing the praises of our schools, the more positive attention we will receive. We do many things well – our academies, magnet programs, career tech ed, college prep, and dual enrollment are all top-notch and more widely available than any other school district in the state. We also need to acknowledge that Polk County is all about accountability. If there is an area where we are deficient, if there is an underperforming school, we own that. The culture shift I want to create does not shy away from failures or make excuses.

We need the community to seek opportunities to partner with us. You will not find a community that thrives without a robust educational system. I’ve been asked, what’s my goal? I have this vision that students are crossing the stage at graduation. There is a crowd of people shouting for them as they exit the stage because everyone in the crowd – picture the stock market floor – is vying for my candidate. I want our kids to be in such high demand that there is competition for them, whether it’s college, career readiness, or the military. We need to create excitement around graduation and opportunities. Public education is the great equalizer. We open doors for children to pursue their futures. Every parent dreams that their child will be more successful than they were. That level of success comes through hard work, dedication, and education. Polk County Public Schools exists to fulfill that dream.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

This article is the last installment of the Emily Rogers + CFDC Quarterly Leadership Roundtable series. Please take a moment to learn more about the great leaders at the helm of a variety of Polk County companies. You can find the additional articles below:

Emily Rogers, Founder & CEO of Emily Rogers Consulting + Coaching, is an executive coach, team coach, and keynote speaker. She strategically advises and supports individuals and organizations in growing and realizing their full potential in purposeful and balanced ways. Connect with her at

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