The Great Recession has bequeathed one of the oddest hiring markets in U.S. history. Despite lingering high unemployment, many businesses report difficulty finding skilled workers. Fears about a double dip make it doubly hard for companies to know when and how to fill jobs.
A good place to start is by getting a mental grip on the current landscape. The layoffs, freezes and wage cuts of the past three years have greatly unsettled management-employee relations. Just look at Madison, Wisconsin, where angry union members, students and sympathetic workers have occupied the state capitol building to protest proposed legislative changes to labor benefits and collective bargaining.
With so much at stake nowadays, owners may want to speed up the staffing process so they can "get back to work." But hiring is among the most important, high-impact aspects of that work. Here are some important steps to consider as the businesses start to crawl out of the recession.
1. Don't assume you have the upper hand. The idea that businesses can pick workers from the cream of the crop, pay them less and they'll be grateful is a fallacy. First, a talent shortage in fields unscathed by recession, including healthcare, entertainment, data communications and biotech, ensures rising wages. Second, the last few years have bred an internalized sense of independence among many job hunters.
Kevin Wheeler is founder and CEO of the recruitment consulting firm Global Learning Resources, Inc. in Fremont, California, and founder of the Future of Talent Institute, which analyzes global workplace trends and attitudes.
According to him, "The best employees are in control and have been for some time. Employers may have a slight and temporary ability to dictate to employees, but as soon as the economy recovers, any employer who has acted that way will lose his or her best people."
Finally, the fraying of traditional loyalties has led to a devaluation of corporate employment. But Wheeler thinks this is where small firms enjoy an advantage. "They can offer more variety and more challenging work than can larger and more specialized employers," he says. "They can also allow more flexible work schedules, when possible, as well as offer to cross-train and upskill employees."
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2. Be prepared to reinvent the job. It's tempting to grab an old job description. But the recession has triggered new trends in staffing. More than ever, small firms need high-productivity, high-efficiency employees. That means evaluating beyond the position.
Mary Crisafulli is chief talent officer at Clearvision Optical Co., which won The New York Enterprise Report's 2009 Best Practice Award for Human Resources and Leadership. The Hauppauge, N.Y., firm has 135 full-time staff and 80 outside sales consultants and actually grew during the recession – not easy when your product is high-quality eyewear.
"Whenever we have a role open, we look at the entire department first to identify the skill gaps," says Crisafulli, who joined Clearvision in 2008 to centralize and install hiring protocols. "We ask questions like, does it make sense to shift around responsibilities? It's not uncommon to replace somebody with an entirely different person than we first thought."
Another recent trend for small businesses is hiring to what Crisafulli calls a higher level of competencies. "Rather than plugging someone into a closely specified position, we want someone who can work across disciplines and fill out different roles for the future."
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3. Decide if this is a full-time, part-time or temporary job. Part-time and contract workers provide an employer with flexibility. They can relieve regular staff stretched to the overtime breaking point. And the pool of qualified workers in areas like technology, engineering and financial services has never been bigger.
But with all that talent available, this also may be the best time to fill permanent positions. "You have to plan for the future," says Crisafulli. "We want someone committed and to whom we are committed – you get more from a person who's got ownership in the end game."
Clearvision hires temporary workers for short-term projects, drawing on professions known for freelancing, e.g., designers and technical writers. But Crisafulli advises against converting full-time jobs to temporary: "Do you want that accountant you hired in January gone at tax time?"
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4. Make sure you're an attractive employer. Once upon a time, the 360-review was an innovative concept for democratizing the workplace. Staffers got to evaluate their supervisors the way their supervisors evaluated them.
Now, workplace criticism has joined the Internet free-for-all. Just as many an employee has learned that the boss is checking his or her Facebook page, many a boss should know that disgruntled employees (and ex-employees) could wreak havoc with a firm's online reputation.
The trauma of downsizing has contributed to worker mistrust. Smart prospective hires – the kind you want -- will thoroughly research your business. Before you even post a job, vet your company online and take steps to address negative comments, including customer feedback. Be prepared for the subject to come up in interviews.
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5. Vary your recruiting methods. High unemployment and the proliferation of online places to post or apply for jobs have created a tough-to-navigate thicket for firms and applicants alike. But it's hard to afford the kind of select retainer-based search firm that charge a one-third fee.
Consider thrifty options. Contract recruiters charge by the hour for candidate identification and preliminary interviewing, an especially good option if you have several jobs to fill because the recruiter will get to know your company. They'll also unearth passive candidates – skilled workers employed elsewhere and not actively looking for new jobs.
A great source of prospective hires can be your staff. Assuming they're happy, ask for referrals and develop an incentive bonus for each referral that gets interviewed or hired. And don't forget posting on Facebook and Twitter – a built-in base of fans familiar with your business.
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6. Delegate, delegate, delegate. Jay Goltz owns a group of home décor companies in Chicago and writes and lectures about small business issues. A favorite topic is the try-to-do-it-all-yourself business owner.
When it comes to hiring, Goltz writes, entrepreneurs like himself aren't that great at it: "They tend to like people and to be optimistic, which is dangerous in the hiring process." Also, he notes, "During interviews, they spend too much time talking about the great company they are building. And they don't take the time to check references or they don't know how to do it."
Even heads of the best-run companies eventually concede an expert HR person is needed. "As business grows, things that were easier to have a point of view about become more difficult to see because the company is bigger," says Clearvision's Crisafulli tactfully.
At the very least, she says, an HR professional should do first-phase interviewing.
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7. Factoring in the recession, face-to-face. When hard times become personified in the form of a human job applicant, it's good to recall a few final guidelines.
The person willing to take a position two or three levels below his/her last job or a $30,000 pay cut is focused less on the opportunity your firm presents than on getting a job, period. He or she will sooner become discontented and leave, especially as things pick up.
Today's skilled workers have become more assertive and more skeptical. Don't make vague pitches, like a great promotion that may someday occur. On the plus side, these folks are more interested in a true match of values that fosters long-term employment. So, open up.
It may be hard to believe, but the economy will get better. Your preparation for retaining talented and experienced people will be the deals you strike with them now. Consider each job at hand and decide if affordable mediocrity or expensive quality serves you best.
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