The booming economy is worth celebrating, but employers in the special event industry aren't cheering about the resulting tight labor market. Today, competition for high-quality employees is fierce, which forces employers to become more creative in recruiting and retaining workers.

"Everywhere you look there are 'help wanted' signs," says John Jakob, president of Abbey Party Rents in Dallas, which has 48 full-time employees. "It's a very competitive environment for help these days."

The country's unemployment rate dipped to a 29-year low of 4.2 percent in March, which translates into staffing challenges in many industries, says Sharon Jordan-Evans of Los Angeles, an executive coach and co-author of Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay, due in bookstores in September. The low unemployment rate is "wonderful," she says, "unless you're trying to hire and hang on to talented people."

Recruiting: Get Personal Special event employers use a variety of recruiting techniques to woo prospective employees. One of the most effective methods at Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y., which employs about 400, is personal referrals from current employees, says sales and catering director Ewa Ojarovska. "When people come to work for the club, it's like they are family," she says. It's a sign of employee satisfaction when people want their friends to work where they do, she adds.

Good employees tend to refer equally good prospects, employers and consultants agree. Across all industries, referrals are among the best recruitment techniques, according to Jennie Wong Simpson, Ph.D., a performance and rewards consultant for William M. Mercer Inc., a national human resources consulting firm. Other "relationship-based" recruitment methods-such as sending a current employee to talk about the company at a job fair or converting a temporary employee into a full-time staffer-are also effective, Simpson says.

David Sorin, president of Current Events International, keeps his eyes open for prospective employees when he travels to large event sites where many vendors are present. "If someone impresses us, we try to find out if they're happy where they are," he says. The technical services company, based near Philadelphia, has about 80 full-time and 60 part-time employees. Sorin says it also places ads in technical magazines as well as on theater-related Internet bulletin boards.

One way to recruit management talent in the foodservice business is to woo star employees away from other establishments, says Adam Block, a consultant to the food and beverage industry and principal at Block and Associates in Sausalito, Calif. "You have to cold-call people and ask them what would make them move somewhere else," Block says. Some people will leave for better pay or more flexible hours, he says. "Obviously this angers the companies who lose employees," he says. But if a company offers a great working environment and treats employees like assets, its staff probably won't jump ship, he says.

Traditional recruiting methods such as newspaper ads are inconsistent in their effectiveness, say several employers. Jakob says he sunk a bundle of money into newspaper ads that didn't turn out to yield any good applications before he found success through a cheaper, simpler form of advertising. "Now when we get desperate, we put a sandwich board sign right in front of the building," he says. The sign circulates among his three locations in Dallas, all of which are in busy areas with a lot of foot traffic. "I don't know why, but that's been our best tactic for bringing in good applicants," he says.

As a last resort, employers pay headhunters to search for high-level employees or go through temporary agencies to fill out their rosters when they are in a crunch, several say. Total Success Events Services, which serves the Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., areas, provides employees to catering companies that need extra help, says Robert Pyle, co-founder and human resources director. Caterers call on his company-which draws from a pool of hundreds of staff members-for events larger than they normally handle, Pyle said. Demand for his service is high; the company has grown 300 percent every year since opening four years ago, he says.

Interviewing: Know What You Want In the special event industry, employers say they'll often choose enthusiasm and a good work ethic over experience.

Irene De Boer, general manager for the Atlanta office of De Boer Structures, looks for talkative applicants who present themselves well in an interview. "I look for outgoing, spontaneous people. You can't be shy and work in this industry," De Boer says. The company has hundreds of employees in eight offices around the world, she says.

Jakob also looks for attitude first. "The biggest thing I look for is drive and enthusiasm. Everything else I can teach," he says.

In the interview, special event industry employers should know which questions to ask to elicit the information they need. For example, an employer could gauge a potential employee's attitude about working long hours by asking candidates to describe a typical workweek and then to talk about a time when they worked longer. Some employees will describe a period when they had to work 10 weekends in a row, while others will moan how awful it was to work until 7 p.m. one day instead of 5 p.m., Jordan-Evans says. "People will be honest and that's how you get to attitude," she says.

Sorin throws hard-ball questions to anyone who makes it to a second or third interview for a sales position with Current Events International. "We try to analyze how these people think on their feet and how they deal with pressure," he says. "Can they make it through the tough questions without falling apart?"

Retention: Listen to Your Employees The work isn't over once you've hired the right person for the right job. It's just beginning. From that point on, employers must keep their valued employees happy.

The first step in that process is frequent communication with employees, Simpson says. Employers may be surprised to find that much of what employees want doesn't cost a cent, she says. For example, William M. Mercer consultants conducted focus groups for a hospitality industry client. They found that one key gripe was that employees didn't know their work schedules more than a week ahead of time. This meant they couldn't plan such everyday activities as doctor appointments or church commitments. "Just getting work schedules established with a longer time frame made employees a lot happier-and at virtually no cost," Simpson says.

"The starting point is to find out what will keep employees and what will entice them away," Jordan-Evans says. As long as employees are receiving compensation packages that are on par with industry standards, fatter paychecks alone won't dictate retention or loss of key employees, she says. "Be sure you're paying people competitively and then look at other things that are more elusive and important," she says, noting that employees crave the chance to learn and grow, for example. "People want exciting, challenging work," she says.

Westchester Country Club employees "seem to really enjoy" any kind of training or education, according to Ojarovska. The club hosts seminars to build up employees' familiarity with wines, for example. The club has also offered first aid courses, as well as English lessons on-site for Spanish-speaking employees, she says.

In a catering environment, it's important to "instill pride in the workforce, and to give employees a workplace that's conducive to their habits or goals," Block says. In some cases, that means making "upwardly mobile" positions available, he says. Many employees-both full and part time-visualize themselves working in higher positions or transitioning from service to sales, he says. "If employees feel their loyalty will have a long-term benefit, they'll stay," Block says.

Besides room for growth, employees seek recognition for a job well done, experts say. Praising employees comes naturally to Jakob. "We have great people. It's easy to tell them when they've done a fantastic job."

Jakob rewards staff for their extra efforts by taking groups out to dinner after big weekend events or by standing employees for a beer now and then. He sometimes gives them tickets to football games with the Dallas Cowboys-one of Abbey Party Rents' big clients-or to other professional sporting events, he says. The com-pany usually sends a 30-year employee and spouse out to dinner on their anniversary, he says.

If a De Boer Structures employee has worked a whole weekend, he or she is offered a day off the following week, Irene De Boer says. Many employees don't take her up on her offer, though, reflecting one of the biggest selling points of the special event industry: the fun factor. "It's not a pain to be walking around at a golf tournament all weekend," she says. The bottom line in staff retention is mutual respect, De Boer says. "It's a two-way street. If you treat employees well, you'll find that they treat the company well."

The tight labor market is prompting businesses of all sizes across the country to offer employees generous retention perks. Some of the most popular are:

* Referral bonuses given to employees who refer friends or acquaintances hired by the company.

* "Stay" bonuses given to employees on their employment anniversaries.

* Child-care reimbursement for employees who frequently travel or work extra evening hours.

* Resource and referral services for child care and elder care that help employees identify caregivers and programs in their areas.

* Telecommuting opportunities.

* Casual dress codes.

* Flexible schedules, where employees set their own hours or work compressed schedules (such as four 10-hour days a week).

* Combining paid time off (sick, vacation and personal days) into one pool.

Early retirees may be just the demographic to fill part-time positions at special event companies, says executive coach Sharon Jordan-Evans. This group doesn't want to retire to their rocking chairs, she says. "Early retirees are young, energetic and healthier than their predecessors. They're looking for part-time, flexible work that's meaningful, interesting and fun." They don't necessarily need health care benefits and pensions, either, she says. "They want to contribute, learn and grow."