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Stark Surroundings, Specialized Industry a Challenge to Texas Firm's Recruiters

January 11, 2011
Related Topics: Background Checks & Investigations, Candidate Sourcing, Interviewing, Workforce Planning, Featured Article
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Three years ago, B&W Pantex faced up to several glaring recruitment challenges.

The problems weren’t unusual for a defense contracting company that employs a large number of engineers: how to reinvigorate an aging workforce whose average age is 47 and a shortage of qualified candidates for open positions. The company additionally faced an unacceptably high turnover rate among new hires.

Yet solving those recruitment problems meant tackling some basic, even larger challenges. Since it could take 18 to 24 months to generate the necessary security clearances, getting new employees onboard and working was an arduous process. Perhaps even more daunting, recruiters had to convince candidates that there is a bright future in the rather unglamorous field of nuclear weapons storage and that living in the dusty, remote Texas Panhandle is a destination rather than a career stopover.

To address these challenges, Amarillo, Texas-based B&W Pantex, a 3,300-employee company that operates a nuclear weapons storage site for the U.S. Energy Department, embarked on a new recruiting program in 2007 to build depth and freshen its engineering staff.

The company targeted specific colleges for candidates to work at the sprawling 25-square-mile plant some 17 miles northeast of Amarillo, a city of 245,000 people smack in the middle of the Texas Panhandle. Recruiters made campus presentations and began working closely with college and university career offices.

The B&W Pantex human resources staff members also came to grips with a reality more familiar to the real estate industry: It’s all about location. They realized Amarillo’s flat, dry and largely treeless landscape played a significant role in driving away recently hired staff.

They determined that expectations of new employees relocating to Amarillo had to be better managed.

“It is difficult to recruit due to our security requirements and our location,” says Clarissa Baker, an HR generalist at the plant. “It’s hard to bring people in if they don’t have ties to the area.”

The campus recruiting program focused on campuses in similar environments, such as New Mexico State University, West Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and Oklahoma State University. To help candidates develop ties to Amarillo, students were brought to the plant for a site visit after an initial round of on-campus interviews. Recruits saw firsthand the working environment and met with staff and management both at the plant and during off-site meals.

B&W Pantex then launched a bold—and potentially expensive—program to cultivate employee loyalty and begin the lengthy security clearance process early by hiring employees while they were still in college. Job offers were made to promising students who were selected after the on-site interviews. If they accepted, they could receive up to $30,000 in educational expenses.

The program is unique among area employers, says Denese Skinner, director of career and counseling services at West Texas A&M University. “B&W Pantex found that it had to change the way it recruits to get the best and the brightest. It is the only company to offer a direct-hire program rather than an internship arrangement.”

The company has developed elements to ensure a return on its investment. If candidates receive a grade below a C on any course or steps outside of the agreed-upon degree plan, tuition will not be covered; candidates may not change degree plans without company approval.

The plant reduces its risk exposure and builds motivation for keeping the deal by providing the tuition funds as a reimbursement when the employee comes to work full time. Successful candidates are required to work two months for every month of tuition received; if they leave the company early, they must repay the difference.

The tuition reimbursement program appears to be an effective recruiting tool.

“We used to get maybe 10 or 15 candidates to review for each open position. Now we get more than 50,” says Shane Rogers, an engineering specialist who frequently works with the new hires. At Texas Tech alone, more than 80 applications were received even before the on-campus presentation, he says.

The plant makes 12 offers per year, six each in the fall and spring, and the yield is high. Candidates who accept the offer receive an average starting salary of $4,800 per month, plus a signing bonus of $2,500 to $3,000, plus their tuition reimbursement as a lump sum—a real windfall during their first month post-graduation. But it’s not just the money that brings them.

“Student feedback indicates that the plant visit is what helped them decide,” Rogers says.

“I knew that I wanted to stay in the area after graduating, and Pantex is one of the best companies to work for,” says Josh Wilburn, a process engineer who joined the company in January 2009. “I knew what the plant did and how it functioned. Having my clearance before I came in really helped.”

Thus far, 12 candidates have participated in the program. Because many were recruited during their last semester of college, Pantex has invested a total of only $34,000 thus far. But it plans to do much more. “Senior management has agreed to continue the program indefinitely, as long as our budget allows,” Rogers says.

Workforce Management Online, January 2011 -- Register Now!

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