Tag Archives: Universal Information Services

The Rise of the Contract Worker

May 16, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha’s slogan is “We Don’t Coast,” but we do…at least in one respect.

Employees in Midwestern cities like Omaha are less likely to work side gigs than are their counterparts elsewhere in the United States, and they’re among the least likely in the country to have changed jobs in the last two years.

Still, 15 percent of Midwestern employees surveyed in late 2017 for an NPR/Marist poll indicated that they identify as contract workers—those hired guns brought on to complete a specific project, or for a specific period of time.

While lower than the rate of 21-23 percent of workers who identified as such in other regions and the 20 percent figure nationally, that number is changing how employers hire, what they offer prospective employees in the way of benefits, and, some local experts say, how or if they can grow their businesses.

Erin Isenhart enjoys working as a contract employee. The sole proprietor of Yellow House Creative has spent the last five years bouncing from one contract to the next. 

She says one client, Joe Pittman of Omaha-based Creative Association Management, has asked “many times” about coming to work for his organization, which works with various industry associations. But Isenhart says she prefers the flexibility of building on her existing relationship with Pittman and his clients, for which she manages projects like social media marketing, website maintenance and creation, and event planning. She also says her decision to stay independent is a form of mitigating the risk of something like an unexpected layoff—a fate she’s experienced too many times already.

“I could just work full-time for him, but as a contractor, you don’t want all your eggs in one basket,” Isenhart says.

Contractual work may also be a plus for many companies. In late March, Virginia Kiviranta of My Staff said she could hardly believe the volume of contractors in the Omaha office of a 300-employee government services client.

“They had 50 contractors on site and that’s the most I’ve ever seen them have,” said Kiviranta, who is a partner with Brad Jones at the Omaha-based staffing company. “I don’t know where they’re putting everyone. I didn’t think they have that much space.”

Government contracting by nature is project-driven, but step back and consider the tight labor market in general: Midwestern companies, on average, took nearly 32 days to fill an opening in January, according to the latest data from New York-based DHI Group Inc. The company uses data from its careers website combined with federal jobs data to derive a picture of about how long it takes to fill a job opening. Its time-to-hire index in January was more than double the duration of the same period in January 2009, when the recession was ravaging the economy and employers were slashing workforces.

A press release from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution states that, “Many vacancy postings for skill-intensive jobs draw few applicants, in line with employer claims that talent is scarce. Yet the typical jobseeker competes with many, many rivals for desired jobs. The upshot is that labor markets are both tight (for employers) and slack (for workers) at the same time.”

In other words, that means current conditions are indicative of a job-hunter’s market—especially for one with desirable skills. And that can pose a problem for a company trying to hire top talent.

“A lot of small businesses just don’t have a huge office, they don’t have a place to put everybody, and that’s costly,” says Isenhart. “Then when it comes to paying for insurance and any of the different benefits, it’s just not in their budget.”

Todd Murphy, CEO of Universal Information Services, takes a different view.

“The gig economy, and its related employees, is great in that it allows employers to use a flexible work force,” Murphy says. “The downside is that if you need ongoing support from someone, they may be busy on another project. I’ve also seen a person go from working gigs to being a full-time employee. This can have the same outcome in that they become unavailable for continued support or development.”

So, with a tight labor market for employers, local staffing professionals say a combination of contractors and temp-to-hire employees may be a good approach for staffing solutions.

“For the temp employees we put out to our clients, if there is a longer-term need than just a short three-to-six-month project, those [temp] individuals are the frontrunners to take those positions,” says Josh Boesch, shareholder at Lutz Talent, which specializes in finding employees for the accounting and finance industries. “The temporary employees oftentimes are performing working interviews, whereas a typical applicant or candidate for a job may only get an hour or a half hour to attempt to impress the hiring manager.”

Brian Smith spent almost a decade in retail banking before focusing on marketing; now, he works on a contract basis with political candidates and corporate clients as a consultant. Unlike Isenhart or other industry-specific contractors, he says he’s on a more fluid course and is currently angling to work with municipalities on urban innovation initiatives.

And with the right combination of contract work and flexibility, he may well reach his goal.


This article was printed in the June/July 2018 edition of B2B. 

Erin Isenhart

Preserving News History with Razor Blades and Computers

December 18, 2017 by
Photography by Scott Drickey

Free beer Friday. Employees at Universal Information Services can indulge in a cold brew at the stroke of 4 p.m. at the office (although some have acknowledged to sipping on suds a half hour earlier).

“Cookies in the break room,” one employee whispers as she slips past with her treat.

Vice president Todd Murphy believes beer and food are universally accepted. It’s one way Todd invests the time to get to know each employee. Just this week, someone was awarded the “9 a.m. employee of the hour.” His father, president Jim Murphy, took a photo with her in front of the flag. It seems like a small gesture, but Todd believes these are what make people work harder.

“We have bosses who care,” P.R. measurement director Austin Gaule says.

Whether it is helping someone after their mother dies, buying a favorite record, or ensuring good coffee is available, this personal touch is invaluable to the Murphys’ corporate plan.

“It’s the little simple things that add up over the course of 109 years,” Todd believes.

Leasha Benolken scans one of the newspapers received at Universal.

Todd’s father Jim, a former brigadier general in the National Guard, learned how to empower people to their highest degree while in the military.

“Not only did it help them improve, but it made me look good,” he jokes.

Yet, when all the work is set aside, one feeling resonates in this tight-knit office space—family.

It was an idea that started in 1908 when Katherine Allen created the company. With a slide of a razor blade, Allen would send state legislators clippings from newspaper articles about themselves or their competitors. Jim worked side by side with her for nearly a decade in a time when women were typically wives and mothers. Allen was a “progressive, smart individual,” but Jim took the company to innovative levels as the world changed.

Jim originally worked part-time in Washington, D.C., as a press aide, meeting such presidents as Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. It did not appeal to him—he was not fond of the politicians, lobbyists, and traffic. He put his finger on middle America, and it landed on Omaha. He didn’t know a soul. He entered the National Guard and met “5,000 instant friends.” Jim purchased the Universal Press Clipping Bureau in 1959.

Jim took the motto of Winston Churchill to heart, “We must take change by the hand or, rest assuredly, change will take us by the throat.”

He developed construction reports for prospective clients. It is an ideal way for architects or engineers to learn about projects long before there is an official request from a proposal. And when Jim received a call from a senator’s office to cover television news channels, it was time to take technology to new heights.

“I like to be up for a challenge,” Jim says.

Vice president Todd Murphy uses both “reel” technology and modern technology in his business.

He called Todd, then 13 years old, and asked him what he should buy at Nebraska Furniture Mart. Jim bought VCRs and had Todd set them up in his own bedroom with cords running haphazardly through the house so they could index and record broadcasts.

The company name has since changed, along with technology, and it is a data information landmine. Todd, who once wanted to become a cinematographer in Hollywood, realized the need to hire knowledge workers who could absorb data.

The data collectors have consequently become a dominant part of the office space. A room full of black servers track information clients want into databases across 16 states, from Nebraska to Alaska. The company pings 165 radio stations across the United States and Canada. Televisions are tuned into the latest scandals. Monica Lewinsky used the company to discover what was printed about her after news broke of her relationship with then-President Bill Clinton. Dr. Phil uses the service differently, mainly wanting to know if his program has good service.

And yet, a nod to the nostalgic age of print still resonates. The “Reading Room” is filled with newspapers, many of which make their way to another room to be clipped and scanned by hand.

In the digital preservation room, the old VHS and media equipment offer a tribute to history. Whether it is footage of Casey the gorilla being flown into the Omaha Zoo or huge bindings of newspapers, Jim hopes to clean, restore, and digitize the moments by using some of the aging monitors and sound systems.

Dr. Lee Simmons, chairman of the Omaha Zoo Foundation, echoes this on Universal’s website.

“Unless our history is preserved, we may find ourselves victims to the coming digital dark age,” he says. “We must be able to access our past so we can continue to improve the future.”

Visit universal-info.com for more information.

This article published in the Fall 2017 edition of B2B.