Before the labor shortage, DRCC in Duluth saw employee turnover rates of about 18 percent. The rate recently shot up to 27 percent.

“The workforce crisis has definitely impacted us here in the Duluth area and on the [Iron] Range,” said Jeanette Curry, program manager for DRCC, formerly Duluth Regional Care Center. “It makes it difficult to find quality applicants. And we are not alone. Our industry in general has turnover rates ranging from 30 to 60 percent.”

The agency, whose 650 staffers care for 350 disabled clients in 50 group, family and single homes across northeast Minnesota, is among many large firms wrestling with baby boomer retirements and a swell of job openings that give workers fresh choices that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

To fight back, DRCC employs generous benefits, training, cupcakes, movies, bowling and more to inject a sense of welcome, appreciation and fun into the job, which can sometimes prove quite stressful.

That attention to employee benefits and rewards helped DRCC rank second on the Star Tribune’s 2018 Top Workplaces list of large companies. Keller Williams Realty is No. 1 on this year’s list, with Bridge Realty, Edward Jones and ACR Homes filling out the top five.

While this year’s Top Workplaces list won marks higher than the national average in areas from worker recognition and culture, the results did show marks consistent with a tight job market. For example, while still scoring high, workers at this year’s Top Workplaces as a whole were less satisfied with benefits, work-life flexibility and pay than last year. The percentage of people who said they were satisfied with their pay went down 4.1 percent.

The survey results are telling and help companies keep workers at a critical time, say experts in the field.

Right now, about “68 percent of organizations are experiencing recruitment difficulties and skill shortages. So you have to have these great benefits to keep and recruit talent,” said Cassidy Solis, a senior adviser of the Society for Human Resource Management.

“Employees are using benefits, flexibility and workplace culture as a way to stand out as an ‘employer of choice.’ One thing that big employers often have going for them is infrastructure, meaning larger HR departments, a dedicated communications staff, intranet [systems] and the ability to formalize and roll out programs,” Solis said.

At DRCC, full- and part-time workers get sick leave, vacation time and at least $12.50 an hour, about $2 more than the area average, Curry said. DRCC also offers a 401(k) plan with a company match up to 4 percent, and a year-end bonus that can run $300 to $900 each.

To attract job candidates, DRCC advertises on social media. The 52-year-old nonprofit also bumped up referral fees to staffers who recruit friends to the company. Three years ago, workers received $100 for each referral who stayed six months. Now they get $150 for each recruit who stays 30 days.

Benefits aside, employees said they also notice that DRCC focuses on the fun, with birthday parties, appreciation cupcakes and other perks for clients and employees.

To be sure, DRCC employees help clients with the basics: dressing and bathing, healthy eating and getting meds refilled.

“But we also go to the movies, go bowling and get out and enjoy,” Curry said. “So the employees have fun times too.”

Appreciation is key, said Jim Nelson, co-founder and CEO of ACR Homes. So is offering employees growth and advancement in the company.

“Rather than asking employees to fit into job descriptions, we try to fit job descriptions around the skills and interests of great employees,” he said. “Avocations and side careers in photography, writing, party planning, teaching and even interior design have all been put to great use at ACR while also enhancing employees’ work experience. This has resulted in an upbeat work atmosphere and fun work spaces like a coffee shop where employees can collaborate and where we can hold movie and game nights for residents, study nights for staff and other events.”

Keller Williams said training is its key to success both for recruiting and retention.

Perry Hurth, team leader for Keller Williams Realty Integrity Northwest in Otsego, said his real estate company now has 2,269 agents, with 1,000 of them having been recruited in the last nine years. That makes it the largest real estate company in Minnesota by agent count.

Hurth credits the firm’s well known “Ignite” and “Bold” training programs, which work intensely with agents to set them up for long-term success. Also notable, he said, are the agency’s 50 percent profit-sharing and the fact that it has invested $52 million in new technology, including a Siri-like system for agents called “Kelly” to check information such as listings and directions.

The agency also tries to boost employees through community projects of their choosing. For example, offices were closed on May 10 for a service day.

“Every office gives back to the community,” Hurth said. “We put our families and faith first and our business third.”

St. Louis-based Edward Jones, with 44,625 employees (including 846 in Minnesota), 13,000 offices and $7.5 billion in annual revenue, also turns to volunteer projects to enhance its appeal to workers.

The giant financial services firm has been named to the Top Workplaces list for seven consecutive years. It gives each worker a paid Day of Caring to volunteer. And the offices often support employee efforts, officials said.

One Minnetonka Edward Jones branch administrator volunteers with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. A Rose­ville financial adviser started a mission that serves 70 children each week. Another in Eden Prairie has volunteered at Junior Achievement for eight years.

“The culture of the firm is such that we encourage volunteering,” said Edward Jones spokeswoman Ellen Wiederanders. “We have 13,000 branch offices in the communities that we are servicing. And volunteering and philanthropy is part of that.”

Each year, Edward Jones sponsors the Alzheimer’s Association charity walks nationwide. Last year, thousands of employees created 569 walking teams and helped raise $2.3 million, Wiederanders said.

Edward Jones also tries to walk its own talk when it comes to how it treats its workers, employees said. It shares 24 percent of profits with employees and offers free wellness care, vision and dental plans, domestic partner benefits and tuition reimbursement.

Back in Duluth at DRCC, program coordinator James Isaacson said it’s not the outside activities or perks that make him want to stick around. It’s a matter of basics.

He joined DRCC 12 years ago, intending to stay just six months.

“This is the best job I have had. As far as bosses and such, I get treated right here. You don’t get yelled at,” said Isaacson. “Here, they focus on just creating a friendly work environment. We always make sure that people say hello and goodbye to each other. And that makes a big difference. We are teaching social skills.”