Why Williams-Sonoma CEO calls the labor shortage a ‘big migration’

·3 min read

Job openings reached a record high last month and the number of workers voluntarily quitting ticked upward, according to a JOLTS survey released this week that points to a persistent labor shortage with wide-ranging effects for the U.S. economy. 

The trend of worker departures known to some as the "big resignation" has benefited home goods retailer Williams-Sonoma (WSM), says CEO Laura Alber.

In a new interview, Alber described the surge in quitting as a "big migration," since the company has attracted workers who recently left other jobs. While Alber acknowledged that Williams-Sonoma has lost some workers, she credited the company for helping workers prepare for bigger roles elsewhere.

"In some cases, there's the big resignation," she says. "But for us, it may be the big migration because we're getting great talent right now." 

"We're really seeing a lot of people who want to come work for us, and across a wide array of disciplines," she adds. "There's a lot of things we do to keep this talent pipeline full." 

Williams-Sonoma, which employs 16,000 people across brands like West Elm and Pottery Barn, weathered the COVID-19 downturn last spring with a shift from relying primarily on brick-and-mortar sales to focusing on e-commerce. 

Second-quarter earnings for Williams-Sonoma, released late last month, beat revenue expectations, while e-commerce accounted for 65% of total company revenue, just a slight drop from the 70% share of sales the company reached last year, Alber said.

Despite the shift in its business model, Williams-Sonoma refused to furlough store employees amid COVID-19 lockdowns last year, Alber said, noting that the move cultivated loyalty among workers that has helped bolster retention in the current labor climate.

"We kept paying everybody and the respect we showed them converted to innovation and passion back to us in terms of their ability to shift into work that they can do from home," she says.

"For example, our store people started doing design chat at home, virtual design services, and we have people in the office who helped in our care center," she says.

"That kind of innovation — that is a big part of the success in keeping our teams together," she adds.

FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021 file photo, a now hiring sign is displayed at a CD One Price Cleaners in Schaumburg, Ill. The number of Americans applying for unemployment aid rose last week to 861,000, evidence that layoffs remain painfully high despite a steady drop in the number of confirmed viral infections. Applications from laid-off workers rose 13,000 from the previous week, which was revised sharply higher, the Labor Department said Thursday, Feb. 18.  (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)
In this Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021 file photo, a now hiring sign is displayed at a CD One Price Cleaners in Schaumburg, Ill. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

Alber, who ran a small business selling hats while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, joined Williams-Sonoma in 1995 as a senior buyer in the Pottery Barn catalog division. She has served as CEO since 2010.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Alber said she considers it a positive sign when workers leave Williams-Sonoma for more advanced positions elsewhere. 

"We're a talent factory," she says. "So a lot of our great people have gone off to run other companies and do great things."

"I always see that sort of as a compliment that we've done our job in getting them ready for a bigger job," she adds.

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