ORLANDO, Fla. - Mutual fund companies can improve the quality of the people working for them - everyone from portfolio managers to call center operators - by improving their recruiting, training and retention policies. This was the message of speakers at the Investment Company Institute's operations conference in Orlando earlier this month.

Although unemployment is at an all-time low and employers in a variety of industries are having a difficult time finding talent, fund companies should raise their standards, said Nick Corcodilos, a principal with the executive recruiting firm of North Bridge Group of Lebanon, N.J.

"Go after the people you want and encourage only the best people to apply. You get what you look for," Corcodilos said.

Traditional interviews are useless, Corcodilos said. Instead, fund companies should ask applicants to answer specific questions about their business, or to recommend how to improve business at the fund complex, he said.

"Ask the candidate to check out your web site, read literature or speak to other employees before they come in" for their interviews, Corcodilos said. "Give candidates a short list of the problems and challenges that your department and your company face. Ask them to be prepared to present strategies and solutions when they come to an interview.

"Ninety percent won't want to do that because they don't even want to work for you. They just want a job, any job, and they're not willing to expend any extra energy in an interview."

The best candidates do not usually come from advertisements but from referrals or personal connections, he said. So, do what headhunters do, he said. Ask existing employees or business partners for referrals and attend industry conferences to network, Corcodilos said.

"Become your own headhunter," he said.

Once a hire is made, training is essential to help that person do a good job, said Robert Manfredi, vice president of sales at UOL Publishing, a publisher of online training modules in McLean, Va.

This is particularly true for call center personnel who, for many shareholders, embody the mutual fund company, he said.

"Although the training budget is always the first thing to go when there is a problem in a company, it is a mission-critical application that has a direct impact on customer satisfaction - i.e. sales - and employee retention," Manfredi said.

Allowing employees to give feedback to management and to encourage them to tell the truth is critical to retaining them, said Maria Melton, assistant vice president at First Union Bank of Charlotte, N.C., which employs 5,000 call center employees. The best way to ensure that employees will be honest about how they feel about their jobs, their managers and their teammates is if the questions are posed and tallied by an outside source, she said. It is also useful to hold employee focus groups, she said.

Fund companies should also reward employees who do a good job with both recognition and financial incentive programs, Melton said.

"People actually hang recognition certificates in their cubicles. It's only a piece of paper, but it means something to them," she said.

And because mutual funds are complex products, it is critical to have documentation online that call center representatives can gain access to in order to answer shareholder questions, Melton said.

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