Businesses hire high-skilled workers even if there’s no job for them. Here’s why:

March, 2019

In the Media

Here’s the new rallying cry for high-skilled workers hoping to get hired at their favorite company:

No job opening? No problem.

With businesses struggling to fill job vacancies amid low unemployment and fewer available workers, many are adopting a new strategy: They’re stockpiling the most talented employees in fields such as information technology, social media and engineering on fears they might not be around when an opening arises.  Worker shortages have led to prolonged searches and lost revenue.

Employers are saying, “’There’s no immediate opening but we’re going to bring you on anyway,” says Jacob Zabkowicz, global vice president of recruiting firm Korn Ferry. Then, “the person helps build their job description.”

Fifty-seven percent of recruiters say they’ve hired for a specific skill set even if there was no existing role for the candidate, according to a Korn Ferry survey late last year.

“They want to create a pipeline,” says Jeanne Branthover, co-head and managing partner of executive search firm DHR International’s New York office. Yet the practice could ruffle the feathers of existing employees, recruiting officials say.

Get talent in the door

The strategy is aimed at corralling coveted specialists, such as data scientists, software developers, digital media experts, artificial intelligence designers and certain accounting and engineering professionals, staffing experts say.

Zabkowicz estimates about 10 percent of hires in such fields now occur when there’s no specific opening. The trend, he says, has picked up steam the past couple of years as the job market has tightened.

The unemployment rate for private-sector workers averaged 3.8 percent last year, a near 50-year low, as job openings hit a record 7.3 million in December. Candidates are far scarcer in certain fields, with employment averaging 2.2 percent for computer-design workers and 1.8 percent for science-related jobs, and architectural and engineering services, Labor Department figures show.

Three years ago, Audiogon, an e-commerce site for high-end audio systems, began asking its staffing firm, Robert Half International, to continually hunt for software developers after finding it took as long as eight months to fill vacancies, says Lindsay Karlson, Audiogon’s chief operating officer.

“If you can get the right person who fits our culture and has the skill set, I don’t like to let that person go,” Karlson says. “In six months, I don’t know that I’ll find them.” 

In the past, she says, the 11-employee company, based in Greenville, South Carolina, has not had enough software programmers at times, delaying the rollout of new features and costing it thousands of dollars in sales.

 “I just never want to be in that position again,” Karlson says. The new approach led to the addition of five of the firm’s seven programmers the past few years. Sales growth has supported the new staffers, with revenue increasing 18 percent last year, Karlson says.

Spreading the workload

Jeff Dill, 33, an Audiogon programmer, said it was “certainly flattering” that Karlson hired him a few years ago even though she had no job opening. “It tells me a lot about the company – that they’re open to exploring new things,” he says. Dill says the approach provided him more creative freedom as he worked on his first project – developing an online showroom based on photos of consumers’ home audio setups.

Often, employers simply parcel some of existing employees’ workload to new arrivals, as Audiogon does, ensuring an adequate staff is in place as revenue increases.

Landmark, an accounting firm with 115 employees, uses the tactic for bringing on both freshly-minted college graduates and experienced tax managers. Many long-time, baby boomer employees are retiring, leaving periodic openings, says Katie Lejong, a partner with the Fort Smith, Arkansas-based firm.

In the short term, she says, “It does tend to add costs,” since newcomers handle work that could be done by existing staff, she says. But, “there’s a balance. We want to create capacity for the future.”

Some companies carve out new positions. Many recruiters are unclear about how to hire for the new digital world, prompting firms to bring on digitally savvy candidates and then invent roles for them, such as digital sales or manufacturing specialist, Zabkowicz says.

Creating positions

Recently, while searching for a chief digital officer for a financial firm, Branthover spotted a candidate so impressive the company decided to create the position of chief strategy officer, putting him on track to eventually become CEO.

Yet concocting new positions to leverage the skills of job candidates can breed resentment among existing employees, says Steve Saah, an executive director for Robert Half.

“(Employers) have to have a plan to communicate it internally and be transparent with the current staff,” he says.

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