Solving Specialized Recruiting Problems With Niche Staffing

By Leslie Stevens-Huffman

Feb. 22, 2006

Specialized positions requiring unique expertise in engineering, pharmacies and even corporate day care facilities can be hard to fill. With few internal resources to meet challenging recruiting demands, many companies are finding that partnerships with niche staffing suppliers are the solution for specialized recruiting problems.

    Engineering is a prime example of a situation where companies call upon niche staffing firms. The job market for engineers has always fluctuated between periods of high demand and low demand. Underneath the overall engineering umbrella are a number of specialty skill subsets, and the markets for some have varied to greater extremes than for others.

    For example, in the 1960s to 1970s the United States was investing in construction of new energy infrastructure and refineries. In response, colleges and universities were turning out engineering graduates who quickly entered five-year in-house petrochemical training programs at most of the nation’s largest engineering firms. In the early 1980s investment stopped, layoffs ensued and most engineering schools began funneling students into information technology.

    Now the tables have turned, with several key worldwide events driving the need for energy engineering professionals. The current demand for engineers is being fueled by a resurgence of energy infrastructure rebuilding in the United States, simultaneous construction activity in the Middle East and along the Gulf of Mexico and increased oil-processing activity in Alberta, Canada.

    “Given the learning curve of the position, the lack of recent activity and the fact that it’s a 100-year-old industry means the workforce is generally older, and so, the recruiting is totally relationship driven,” says Ron Stein, vice president of business development for Principal Technical Services, an engineering recruitment firm in Irvine, California. “It’s a good old boys’ network.”

    Stein, who is also an engineer, says that the most successful recruiting strategy is peer-to-peer contact. PTS contacts all of its candidates monthly to build relationships. It took the firm seven years to build its current database of 20,000 engineers. That may seem like quite an investment, but an engineer can stay on a single contract for as long as 10 years.

    However, it is “the commitment of time in relationship building that makes the greatest difference in whether the contractor accepts the position,” says Stein, who adds that he usually has 200 open positions in California at any given time.

    One of the firm’s clients with an extreme need for energy infrastructure engineers is Technip USA. Jeroen Snijder, Technip’s vice president of operations, says that because of business efficiency pressures, his company has a staff of just two human resource professionals servicing 400 employees. Snijder says that most industry training programs have been modified from five years to only two to three months in length and are strictly on-the-job.

    As a result, Snijder doesn’t have the resources to frequently contact prospective candidates or to filter through résumés that he estimates produce one qualified candidate for every 200 submissions.

    “I must have people with three to 10 years’ experience in order to meet the business need,” Snijder says. “Given all of the variables, it just makes sense for us to outsource the recruitment.”

    Although Technip is doing some direct hiring, contract workers are a better way to go in the long term because the domestic market for production engineering will contract as jobs travel abroad and the natural peaks and valleys of engineering change labor demands, Snijder says.

Recruiting Mature Workers
    Mature Staffing Systems does exactly what its name implies-assisting workers ages 40 and older with finding new jobs and acquiring new skills. Mature Staffing, based Akron, Ohio, is also unique in that it is a nonprofit firm that is publicly funded.

    It helps supply the region’s manufacturing companies with critical human capital that is becoming increasingly rare–older workers with experience in manufacturing.

    Mature Staffing provides experienced older workers and also facilitates what Paul Magnus, vice president of workforce development for the firm, calls “step-down programs.”

    “The older workers can ease down to part time and help transfer institutional knowledge to the new workers entering manufacturing,” he says. “We help to stabilize the workforce.”

    Jim Burns, president of Summit Machine Ltd. in Mogadore, Ohio, says that more than one-third of his workforce is 60 to 70 years old. One employee is 74. He says that younger workers do not want a career in manufacturing.

    “I have truly come to appreciate the older worker,” Burns says. “Most of them want to work longer and have a tremendous work ethic. The future worker in manufacturing is the first-generation American.”

    Patricia Bellace was having difficulty filling part-time swing-shift customer service positions. She called Mature Staffing after reading about the company in a newspaper. Bellace says that it was a good solution because she needed workers with a great deal of patience to deal with customers over the phone and the mature staffers only wanted part-time work. Bellace says she also found that the workers appreciated the job.

    Although Bellace has since moved on from the firm where she was hiring customer service workers, she continues to use Mature Staffing in her current role as director of human resources for Health Design Plus in Hudson, Ohio.

    Bellace calls Mature Staffing when a position calls for exceptional soft skills and what she calls a gracious presence under stressful circumstances. She says that the more mature workers hit the ground running because of their previous experience, stay in their positions longer and are easier to manage.

Hiring for Differing Skill Sets
    Businesses sometimes need employees to fill jobs that differ greatly from their main business lines. For instance, instituting new employee benefits such as day care centers, which enhance the balance between work and life, can mean a company that provides high-technology services now needs to hire preschool teachers.

    CA Inc., formerly Computer Associates International, is a leading provider of information technology management solutions. Islandia, New York-based CA believes that achieving its financial objectives requires positioning itself as a preferred employer, allowing the company to attract and retain the best talent. In 1992, CA opened five on-site child development centers at several of its domestic and European locations.

    Operating in partnership with a Montessori organization, the centers care for more than 580 children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 6 years with a staff of 200 teachers and teaching assistants. The task of finding and hiring staff with degrees in early childhood education, psychology, nursing, speech pathology, art and music was unique for a firm that is skilled in finding and retaining IT talent.

    The educational staff requirements were so large that they required constant focus, a different sourcing base and alternate recruiting techniques that differed from the traditional IT worker. When the niche staffing firm Lloyd Staffing of Melville, New York, began offering educational staffing services, CA opted to outsource its day care positions to the firm. The move seemed like the best way to achieve results without increasing CA’s existing recruitment infrastructure and fixed costs, says Paul Buonaiuto, vice president of recruiting for CA

    “Building out this partnership helps us meet the need to have a continual flow of educational candidates and ensures that there is an established expertise reviewing our hiring manager’s needs,” Buonaiuto says. “For our working parents, the commitment to excellence begins with the assurance that their families are safe, happy and thriving.”

Matching Supply With Demand
    Achieving work/life balance for their staff is the reason that many clients turn to Rx Relief, a pharmacist staffing company in Fresno, California. Tom Maez, division vice president for the company, says that some clients see turning to a staffing supplier as a “failure” because they feel that they should be able to hire enough staff themselves.

    However, Maez says that the recruitment market for pharmacists produces geographic areas of high and low supply of candidates.

    “Generally, pharmacists want to reside in areas that they view as more desirable than others, and they have a tendency to return to their roots after pharmacy school,” Maez says.

    With shortages in some areas, the existing pharmaceutical staff is often required to work extra shifts or overtime, so Rx Relief facilitates a traveling per diem service to balance the workforce to the required work hours. The large drugstore chains have a tendency to dictate shifts and are less desirable as employers from pharmacists’ perspectives.

    “Using contract staffing can help reduce the number of less desirable shifts that a pharmacist has to work so that overall staff retention will be better,” Maez says.

    He says that the clients who benefit the most from what his firm offers really “get it” and then utilize the service strategically. Doing that requires looking at the bigger picture when performing a cost analysis. The daily per diem rate may appear to be higher than comparable in-house wages until all of the costs that are often absorbed by the staffing company are taken into consideration. Additionally, it is difficult to measure the costs associated with turnover of full-time staff or poor morale attributable to less than desirable working conditions.

    No matter how costs are measured, it is often hard to replicate the results of specialization with an in-house program. As businesses continue to do more with less, niche staffing suppliers continue to emerge and fill the gaps that are left behind.

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