More than 60% of American companies responding to a survey released Wednesday say they are having a hard time attracting employees with critical skills, the third consecutive year of increased difficulty. International corporations fare even worse in the survey conducted by Towers Watson and WorldatWork, but stress levels there are markedly lower.

Globally, 72% of 1,605 firms asked cite problems finding and hiring critical-skill workers. In the United States, it’s 61%, comparable to pre-Great Recession levels. More than 50% of all respondents also reported trouble with critical-skill retention.

“The demand for the best talent is as strong as ever, especially given a challenging economy and heightened global competition,” says Laura Sejen, global leader of rewards at Towers Watson. “But many employers are not taking advantage of opportunities to attract, retain and engage high-value employees by offering a work environment and the total rewards programs that are most important to them.

“In fact, there appears to be a mismatch between what employers are offering and what employees are looking for. Employees, including top talent, are more focused on competitive base pay and job security. Employers, on the other hand, are emphasizing other items, such as challenging work, and their mission, vision and values.”

Just more than half of U.S. respondents think their performance management process links salary increases to individual performance effectively, compared to 62% worldwide. And significantly more global firms (52%) see their managers as effective at setting individual performance goals than do American ones (37%).

“As U.S. employers seek to grow profitably during a period of economic volatility, their focus needs to be on crafting an employee value proposition that helps to attract and retain talented and critical-skill employees while also engaging the broader workforce,” says Laurie Bienstock, North America rewards leader at Towers Watson. “Plus, organizations need to position themselves for future success over the next five to 10 years.”

Ryan Johnson, vice president of research and publishing for WorldatWork, agrees. He says plenty of U.S. firms aren’t struggling with retention at all, and they’re the ones with lessons to teach.

“There are many smart companies competing and winning in the talent market right now,” says Johnson. “They realize that engagement is a two-way street — they actively listen to employees and then tailor total rewards packages that ensure the work is invigorating, satisfying and truly rewarding in more ways than just pay.”

Leadership management programs in America get overwhelmingly positive results in the survey. Ninety-five percent of U.S. respondents say their leadership development system supports the organization’s culture, compared with 84% globally.

“Effective leadership development, performance management and succession-planning programs will be keys to getting it right,” Bienstock says.

The survey further finds that stress levels remain high at work. In the U.S., 61% of respondents say workers often experience excessive pressure on the job, compared to 48% overall. U.S. participants were also more likely to say employees were working more hours (71% versus 53%) and they expect that trend to continue over the next three years (63% versus 43%).

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