It’s Hard to Hire

Jan 05, 1998

Just ask anyone in this business— it’s damn difficult to hire good people today. And the situation doesn’t appear to be easing up. As long as this building boom continues, the competition for talent is going to remain strong. If you are finding it hard to hire the people you want and need in your firm, consider these questions: Are you spending money on the problem? I hear complaints about hiring, but most firms don’t spend anything on the problem. For example, while sitting with some members of the executive committee of a large A/E firm last week, I suggested they spend about $500K on recruiting beyond what they currently spend. They nearly threw me out of the room! Yet they are having tough times getting the experienced architects and engineers they need to do work already on the books. Have you paid attention to your firm’s work environment? This is a much bigger deal than many principals and managers realize. Grandma’s recipe for hiring is more than just good pay and benefits, and interesting or high-profile projects. It also includes the work environment— things such as how much natural light you provide, what type of furnishings you have, what your cubicle design is, whether employees have Internet access at their desks, how well-stocked your kitchen is, what your company library has, what information you share, and how people dress on the job. Look at what the high-tech firms are doing with their workplaces to get and keep people. All of this is a lot more important if you are trying to attract Gen-Xers. Are you promoting from within and hiring at the entry level? One reason firms find it tough to hire is that they are trying to hire at too high a level. I wonder why these firms don’t already have the experienced PM, department head, director of operations, or office manager candidates that they can promote. You would think that a 50-, 250-, or 1,500-person firm could do a decent job growing their own middle and top management— accountants and attorneys can do it, and they aren’t any smarter than we are! All they have to do is hire at the entry level, where it is always easier to get folks with potential, but who haven’t yet proven themselves. The other thing is that sometimes I think you need to wonder what’s wrong with these “high-level” outside candidates coming from other firms. Why aren’t they already principals? Why would they move on? Why have they been passed over? Do your managers act as if job candidates should sell them on why the company should make an offer? If so, get your managers together and tell them the facts of life. You are competing for talent with 50,000 firms and can’t get away with this anymore. Have a training exercise: Get them to pretend they are talent scouts for a pro football or baseball team. To what lengths do you think those people go for the best staff? How can that approach be applied when you want to hire a new mechanical engineer or transportation planner? Can you clearly articulate why someone should work at your firm? This is always a lot of fun. Ask the managers just below the level of CEO, managing partner, president, etc., why a young architect/scientist/planner/engineer/surveyor should sign up with your firm instead of another. Quiz them. Interrogate them. Do whatever it takes to get them to sell you on why your firm is the best place to work. If they can’t do it, give them the information they need so they can. Is everyone in your firm aware of all your job openings? If not, send a company-wide e-mail each week. Spell out what you want. Ask for referrals. Provide a name and number of who to talk to. I’m not a big advocate, though, of paying referral fees to employees. Your people should want to sell your firm, and these fees can create hard feelings if the company does not hire a candidate who was referred by an employee. Have we recruit-proofed our company? Slowing down the outflow is important too, especially if you are losing the ones you don’t want to lose. Train your receptionists and switchboard operators in how to identify recruiters who call fishing for names. Get your employee roster off your Web site. And most importantly, continue to sell every employee on the idea that they have made a good choice to join and stay with your firm. Don’t let any senior member of the firm adopt a posture other than “you’d be crazy if you left here.” Because once management starts rationalizing that it was the best decision for an employee’s career to leave their company and join another, you’ve got mega-problems. What does this say to the people who stay? Originally published 1/05/1998

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