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Stellar Recruiting for a Tight Labor Market

August 1, 1998
Related Topics: Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article
They look like they landed from another galaxy. Legions of wild-looking, fluorescent-colored vehicles race 1,500 miles as part of the U.S. Sunrayce, an inter-collegiate competition to build and race solar-powered cars. EDS, a professional services firm that supplies consulting, business systems and technology to clients worldwide, is a primary sponsor of the event, providing scoring and timing devices, location tracking systems and even EDS technical engineers. Meanwhile, they're looking for talented college students to recruit, like Wayne Watson, who was a chief organizer for the California State Polytechnic at Pomona team. Not only did Watson help design and build a next-century vehicle, but he also was at the race every morning charging solar batteries, checking the car's alignment and making sure support vehicles were packed with the gear participants needed on their cross-country trek. With a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, Watson displayed critical qualities any corporation would want in an employee. EDS snatched him up, and today Watson is a systems engineer for the Plano, Texas-based company.

EDS is willing to go wherever necessary to find talent. In addition to attending the U.S. Sunrayce, EDS has had representatives go to ski slopes to whoosh down the mountains distributing EDS flyers and T-shirts. The purpose: to immediately gather recruits as well as build name recognition. Efforts such as these are crucial for the company's very survival. In 1997 alone, the enterprise had to fill 15,000 new slots. With numbers like that, and a low-unemployment rate looming, the global titan (with 110,000 employees) must come up with innovative, effective recruiting and staffing methods.

EDS isn't alone. Today's tight labor market poses the threat of failure to businesses across America. According to the May 1998 figures of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment dove to 4.3 percent. In reaction to this threat, organizations are launching an array of creative staffing techniques. Some use innovative tactics such as sponsoring and attending Sunrayce. Others exploit more traditional methods, but add new twists to help their companies stand out. However, all focus on ingenious ways to staff their firms to avoid a chasm of vacant job positions.

"This is absolutely critical to us," says Marsha Clark, corporate vice president of employee development at EDS, "and we're examining all kinds of innovative ways to get the word out about EDS and attract good people."

Don't underestimate relationship building.
One of the most effective ways to attract good people is by developing name recognition for your company. The Internet is an efficient tool to accomplish this. Another is building relationships.

EDS recruits two to three thousand new employees a year from colleges. The company has 50 targeted colleges where HR develops relationships with placement offices, deans of business and engineering schools, financial aid offices (because EDS offers scholarships) and several multicultural business organizations.

As part of its relationship with these targeted colleges, EDS offers resume-writing classes and other similar services. But more than that, once a year the corporation offers a "Case Challenge." Each of the 50 schools has a team of four students -- a technical major, a financial type, a marketing or sales major and a person interested in human resources. EDS gives the teams a business scenario and expects them to come up with business applications of the work they're doing in school and then make presentations. From this group, EDS selects a series of finalists and has a competition. EDS executives are judges and select the final school, which receives a scholarship. The series of finalists come to the EDS campus, where they're exposed to the senior managers, learn about the company and talk with company staffers, who begin the process of developing a longer-term relationship with the students.

In the same spirit, EDS also has a huge student internship program of 500 to 700 students. The emphasis of the internships is to learn about the EDS community and corporate culture. Clark encourages managers who like their interns to offer them future positions, even if it's nine or ten months before the students will be able to start work. "We have a saying here that you 'hire the traits and train the skills,'" says Clark. "If you want good people, you go out and get good people, and then figure out where you're going to put them. If a manager has a person who has a strong work ethic, is an agile learner and has demonstrated leadership (whether that be in extracurricular activities or class president), we want that individual to be part of this company."

These individuals aren't only found at college campuses. Daniel Leonhardt, president of Cincinnati, Ohio-based Leonhardt Plating Company, develops relationships with local temporary services agencies to find them. Leonhardt is a small firm of 25 employees, but the turnover is high in some of the unskilled positions. Because of the agencies' long-term relationships with Leonhardt, they not only send him high quality temporary help (who he will hire full time if they work out), but they also will alert him to layoffs and skilled individuals who come into the labor market full-time.

Try new techniques for old strategies.
Another staffing strategy that works well for Leonhardt is employee referrals. The company has an unusually high percentage of relatives who work together. There are six Leonhardts, and five other sets of father-son, father-daughter, brothers, and so on. "People who have worked for us a long time -- loyal employees -- will ask if their family member can work here," he says.

EDS has formalized this process. The company's corporate-wide referral program has three tiers depending on the job code of the individual referred, and rewards employees for successful referrals based on the job category. In addition, anyone who refers an employee puts his or her name into a hat to become eligible for a $4,000 vacation or a laptop computer.

EDS constantly re-evaluates such programs. The company doesn't allow its old recruiting techniques to become tired and worn. For example, to differentiate itself at career fairs (300 or more), the company outfits a traveling EDS mobile station, complete with interview rooms and technology that shows off its capabilities, such as providing satellite access to the Web from the bus. EDS also puts a fresh spin on traditional advertising methods. The company has gotten good response from placing recruitment ads in "Val Pak," a direct-mail envelope that has various coupons. Cost-per-hire is low, and the pack targets advertising at a specific area.

Look to new sources for employees.
Companies like EDS have learned that, rather than fighting over the same resources, it's wise to seek new reservoirs of talent. EDS regularly recruits music and humanities majors for technical jobs. The company recruited Hubert Chen, a Julliard music major and violinist extraordinaire, as an intern and then hired him into the Information Analyst Development Program.

Inacom Corporation Inc., an Omaha, Nebraska-based company that designs, builds and maintains large corporate computer networks, shares a similar philosophy. In addition to tapping traditional sources for workers, Inacom has established a Chinese Internship Program.

The company brings in highly skilled people from China who have master's degrees or doctorates in computer science, but have never worked in an American business, and gives them a three to six month internship so they can learn about the company. "The opportunities for jobs here are endless and we train them in the specific skills they need," says Eva Fujan, vice president of technical recruiting. Inacom works with a firm in California that has a relationship with the Chinese government. Because there's an employment problem in China right now, it isn't difficult to get interns.

Other than the current work visa situation that should ease in the fall, the biggest challenge is the language barrier. Even though knowledge of English is required before they begin the internship, the first group of interns had to be monitored closely and helped with language more than Inacom had initially anticipated. The company is starting a second group and will offer English language skills at the University of Nebraska during the internship. "They're very bright individuals, so we're trying to figure out a way to make this work as an ongoing program," she says.

Another source of workers for the 5,000-employee firm is their "Boot Camp" program, which brings in workers from professions other than technically oriented ones. "Because of the talent shortage, everyone is fighting for the few people who are available," says Fujan. "Salaries are going up, jobs are going unfilled and turnover is going up because more and more people are raiding your company. It's almost like anyone in technology right now can demand a $10,000 raise. So we want to take employees who are either not Inacom employees or who are individuals who have technical aptitude, but aren't currently in the technology industry, and train them."

Inacom found individuals by running ads in the newspaper offering an opportunity for a tremendous career change. For the first trial of the program, the company hired five interns, all from different backgrounds ranging from an office manager to a manufacturing worker. They underwent a technical aptitude test, and attended an eight-week intensive training course (five to six days a week, eight hours daily). Meanwhile, they received salaries from Inacom, which allowed them to make such a dramatic career change. One stipulation about the program: Participants must commit to relocating anywhere in the United States when they accept a Boot Camp position. "This allows them to jump into a field in which there's huge salary growth potential and an area that's especially hot right now," says Fujan. "It's a big commitment, but they make a salary and we pay for the training. These are really inspired employees and quite loyal to the company because we've made a big commitment to them and have allowed them to make a big career change. We're not just finding people who switch jobs every two years and want to get a higher salary and would leave for $5,000 more." The company is planning to offer 100 more Boot Camp positions this year.

Carol Barber, vice president at New York-based Bernard Hodes Advertising, suggests another mostly untapped pool of candidates -- seniors and retirees. Barber, who is located in the Miami, Florida office, has been working with companies on ways to recruit individuals in this age bracket. "It's a result of supply and demand," says Barber. "These are not just hourly jobs, but technical, consulting and professional positions. Seniors are a reliable, knowledgeable workforce."

For example, Ryder System Inc., also based in Miami, has found that seniors are perfect for a division that contracts services for school bus drivers for morning and afternoon schedules. The hours work well with this group, and the seniors tend to be very safety-oriented.

To attract this group, organizations are targeting media that reach seniors, such as the American Association of Retired People (AARP) publications, condominium newsletters, local papers and local radio programs. Ads promote flexibility of hours and offer images that make people aware that employment can be an adjunct to their already full lives. Barber's firm also uses ordinary methods that can be effective: direct mail, point-of-purchase ads, even events such as bingo nights. "Any general recruiting tool can be tailored and specialized to recruit seniors," says Barber.

Just make sense.
Whatever recruitment methods you use, Roger Mody, CEO of Fairfax, Virginia-based Signal Corporation, an information-technology services provider, recommends incorporating a few sensible tactics that will make a big difference. Signal holds most of its interviews before or after work and on weekends, so HR takes shifts and runs staggered recruiting hours. However, vice presidents and other senior managers do the interviewing. They conduct the interviews and get involved early, not only to showcase the type of individuals they have in the firm, but also because these busy people know precisely the type of employees they want. Obviously, in this type of labor situation, it's good to make a good choice and then present the offer as quickly as possible. Signal shows respect for the job applicant by providing its candidates with applications that already have their name and position filled in.

Finally, remember recruiting should be aimed at long-term employability. Clark, who has seen EDS grow from 6,000 employees to 110,000 in 20 years summarizes it this way: "No matter what size you are, what you're looking for is [to create] an environment in which people feel valued, connected to their teammates and clients, accountable and included." The best retention strategy then becomes a word-of-mouth attraction strategy. You want to create a place where everyone has an opportunity to contribute and be heard, to give people opportunities to broaden their skill sets and contribute to the largest capability they have. When you create an environment where people feel that the work they do is valued and they're esteemed as individuals, they'll not only stay with you, but they're likely to spread the word.

Workforce, August 1998, Vol. 77, No. 8, pp. 66-71.

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