With unemployment rates hovering in record-low territory, businesses of all stripes are having a difficult time finding job candidates. When you have 800 employees, as Knute Nelson does throughout its system, you're always on the lookout for workers.

"With health care, we naturally have a higher turnover than other industries," said Allie Janssen, human resources specialist for the nonprofit that specializes in care for senior citizens. At any given time they are trying to fill as many as 50 positions.

With numbers like those, Janssen knew the time was right to do something different, and the "Hiring Happy Hour" idea was born.

At what amounted to a three-hour job fair last Thursday at Grand Arbor, the community room took on a party atmosphere. Pop music boomed from speakers. Job seekers nibbled on an array of appetizers. Team leaders monitored games and handed out prizes. And on one end of the room, a bartender served beverages, including wine and beer.

"With the job force the way it is now, we wanted to get creative and innovative, and promote our culture and the fun atmosphere we have at Knute, in a comfortable environment," Janssen said.

Relaxed setting

It worked for Brittni DesMarais, who was put at ease immediately by the unusual setting.

"It was very welcoming," she said. "I was actually very nervous coming here."

Both she and Jamie Peterson are happily employed full time but were there to check out part-time possibilities.

"It's really relaxing. The music helps," Peterson said of the setup. She was among those who didn't take advantage of a complimentary drink of their choice.

But others carried a bottle of hard cider or a glass of wine.

Mike Lang, a chef at Grand Arbor, was doing the bartending, as he had during a previous job at Bennigan's. He was among the staff members on hand who weren't shy about praising their employer.

"It's a fun place to work, good benefits, and it's rewarding. You end up making a lot of friends, and (have) an amazing social life," he said, referring to the interaction with residents at Grand Arbor.

In all, Knute Nelson had a few dozen staff members there to meet prospective employees and answer their questions, under banners for environmental services, wellness and therapy, dining, nursing and administration.

"I like that they (employees) can sit there and share their experiences with you," DesMarais said. "How they did this, it's kind of cool."

Tom Storer, lead maintenance worker of the environmental services team at Nelson Gables, said not only could job candidates "interact with the cool staff," they could meet a future co-worker.

Janet Wilkins, a home health aide with Knute Nelson, said the laid-back atmosphere offered another benefit to would-be employees.

"They are asking questions that they may not have felt comfortable asking HR (human resources)," Wilkins said.

"That was a huge thing we were going for," Janssen said of connecting current employees with prospective ones. "We wanted the candidates to meet our team, and really build a connection from the get-go."

Produces results

Angele Hartell, a workforce strategy consultant with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, was impressed with Knute Nelson's efforts to find workers.

"That's very innovative, and I think we will be seeing more of that as long as the unemployment rate continues to be what it is," she said, adding that "employers need to set themselves apart and demonstrate they are a welcoming employer and a great place to work."

She also approved of the way Knute Nelson had its employees involved in the effort.

"What an outstanding way to leverage your top employees to be part of the solution," Hartell said.

The question is, how successful was the Hiring Happy Hour?

"It went really well. We were excited with our response," said Janssen, adding that between 30-40 prospective candidates showed up. While they are still sorting through those candidates, she believes they will get six or seven new hires from the event.

"We kind of hit the nail on the head," she said. "We would definitely look at doing this event again."

Marilee Trosen, who is looking to change careers, encouraged other employers to try something like this, too.

"It's very nicely set up, and very relaxed," she said. "And the ribs are really good."