Recruiting Down to a Science

By Michelle Rafter

Dec. 22, 2015

If there truly is a shortage of workers in the STEM disciplines in the United States, it hasn’t hit Michael Higgins yet.

Higgins, human resources director at Craig Technologies, said the Cape Canaveral, Florida-based aerospace and defense contractor has not lost out on a government contract because he couldn’t find enough of the qualified science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers who are the company’s lifeblood.

That’s not the case for Ian Siegel, co-founder and CEO at ZipRecruiter Inc., a job site that takes submitted openings and aggregates them to 100 job boards. Competition is so intense for top Web developers that the Santa Monica, California-based company opened an office in Israel to hire enough software engineers able to do high-level systems architecture programming.

“If you’re looking for a database engineer on job boards, good luck,” Siegel said. “A database engineer in San Francisco is courted by recruiters every single day. That person will never look for a job again for the rest of their career, jobs will go to them. There’s too much interest.”

While U.S. companies, lobby groups and politicians debate the merits of the controversial H-1B visa program that allows employers to bring highly skilled immigrants here to help fill the supposed STEM jobs gap, businesses such as Craig Technologies and ZipRecruiter are coming up with their own workarounds. That includes poaching candidates from competitors, working with specialized recruiters, and doing school and community outreach to attract people to STEM professions.

‘There’s always a way to find STEM workers, but you need to be willing to take the time and buy the training programs.’

—Rosemarie Christopher, MEIRxRS

Executives such as Higgins maintain there are enough U.S. STEM workers — at least in some fields if they can coax them away from their current jobs. Others are bumping up against honest-to-goodness deficits, especially in highly sought-after tech fields, that are causing skyrocketing pay and even auctions for the right for recruiters to fill positions. They predict the situation could get worse in 2016 given the nation’s unemployment rate is forecast to dip as low as 4.5 percent.

Some recruiters and industry insiders argue that the country’s STEM jobs problem is exacerbated by companies’ outdated attitudes toward talent acquisition. They maintain too many companies refuse to drop strategies adopted during the recession when labor supply outstripped demand by so much that employers could find candidates with the exact skills they needed and didn’t have to offer training to get new hires up to speed.

Though the recession is long since past, the economy and workforce are changing so fast that companies remain extra conservative about spending on training, said Rosemarie Christopher, president and CEO at MEIRxRS, a STEM staffing, recruiting and search group in Glendale, California, that fills regulatory, clinical research and medical affairs positions.

“They say we don’t have time or money for apprentices,” said Christopher, who has received federal government grants to help companies start apprenticeship programs. “We say, ‘If you want to have a STEM workforce at all, you need to build it somehow. You’ll see how easy it is once you do it one time.’ ”

Origins of the Problem

Executives and recruiters fault the U.S. education system for failing to provide enough training to keep up with present and future demands for STEM jobs. That demand is projected to grow 13 percent from 2012 to 2022, to a total of 9 million jobs, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Current median wages for STEM jobs are more than double those of all workers: $76,000 compared with $35,080, according to the report.

Critics of the country’s current education system also fault employers for failing to consider a more diverse candidate pool when hiring for STEM jobs, and maintaining biases against hiring the long-term unemployed contribute to the problem.

While the number of STEM positions is growing, the population of U.S. workers qualified to fill them isn’t. The National Math and Science Initiative, a tech industry funded nonprofit that supports STEM education efforts, estimates that by 2018, the country may be short 3 million high-skilled workers.

As a result, STEM jobs take almost 50 percent longer to fill than non-STEM ones, according to ZipRecruiter statistics culled from the 700,000 job listings it posts a year, Siegel said. STEM positions get a fifth of the number of responses as jobs in other categories, and represent 3 out of 10 jobs that are hardest to fill, according to ZipRecruiter data.

Scarcity has pushed up compensation, especially for tech jobs. “I’m a STEM business, and we do salary surveys to make sure we’re priced competitively, and every year the salary we pay engineers goes up because the competition is so intense,” Siegel said.

In the absence of enough U.S. STEM workers, more companies are vying to hire foreign STEM workers through the federal government’s H-1B visa program, which grants them permission to work in the United States for up to six years. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services holds a lottery every April to fill the coveted 85,000 slots, including 60,000 for foreign workers and 25,000 for foreign students with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

As the competition for visas has increased, the chances of small or midsize companies getting an application approved have dropped. In 2014, the CIS received a record 233,000 applications for the 85,000 available spots, a 35 percent jump from the previous year.

A large percentage of those come from large, well-financed U.S. and Indian outsourcing and tech companies that can afford to pay thousands of dollars for each application they submit. According to a New York Times analysis, in 2014, 20 companies took approximately 40 percent of all available H-1B visas. Of those, 13 were global outsourcers, including India-based Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Wipro; outsourcers based elsewhere, including Accenture and Cognizant Tech Solutions; and U.S. tech giants IBM, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Intel.

While tech companies and their lobbyists want to expand the H-1B visa program to allow more foreign STEM workers into the country, critics are bent on stopping employers from taking jobs away from U.S. workers and giving them to lower-paid foreigners. As proof of that trend, they point to companies such as Toys R Us and Southern California Edison that in the past year laid off veteran employees in information technology, accounting and other STEM jobs and replaced them with lower-paid H-1B workers, in some cases requiring the fired workers to train their replacements. In early 2015, Walt Disney Co. replaced veteran employees at Walt Disney World with H-1B workers from India. A few months later, however, Disney canceled a similar layoff — without explanation — that would have replaced tech employees at Disney/ABC Television in New York and Burbank, California, with H-1B workers hired through Cognizant, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

In Congress, opponents of the current system advocate imposing stricter conditions on H-1B visas. Though they’ve been unsuccessful to date, critics such as Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, continue to push bipartisan legislation. Their latest bill, introduced last November, would raise wage requirements for foreign workers entering the country on H-1B visas, increase monitoring and enforcement, and add protections for U.S. workers.

Getting Around the Problem

While politicians and lobbying groups scuffle over the issue, companies that have been all but shut out of H-1B visas are left to figure out their own solutions to the STEM skills shortage.

One short-term result has been hiring people with sought-after experience from competitors or other industries. Higgins admits that most of Craig Technologies’ new hires are passive candidates — professionals skilled in areas such as building launch control systems for NASA’s manned space flight program or instructional system design for U.S. Army computer-based training.

Because Craig Technologies mainly works with NASA and the U.S. Defense Department, it must meet federal regulations that protect sensitive information, and for that reason, can only hire U.S. citizens and green card holders. As a result, most candidates the company pursues are already working in the field, many for competitors.

Higgins credits Craig Technologies’ two in-house recruiters for taking a long-term approach to filling openings, sometimes talking to potential candidates for 18 months before a job opens that could be a good fit them. The company used that method to add about 144 positions in 2015, with the vast majority of those representing new jobs, bringing its total workforce to more than 430.

There’s only so much poaching and passive candidate prospecting a company can do. In five years since ZipRecruiter started, the company has grown to 70 engineers and a total of 300 employees, including some H-1B visa workers. To deal with skyrocketing salaries and competition for software engineers, the company opened a Tel Aviv, Israel, office in June 2014 to tap into that city’s tech worker pool.

Today, the company’s Israeli office has four engineers and is scaling to 10, with most of them working on machine learning search techniques ZipRecruiter uses to help its employer customers do a better job of identifying potential candidates. “They do the Greek math, the really high-level architectural programming, not website development,” Siegel said.

Beyond short-term measures, more employers are taking steps to help grow the pool of STEM employees. In spring 2015, Craig Technologies created a part-time STEM outreach coordinator position for a former full-time marketing communications employee who was already passionate about the subject. Outreach coordinator Carey Beam organizes factory tours and hands-on science workshops that introduce local middle school and high school students to STEM concepts that apply to what the company builds.

NASA also invited the company to participate in a program called NASA HUNCH, short for high school students united with NASA to create hardware, in which public school students will use Craig Technologies’ facilities to construct simple parts that will be used in the International Space Station. “NASA supplies the materials, [radio frequency identification] and quality check so they know they’re receiving product worthy of use, and, in turn, we provide the facility, equipment, mentorship and guidance,” Beam said. She expects NASA to clear the company to start working with students during the first quarter of 2016, which would make it one of the first private businesses involved in the program.

In addition, companies of all sizes are teaming up with state, local and national nonprofit groups to promote STEM education and jobs. Craig Industries is part of the STEM Alliance of Central Florida, a regional group of companies that raise funds to run Lego Robotics and other STEM programs in local schools.

Larger-scale projects include the Global STEM Alliance, which the New York Academy of Science and United Nations launched in 2014 to run programs to fund after-school science programs for middle-school students, match girls interested in STEM topics with female mentors with jobs in those fields. It also created an international discussion network for gifted, science-minded kids called The Junior Academy.

Offering Training, Other Help

Another stumbling block in getting STEM workers hired has been encouraging potential employers to see the value to starting or funding apprenticeships and training programs.

Christopher, a 28-year search-industry veteran who runs MEIRxRS, secured funds through a $175 million U.S. Labor Department program announced in September 2015 to hire and train apprentices in various industries, one of several things she has done to help her clients fill STEM jobs. As of last November, Christopher had placed five quality assurance and regulatory compliance apprentices in small companies in the food industry that need to adopt measures required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act, which took effect in 2015. Under the apprentice program, a company can hire a trainee for about half the normal pay, and MEIRxRS uses federal funds to pay for training. The company got funding for the program through a division called Rx Research Services that is a subcontractor of a larger federal contractor as well as from state and local sources. As of late 2015, Christopher also had unfilled apprenticeships available in biostatistics, clinical trials and data management, and drug safety.

Even with outside funding, Christopher said it’s hard to persuade companies to take a risk on hiring recent graduates or midcareer professionals who may have lost a job and need to be retrained on newer technology, regulations or standards.

“They say we have no money to hire people to adhere to the Food Safety Modernization Act,” Christopher said. “But you have no right to sell to the general public if you’re making prepared food and people are getting sick and dying because it’s not done to certain quality standards. These smaller companies, one recall would wipe them out.”

“There’s always a way to find STEM workers, but you need to be willing to take the time and buy the training programs,” she added.

Small and midsize companies that can’t compete with deep-pocketed competitors to hire U.S. or H-1B workers with the skills they need also can provide training in the form of running or funding programs such as coding boot camps, said Steven Lindner, a partner with The WorkPlace Group in Florham Park, New Jersey. The recruitment process outsourcing company reviews 250,000 candidates and hires 5,000 people a year on behalf of EY, Wells Enterprises Inc. and other clients.

Companies have to get over the mindset of wanting to talk to candidates with only “current, relevant work experience,” Lindner said. His RPO trains its recruiters not to jump to conclusions about employment gaps or get hung up on previous job titles. Recruiters are also coached to look at what a candidate can do rather than what they’ve done before. “We look for clues on their résumé or in conversation,” he said. “For example, if they’ve enrolled in a certification or degree program, it’s a clue that it’s someone who’s advancing themselves, and we don’t want to be too quick to turn them down.”

Eventually, computer science and other STEM knowledge will be woven into school curriculum at all levels, Siegel predicts. The job market has swung in a direction that favors STEM, he said. “It’ll lag a decade, but it will catch up because it’s so lucrative. I’m in my 40s, and when I was growing up, everyone wanted to be a doctor. Now, if you heard someone’s kid was working at Google you’d be excited for them. It’s the new vanity job.”

As work becomes increasingly more automated, employers will have a base expectation that employees in all roles have some STEM knowledge, he said. “STEM skills will be table stakes in the jobs of the future.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story misstated what ZipRecruiter Inc.'s business model is. The company aggregates job postings to 100 different job boards.

Michelle Rafter is a Workforce contributing editor.

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