In-Depth

Hire Power: Top Recruiting Tips

Here are super ways to win the high-stakes competition to recruit top talent.

The past couple of months have been busy ones for Janine Cremers. The vice president for human resources at Seattle-based ePartners Inc. has tendered job offers to 25 prospective employees during that time. And she still has another 40 to 50 positions to fill.

Like executives at many other Microsoft partner companies, Cremers sees no relief from those sorts of numbers. With a tightening job market increasing the competition for fewer candidates, she expects to be scrambling for the foreseeable future.

"It's going to be tough because we, like everyone else, are looking for A+ talent with lots of experience," says Cremers, whose consulting firm is a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner. "Unfortunately, the people we're interested in are getting multiple job offers. They're not sitting by the phone, waiting for it to ring."

These days, stories about the future of employee recruitment often come with headlines that seem more suited to describing the latest horror movie at the local multiplex. Words and phrases such as "crisis," "black hole" and "crash" add a sense of approaching doom to the substantial gloom companies already face as they seek qualified recruits to fill a growing list of jobs.

But there's evidence that you shouldn't lose faith. Although it's clear that a recovering U.S. economy, combined with the approach of unforgiving demographic realities, will make it harder to fill those empty desks and cubicles, employment experts say the task won't be impossible for companies that take steps today to prepare for tomorrow's employment wars.

Creative Approach
For Cremers and others like her, that means a more creative, aggressive form of recruitment, including offering options to job candidates seeking perks beyond paychecks. One example: the opportunity to telecommute (an activity that Cremers can speak to directly; she works at home three days a week). "You can't compete with just a good compensation package," she says. "People are now interested in other aspects, especially the work-life balance."

While companies in almost every industry will find themselves competing to hire the best job candidates, software and IT services companies are among those most likely to face the greatest talent shortages -- and the fiercest battles.

In fact, many employment experts agree that the hiring crunch is already upon us. With the economy growing slowly but steadily, the nation's unemployment rate was at 4.7 percent in January 2006, the lowest level since August 2001. Companies that imposed hiring freezes during the recent recession are now filling vacancies and adding new positions. The 4 million jobs that the U.S. Department of Labor says has been added nationwide over the past two years speak to the fact that it's quickly becoming a jobseekers' market.

"Employers are finding it harder to get the people they want, and employees are finding more freedom to look for jobs and dictate what it is they want," says John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based employment consulting firm.

Such trends are expected to continue into the next decade, creating the possibility of worker shortages at both the high and low ends of the job market. The numbers clearly speak to the difficulties ahead.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the U.S. economy will create 18.9 million new jobs by 2014, an increase of 13 percent over 2004 levels. But that's only part of the picture. The bureau estimates that there will be 54.7 million total job openings during that same period. That breathtaking number includes both those newly minted positions and the spots being left behind by retiring baby boomers -- that huge cohort of Americans born between 1946 and 1964.

Bottom line: The 77 million baby boomers, who will begin to reach traditional retirement age in 2010, are followed by only 44 million Generation Xers, generally defined as those Americans born from the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Those numbers have long-term implications for the job market no matter how the nation's economy fluctuates in the coming years.

"What you're seeing in the job market now is the normal part of the business cycle," says John Dooney, manager of strategic research for the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), an Alexandria, Va.-based professional association. "But over time, as the demographics change, it's going to be a much more systemic problem."

And don't expect that overseas outsourcing will reduce the competition for skilled employees in this country. The Association for Computing Machinery, a New York City-based coalition of academic, government and industry officials, recently reported that while some 2 percent to 3 percent of American IT jobs are moving to India, China and other overseas locations every year, overall growth in the field means that the number of workers needed at home should still easily outpace the exports.

The math to be derived from these projections is simple and unpleasant. More jobs to fill minus fewer potential employees to fill them equals tremendous competition among growing businesses.

Obviously, the employment-war winners will be the companies who best learn how to compete for top talent. That requires some attitude adjustment, especially among hiring managers. Often, Dooney says, those managers are stuck in the mindset of the 1980s, a time when they were entering a tight and competitive marketplace where employers had the pick of the field.

7 Tips for Highly Effective Hiring

Following is some additional advice for recruiting top talent:

1. Recognize the new reality. When it comes to hiring, we’re now in a buyer’s market -- and it’s the job-seeker, not the employer, who’s doing the buying.

2. Start early. Offer internships or develop other programs with local colleges -- and even high schools -- to connect with potential future employees. If you’re a small employer, consider banding together with other partners to launch such efforts.

3. Sell yourself. Push your human resources department to market your company to job candidates the same way you market your products or services to prospective customers. Promote it accordingly not just to prospective hires, but also throughout the industry.

4. Use the grapevine. When you’ve got a specific job opening, let the channel know. Post messages in online forums or tell your peers in person in events such as TS2 meetings and the annual Worldwide Partner Conference. You never know: Someone may know someone who’s an ideal candidate.

5. Share information. Hiring managers regularly interview applicants who, while highly qualified, aren’t quite right for the jobs in question but might fit in well elsewhere. Encourage non-competing partners to steer good prospects your way, and do the same for them.

6. Ask your PAM. Microsoft Partner Account Managers are plugged into many different companies; yours may know, for instance, of a laid-off specialist who’s seeking a new job or a recent retiree interested in part-time consulting work.

7. Emphasize retention. Replacing employees wastes money, time and energy. -- F.B.

Networking Tools
The first step into this brave new world is realizing that the days of trolling for qualified job applicants through newspaper ads and job fairs are over. Companies can no longer wait for responses to old-fashioned, haphazard systems that rely on job seekers coming to them. Instead, the most competitive now keep tabs on and reach out to potential hires through a variety of sources from Monster.com to outsourcing companies offering specialized contract workers. Some even use in-house databases to track the recognized talent in the field. These systems act as virtual proud parents, automatically collecting data on an individual's career path that can be accessed anytime a manager or HR department has a hot opening to fill quickly.

Karl Muhlbauer, manager of recruiting for Insource Technology Corp., a Houston-based Microsoft Gold Certified Partner specializing in system design and implementation, visits social and professional networking Web sites, such as Linkedin.com, to find talented people who aren't even necessarily looking for jobs. "These sites don't give you individual resumes, but they do give you an overall profile of what these people have done," he says. "It's another tool in the tool box."

Meanwhile, keep in mind that many top candidates may have already scoped you out by talking with your own workers. Leigh Branham, founder of Keeping the People Inc., an Overland Park, Kan., employment consulting firm, recommends that companies take advantage of such networking to entice top applicants.

"Your employment plan is communicated through your workforce," Branham says. "Your reputation is your brand, and your reputation is being built by word-of-mouth when workers from different companies gather at backyard barbecues."

Many companies already take advantage of this grassroots networking by encouraging existing employees to steer good prospects their way. As they did during the heady Internet bubble days of the 1990s, many companies are again offering employees cash incentives for bringing new workers into the fold. For instance, ePartners encourages employees to recruit their talented friends, offering them bounties ranging from $1,500 to as much as $10,000 for hard-to-fill jobs.

The days of trolling for qualified job applicants through newspaper ads and job fairs are over. Companies can no longer wait for responses to old-fashioned, haphazard systems that rely on job seekers coming to them.

There are other ways to encourage networking. Cisco Systems Inc., a veteran of the 1990s Silicon Valley employee wars, has used a link on its main Web site, labeled "Make Friends @ Cisco," that encourages potential recruits to contact a list of the San Jose, Calif.-based company's employees to find out what their working lives are like.

Tamara Erickson, executive officer of Concours Group, a consulting firm with offices in Kingwood, Texas, and Watertown, Mass., says efforts like Cisco's point to the need for firms to sell themselves to potential employees.

"The future HR department will have to have marketing skills as good as the company's marketing department," says Erickson, co-author of the just-published book Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent (Harvard Business School Press, 2006). She and others say such company branding efforts aren't just important for attracting applicants, but making sure that new employees -- who cost a bundle to recruit and train -- will stay with you, an effort that should begin during the job interview.

"Too often, there is not enough frank talk from both sides of the table," Branham says. A serious applicant may want a job so badly that he or she doesn't ask about potentially negative aspects. Meanwhile, the interviewer doesn't offer any such insights for fear of losing a highly qualified candidate.

That lack of candor can lead to a new employee's quick departure -- and the additional expense and bother of finding a replacement. "It's better to lose them up front with a realistic job preview," Branham says. [The next installment in RCP's management series will cover employee retention. -- Ed.]

In defining your company's "brand" of employment, experts encourage you to consider new options to attract the often-choosy best job candidates into your fold. That can mean changing your staffing policies and job definitions so that you can accommodate contract workers, telecommuters and -- one of the biggest potential labor sources out there -- baby boomers who might opt for something more than retirement and less than a full-time job.

To attract the most desirable candidates of any age, companies must look beyond the traditional in-the-office, 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday model, Erickson says. "A lot of people don't want to be traditional employees -- the younger for philosophical reasons and the older for lifestyle reasons," she says. "Part of the message now is, 'Think outside the box and make the concessions necessary to tap into those new realities.'"

The Boomer Benefit
Nowhere is the challenge to think creatively greater than when it comes to those baby boomers. Employment experts admit that no one is sure exactly what this massive population will do as its members reach retirement age. But there's great potential for them to be the salvation for the tight job market -- especially in terms of retention.

George LaVenture, president of Trinity Consulting Inc., a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner based in Marlboro, Mass., has already brought in semi-retired boomers to work on special projects, augmenting Trinity's 10-person work force.

"It gives me access to tremendously talented, experienced people without having to worry about the overhead of benefits and taxes," says LaVenture, whose company specializes in designing and implementing database and messaging systems. "They get to work on a project they enjoy and we get to bring talent to our clients. All three parties win."

Erickson recommends that companies begin developing strategies to retain their own boomer-age employees in different roles, or even hire boomers part-time after they retire from competing businesses. "Companies are going to need these people and these people are going to want to do something," she says. "The question will be: Can companies come up with jobs that are appealing to the baby boomers?"

All these new strategies leave no doubt that the world of employee recruitment and hiring is shifting rapidly. Your success will be determined by how well you deal with these changes as opportunities rather than crises.

"People are accepting this new world conceptually, but many are still wrestling with putting it into perspective," Erickson says. "The bottom line for success is to realize that you are going to have to accommodate a lot of new perspectives on what a job is. The ones who surrender to this idea are the ones who will succeed."

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