When Ed Garnett interviews prospective employees for Amgen Inc., he has an ace in the hole.

It isn't Amgen's billion-dollar Epogen drug franchise, or the fact that the stock price has more than doubled over the past year, although those accomplishments certainly help to attract the finest talent to the Thousand Oaks-based biotechnology firm.

What the vice president of human resources has up his sleeve is something entirely different: about 12 open slots in Amgen's day care center, which are reserved specifically for the children of new recruits.

"We had one guy (we wanted to hire) for whom it was a deal breaker," Garnett said. "We had to find a spot for this guy's child in our day care center (or he wasn't going to come on board)." A spot was found for his child, and he joined the company.

Amgen is not alone in designing benefits packages with appeal that goes beyond the pocketbook. In the increasingly fierce battle to lure the best and brightest and keep them employers are hauling out a new arsenal of weapons, benefits aimed squarely at workers' quality of life.

Dot-coms are offering concierge services that run the errands employees don't have time to handle. At Universal Studios Inc., employees can schedule 15-minute massages right at their desks. And at Red Bull N.A., an Austria-based energy drink manufacturer that opened an office in Santa Monica three years ago, employees can avail themselves of free consultations on legal, financial or psychological issues.

"There is this feeling that people are working harder than ever," said Victor Hwang, chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance. "Beyond that there seems to be some fundamental shift in people's approach to the workplace. Quality of life is on par with strict compensation."

Amgen operates an on-premises car wash, a dry-cleaning pickup and delivery service, and takeout meal service for employees who don't have the inclination or the time to cook at home. But the centerpiece of its benefits package is the day care center.

So important is the center that on June 12, the company will cut the ribbon on a newly rebuilt and expanded facility that nearly doubles its capacity to 432 children. At 44,856 square feet, with 32 classrooms and 16 play yards, the facility is the largest corporate day care center in the country, according to Amgen officials.

"We use it especially from an (employee) attraction-and-retention standpoint," said Garnett. "As we grow, we can grow this benefit for employees with children."

Tight job market

Hiring needs in the third quarter of this year are expected to continue unabated in Los Angeles County, according to a staffing report recently released by Manpower Inc., a Milwaukee-based recruiter. That will only exacerbate a worker shortage that many employers, particularly in high-tech industries, have been grappling with for close to two years now.

According to Manpower's survey, 34 percent of employers in L.A. County expect to increase their employee rosters in the period, up from 24 percent in the second quarter. In the Valley and the Westside of L.A., 39 percent of employers expect to add new hires, the report said.

The scarcity of workers has sent many companies scurrying to find ways to distinguish themselves to potential applicants, and while signing bonuses, stock options and other monetary incentives are still high on the list of tactics, human resources professionals report they sometimes are not enough to do the job.

Monthly meetings of the Northern San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley chapter of the Professionals in Human Resources Association draw one-and-a-half times as many attendees when the featured topic is recruiting, said Jenny Roney, a district chair for the PIHRA chapter. "It used to be that attorneys were the big turnout (when they spoke about employment law)," she said. "But last year and this year, the big interest is in how to attract employees. You can't even get to retention because these people are so desperate to recruit them."

Getting creative with benefits

Companies of all sizes report that, with demographic changes lowering the average age of employees, they are seeing worker priorities shift from perks that put food on the table to those that feed the soul.

"When you talk about non-cash recognition and reward, a lot of companies are trying to create environments where employees are content and happy," said Karen Jorgensen, president of Jorgensen HR, a human resources consulting firm in La Canada Flintridge. "I think over the last three years, we're seeing a real focus, especially because of the unemployment levels, on best practices found in leading companies that have excellent retention rates."

Jorgensen said her clients are adding health club memberships and providing personal trainers, catering breakfasts and lunches for employees, and unbundling benefits packages to tailor perks to individual needs. "A benefit package might be, we'll give you $5,000 in benefits, and you can choose to use it for graduate school or child care or something else," Jorgensen said.

At the Santa Monica offices of Red Bull, Director of Human Resources Dan Curtin said his privately held company can't offer stock options so the benefits package has to compensate. In addition to paying 100 percent of the cost of medical insurance for employees and their families, three months ago Curtin (who was hired specifically to improve the company's package) added an employee assistance program offering counseling in legal, financial and psychological matters.

Red Bull also provides company credit cards, so workers can conveniently pay for work-related expenses without having to dip into their own pockets, and laptop computers to help ease the time strains placed on employees who spend a lot of time on the road. Now, Curtin is looking at the possibility of adding a concierge who would be available to run errands that employees don't have time for.

New-job daydreams

Employers say the benefits are not just important to attract employees, they help to keep them as well. A recently released study indicates that employees think about leaving their jobs once a week, said Alysia Vanitzian, vice president and chief learning officer at Employers Group, an L.A. association that specializes in human resource services and products.

"So if you're the typical employer out there fighting for talent and fighting that fact that you've got people thinking how they can improve their circumstance every week, it behooves you to start thinking about ways to ease their quality of life," Vanitzian said.

Back at Amgen, the new day care center was designed with just such a focus. Developed with the help of the International Child Resource Institute in Berkeley and managed by child care specialists at Bright Horizons, the center offers such services as hard-to-find infant care, nursing rooms for new mothers and special toilets for potty training. Although it's not a free benefit employees have to pay tuition for their children the rates are 10 percent to 15 percent below market rate, according to company officials.

"It's our staff's children, and the ability to enhance the productivity of our staff by enabling them to not worry about their kids because the kids are right here in a high-quality facility is worth a lot," Garnett said.

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