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Hiring Challenges During High Unemployment

Posted by Aaron Green  June 15, 2009 10:18 AM

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Although the country is in the midst of a recession and the unemployment rate as I write this blog is at 9.4 percent, with 14.5 million people unemployed, recruiters and hiring managers are not strolling down easy-street. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are approximately 3 million jobs that employers are actively recruiting for but are so far unable to fill. And, although the unemployment rate has increased substantially, the number of unfilled jobs has essentially stayed the same since the beginning of the recession.

In essence, there is a mismatch between available talent and employer hiring needs for the following reasons:

  • In some cases, the unfilled jobs require hard-to-find skills, such as bi-lingual accountants or specialized laboratory technologists. Out-of-work auto workers are not easily retrained to fill these openings.
  • In other cases, the job openings are undesirable to most job seekers. Sure, there are positions available at fast food chains, but a laid-off ad agency executive isn't enticed by that job.
  • While softening the hardships of the recession, extended unemployment benefits have the unintended consequence of discouraging job seekers from taking jobs that don't fit their long-term goals; essentially people can wait for something better to come along.
  • In a cruel twist of fate, the housing crisis also contributes to job seekers' inability to find work. In past recessions, there were much greater levels of people moving to where the jobs were. Now people are less mobile and some are essentially trapped in their home: they can't sell them and therefore can't move for a job opening.

One important implication we can draw from this is that if it's difficult to fill these open positions now, it will certainly be next to impossible to fill them when the economy turns around. Organizations need to accept certain "new truths" about hiring and take steps now to prepare for the future.

Here are some suggestions:

Manage Your Pipeline
Perhaps you're not planning on hiring many new employees this year, but it could be a big mistake to cease all your recruiting efforts completely. Rather than stop recruiting, focus on areas that are hard to staff and put resources into networking and developing contacts and relationships in those areas. If you can afford it, bring harder-to-find skills on board now, while it's relatively easy to find people.

Build Your Network
If the people with the skills you are looking for are employed, now's the time to network. People who are currently employed might be holding onto their jobs out of fear of making a leap and leaving the security they feel with their current employer. Even if you don't have an opening and/or your prospect isn't open to considering a change right now, plant the seed for when times change. That all-star candidate might become open to a change in the future, or your organization might have a perfect fit open up. Think about what type of people you want to hire down the road, and start building relationships now.

Close the Gaps caused by RIFs
Companies that have resorted to a reduction in force will likely feel the pain of operating on a lower head count. If your organization has suffered a RIF and experienced subsequent attrition or an uptick in business, you likely have some gaps that should be addressed. Hire strategically to plug up those gaps; think about possibly rearranging current staff to better-fitting roles, shifting work appropriately; and create openings that work with your current structure vs. the one you had before the RIF. Doing this the right way will smooth operations, and your current staff will be pleased to have some of the extra work they might have taken on lifted off their shoulders.

Revisit Hiring Profile and Standards
Take a look at your hiring profiles and make a fresh assessment; there might be an opportunity for you to raise the bar and increase your minimum standards. If you feel that in the past you have settled for candidates that are less than a perfect fit for your hiring profiles, now is the time to take action toward bridging the gap. First assess exactly what skills/qualifications constitute a perfect fit is and then place a focus on recruiting people who fit that profile. You will have a better chance to attract more qualified candidates while the job market is tough.

Screening and Communication
You have the luxury of more candidates to choose from, and possibly more qualified candidates than you have in the past. While you can be more discerning in your assessment of candidates, don't burn any bridges. The candidates that don't meet your requirements today might be a fit somewhere down the road, so be careful to have clear communication and timely follow up. Remember that candidates who aren't a perfect fit can also be good referral generators; take the time to educate the candidate on what skills you're looking for, and they might just lead you to a more qualified applicant.

During a recession, HR managers and employers face numerous challenges, and often recruiting can be put on the back burner. Don't overlook the challenge of hiring and recruiting because it may seem less important than other responsibilities right now. Take the time and make the necessary steps now to develop your organization for the future.

Aaron Green is founder and president of Boston-based Professional Staffing Group and PSG Global Solutions. He is also a member of the board of directors of the American Staffing Association. He can be reached at or (617) 250-1000.

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About HR Columns

Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.