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Human Capital Management

Searching High and Low

How to recruit top talent when the pool is small

By Minda Zetlin

Winter 2019

Would new construction on Alaska’s tundra affect the migration of caribou and polar bears? Stantec, an engineering and architecture firm based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, with projects all around the globe, had to answer that question—otherwise, a planned project could be halted. The company desperately needed a wildlife biologist with expertise in Arctic species.

It was a straightforward problem but not one with a straightforward solution. Hiring highly skilled employees has been a challenge for most large employers for years, with HR professionals and others lamenting the shortage of available talent. Companies are increasingly using a range of surprising tactics to lure those with the most-sought-after skills, especially in these days of historically low unemployment. But if hiring those with advanced education and special skills is a challenge, it’s that much more difficult when the area of expertise you seek represents an esoteric world in which only a handful of people dwell.

How do you hire qualified talent when the pool of potential candidates is extremely small? The first challenge is to identify those candidates. Start out by asking your current employees, experts advise. If there are only a few people in the world who can do a job, chances are they all know each other or at least know of each other. “There is someone in your company right now who knows the top players,” says Linda Henman, PhD, a consultant, recruiter, and author of Tough Calls: How to Move Beyond Indecision and Good Intentions (Business Expert Press, 2017). “Find out who knows your target candidates, and get an introduction.”

Beyond reaching out to employees, Henman and other experts recommend going wherever the industry or profession gathers for the job you’re trying to fill. “Physically being where hard-to-reach candidates congregate is important,” says Paul Wallenberg, who heads technology recruiting services for LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based staffing agency. “It’s not just about LinkedIn.”

Learning about potential candidates isn’t enough, experts say—they should also learn about you. Henman says people recognize an individual, not just a company, so recruiters should do more than just attend conferences and read industry trade journals—they should also present at those conferences or write for those journals. The goal, she explains, is for potential job candidates to recognize not only your company’s name but the name of a hiring manager as well.

Once you’ve identified potential job candidates and done the work of raising your own profile, how do you get them to even consider a job with your company? Given their hard-to-find skill set, it’s almost certain that your potential hires already have good jobs and employers who appreciate them. For one thing, luring them away will take money, possibly more than you’d planned to spend. Henman says research shows that people will leave a good situation for a 20% pay hike. And, she points out, you shouldn’t expect to make above-average hires if you’re willing to pay only the average salary.

But the kind of compensation packages that bring in top performers with unusual and desirable skills may be tough for some company leaders to swallow. “If you’re trying to hire someone full-time, they might be getting paid as much, in their 20s or early 30s, as some of your senior executives. That could be very difficult,” says Carlos Castelán, managing partner and founder of business consulting firm The Navio Group.

Even if you clear that hurdle, money alone won’t do the job. Your candidate’s current employer likely knows how tough that person will be to replace and might make a counteroffer that matches or even surpasses your offer. Wallenberg says that offering more money can be the carrot at the beginning but that if there’s no other compelling reason for someone to move, you could paint yourself into a corner if the current employer makes a counteroffer. And because the skill set is so rare, there are no runner-up candidates.

“That is not a situation you want to be in,” he says. “Besides, if someone’s going to join you for money, they will also leave you for money. It’s a good short-term solution, but you also have to fill some intangible need that will keep them satisfied for the long term.”

How do you identify such needs? Attending conferences can provide an opportunity to do so. According to Wallenberg, asking potential hires why they attended the conference and why they’re at a particular panel can give you some of the insight you’re looking for. The alternative—if you can interest someone enough to come in for a job interview—is to then ask what inspired the candidate to consider changing jobs. It might be a desire to work remotely or have a more flexible schedule or a better work-life balance. Or it might be the opportunity to learn new skills or work on exciting projects or with a particular expert in the candidate’s field. “You need to understand what their motivators or needs might be, and that will only be observed through a conversation,” he says.

How Software Can Help

Having the right technology can improve nearly every part of this process. That’s especially true if your pool of possible candidates stretches into the hundreds or thousands, rather than just a handful. According to Holger Mueller, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, classic headhunters used to do this by hand. For example, Mueller harkens back to two centuries ago, when shipping companies such as Lloyd’s would keep a performance log to understand which sea captains were good enough to be trusted with a ship and cargo that might represent 10 or 20% of the company’s operating capital. In today’s world, you need an automated system to do that and much more.

“Software can help you analyze what [candidates] have been saying or doing on social media,” Mueller says. Potential candidates’ posts can provide lots of clues to whether those people are unhappy at their current job and what sorts of incentives might inspire them to consider a change. Mueller also says CRM—in this case, candidate relationship management—can help keep track of hundreds or thousands of potential candidates.

If someone’s going to join you for money, they will also leave you for money. It’s a good short-term solution, but you also have to fill some intangible need that will keep them satisfied for the long term.”—Paul Wallenberg, Senior Unit Manager, Technology Services, LaSalle Network

Technology such as Oracle Human Capital Management (Oracle HCM) can also help keep your company top of mind with those candidates, for instance by letting them know you’ve gotten a new round of funding, opened a new office, or received a best-place-to-work award.

Oracle HCM solutions can also help tap into the power of your existing workforce to find potential candidates for hard-to-fill jobs.

“Usually, organizations have some sort of employee referral program. Historically, these programs have been difficult to manage, just logistically, getting job information to employees and having them share it out in a meaningful, usable way,” says Jeff Haynes, director of human capital consulting services for Oracle implementation partner Baker Tilly. The advantages are obvious: You get a prescreened candidate—the referring employee already knows that the potential candidate has the needed skills and would be a good cultural fit. But the process is difficult to scale.

To that end, Baker Tilly worked with Stantec on a social sourcing program, encouraging employees to push a link to a job description out on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Now, when Stantec employees send out notes about open jobs to their social circles, they include a link that leads straight into Stantec’s implementation of Oracle HCM. Anyone who clicks it can quickly learn more about the opportunity and apply then and there, even from a mobile device. “It’s that traditional program, but on technology steroids,” Haynes says.

Oracle HCM is also helping Stantec get a better view of the skills it already has in house. This is no easy feat, because the company has grown rapidly through about 100 acquisitions, from 3,000 employees in 2000 to 22,000 today. Stantec operates in all sorts of environments all over the world, so it needs a wide range of unusual skills—understanding polar bear migration is just one example.

That rapid growth created “an influx of amazing talent all over North America,” according to Angela Moore, HR solution delivery leader at Stantec. HR often didn’t know what skills employees might have beyond those they were actually using in their current role. For example, many of the company’s engineers are also trained archaeologists. Moore notes that some Stantec projects require an archaeologist’s review to ensure that historically significant sites won’t be destroyed by construction—and the company didn’t know that it already had those skills in house. “We had a hard time finding those specialties,” Moore says.

As the company completes its in-house database of employees and skills, named Talent Hub, Moore says, there will be more opportunities to match existing staff with jobs that take advantage of their untapped skills. Many Stantec employees have multiple degrees and are interested in working outside their past fields of employment. There are lawyers who are also engineers and no longer want to practice law—but can help with compliance issues on projects. There’s a nurse who is also trained as an archaeologist. “It’s almost science to get that full list of potential skills we can offer,” Moore says.

In fact, tapping into unused skills in house is how Stantec solved that polar bear migration problem. It turned out there was a qualified wildlife biologist already working at the company. “Her skill was an attribute that helped us move forward,” Moore says. She’d arrived with an acquisition and had been working in environmental restoration. “We hadn’t gone through the due diligence of what other skills the acquired company brought.” The wildlife biologist brought some of her environmental remediation team along to the Alaskan tundra, and they camped out, observing the polar bears and caribou and checking out other environmental concerns.

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Illustration by Wes Rowell