Recruiting in tough labor markets requires innovative approaches. One strategy is to find specialized recruiting niches in thesame way that companies develop niche markets for their products and services. For example, you can:

  • Hire customers. Black Diamond Equipment Ltd., in Salt Lake City, tries to keep ahead of its rivals in the trendyrock-climbing and backcountry-skiing equipment industry by hiring people who use its products. The company fills itsworkforce with outdoor sports enthusiasts and capitalizes on their passion.
"We breathe it, live it, think about it constantly," says human resources vice president Meredith Saarinen, "which makes thewhole company a marketing and design resource. It kills complacency." Saarinen estimates that more than half of thecompany's 230 to 240 employees were customers before they joined Black Diamond. And that, Saarinen believes, makes fora committed workforce. "It's not that our employees can make suggestions," she adds, "but that they have the duty to makethem ... Their lives are going to be dangling from the piece of equipment they just made."

From a manager's standpoint, it's easier to promote your company as a place to work to a potential employee who alreadyknows and likes your product. Saarinen says that Black Diamond Equipment regularly receives applications from customerswho say, in effect, "This is a cool company. Got any work?"

  • Recruit senior citizens. At John Greene's executive chauffeur service, CTS International, in Braintree, Mass., about 30% ofthe company's 250 employees are retirees. Greene, whose company has annual revenues of $12 million, sends letters tohuman resources departments at local companies, seeking soon-to-be retirees looking for extra income.
  • Ask employees to help recruit. David Riordan, co-owner of OOP!, a specialty gift store in Providence, R.I., with annualrevenues of $1 million, knows he'll lose a good chunk of his employee base every May. That's because half his workers arestudents from local universities. "Even if they're great, we have them only for two to four years," he says. So when they comeon board, he asks his employees to agree to find and train their replacements when they leave. This technique satisfies mostof Riordan's hiring needs; he says that even though the store has been in business for 10 years, he has never had to place ahelp-wanted ad in the newspaper.
  • Use employee networks. You don't have to wait until employees leave to use them as recruiting resources. MarilynKonigsberg and Janie Murow, co-owners of MJ Java, an Omaha, Neb., coffee retailer with nearly $1 million in annual sales, havehad good luck hiring college students who play in bands for entry-level jobs at MJ Java. Those students make great workers,Konigsberg and Murow report, because they have a network -- the music scene -- from which they can refer other potentialemployees. As a bonus, the students excel at getting coworkers to substitute for them. "Since they have outside interests incommon, they're more inclined to cover for each other," says Murow.
Howard Getson, CEO of IntellAgent Control, a software development company in Dallas, also benefited from employeenetworking. When Getson hired four Baptist ministers as key programmers for his 20-employee company, it turned out to be ablessing in disguise. Since then, each minister has recruited several members of his congregation to the company. Suchnetworking, says Getson, "has created an unparalleled atmosphere of kindness and integrity."