Recruiting in interesting times

"May you live in interesting times." - Chinese Proverb/Curse

In a typical year, summer months are the height of the organizational recruiting season. Folks prefer to switch jobs in the summer, especially if relocation is involved. The previous year's bonus has been paid, but you haven't put enough effort into the current year to feel you are walking away from next year's bonus. The kids are out of school, so, in theory, a change in job or location will be less chaotic. The new college graduates are starting to come on board, and June 30th is the second-most-popular retirement date (after December 31st). Budgets typically still appear healthy before the third-quarter spending freezes - again, "typical." From the organization's perspective, summer is a natural time to shuffle staff.

All of that said, 2009 is not a typical year. Whether you believe we are in the midst of a second Great Depression - or are more bullish and view the past nine to 18 months as a major market correction that exposed weaknesses and will lead to an overall stronger economy - there is no argument that these are not "typical times."

While the official unemployment rate was 9.4% as of May 2009, many industries have been hit harder. Professional and business services have seen unemployment almost double, from 5.9% in May 2008 to 10.9% in May 2009. The construction industry has experienced even more dramatic force reductions, with unemployment increasing from 8.6% in May 2008 to 19.2% in May 2009. (This explains the Obama administration's concern with "shovel ready jobs.") Finally, manufacturing has seen a crushing 137% increase in unemployment, from 5.3% in May 2008 to 12.6% in May 2009.

I imagine recruiters are being overrun with résumés, social networking requests and other solicitations. Yet with all of the talent presumably available, the recruiter's job isn't any easier. First, when many organizations restructure their workforce, recruiters are not immune. This is a community that's seen its own opportunities shrink. The logic goes: If we have a hiring freeze, why do we need recruiters?

Jobs v. Candidates from

But, unless you are closing shop forever, this logic is fundamentally flawed. Employees leave jobs unexpectedly for a variety reasons, poor performers are managed out and new skills are always needed. According to a recent BusinessWeek article, in spite of the recession, there are three million jobs that cannot be filled. Even AIG has over 500 U.S. positions posted on their Web site. The bottom line is that recruiters are still a necessity.

A seasoned recruiter acquaintance lamented to me that this is the hardest market she has ever worked in and that the talent wars of the late 1990s were like Disneyland in comparison. Why so hard? First, the volume of candidates available makes finding "the best" more labor-intensive. This is true even with today's technologies - and, sometimes, because of today's technologies. Between the proliferation of job-posting sites, social networking media such as LinkedIn and Facebook, and old-fashioned networking and referrals, recruiters have more resources than ever to find candidates. Second, adding to the overabundance of viable candidates is a gridlocked housing market, where even the unemployed may be unable to consider positions that require relocation. During better times, many organizations re-designed their relocation policies to save money rather than to facilitate the acquisition of talent. These policies, if not reevaluated, may create additional obstacles. The third major difficulty is uncertainty within organizations themselves. Too often, the recruiter has done his or her job, the manager is ecstatic with the candidate and then the position is eliminated or "put on hold" due to changes in market conditions.

To add to the list of problems, recently there was an "uproar" in Silicon Valley over a gentleman's agreement not to actively poach or hire from competitor or partner organizations. While not illegal on its face, the Department of Justice is looking into the agreement as a potential antitrust issue. In this case, the uproar comes from employees who are unhappy with their current employer and feel trapped in their job, effectively blackballed by organizations that should be seeking their skills. As I understand the "alleged" policy, it did not block hiring if the candidate came to the competing organization of his or her own volition. After reading up on the topic, I concluded that this just creates another recruiting challenge, at least in Silicon Valley.

A final challenge for recruiters today is the candidate rejection process. While never a fun task, in this climate it has become a minefield. Recruiters are bound by their organization's guidelines, but well-meaning and sometimes desperate candidates are pushing for information regarding why they were not selected. While data is not widely available, conventional wisdom says there will be an increase in employment-related lawsuits in 2009, including discrimination and failure-to-hire cases.

Is there a silver lining for organizations and their recruiters? For those that embrace 2009's "interesting times" as an opportunity to assess their current human capital, harvest the bumper crop of talent available, strengthen their diversity initiatives and invest in training and development opportunities, this could be a rebuilding year that will set them up for success in the future.

With the plethora of recruiting resources available, organizations can look to non-traditional sources for talent that can propel growth and productivity. This includes finding top MBAs looking to switch careers or an army of skilled and semiskilled labor cast off from the auto industry that can be trained to fill technical and mechanic positions. The "best" talent may not be where you are used to looking or where you were previously unable to explore. Recruiters who work for opportunistic organizations may even have fun going to work again.

What other top talent recruiting challenges is your organization facing - we would love to hear from members?