There is a surge in new job openings, but why isn’t there a surge in job candidates?

April, 2021

In the Media

It was like fishing, and they were always biting.

Carolyn Lowe, CEO of a digital marketing agency, used to place an ad on job sites and wait for more than 100 applications to roll in. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and the flood of candidates’ emails became a trickle of perhaps a couple of dozen.

Now, Lowe has a new strategy: She scopes out potential candidates on LinkedIn and coaxes them to join her small, Austin, Texas-based company, called ROI Swift. “We are actively poaching people,” she says

As vaccinations spread and the economy revs up, employers are looking to fill a surge of job openings even as relatively few workers apply. Many are wary of the health and financial risks of switching jobs while the outbreak is still raging. Others are content to draw generous unemployment benefits. As a result, more firms are recruiting – luring skilled workers and low- and mid-level managers from rival companies as if they were high-level executives.

The trend has been accelerated by a pandemic-induced shift to remote work. The change is allowing companies to target candidates halfway across the country who don’t need to move to join the team. About 21% of online job postings don’t specify a location, up from 11% before the crisis, according to Manpower, a top staffing firm.

“People are averse to change right now,” says Jim McCoy, Manpower’s senior vice president of talent solutions. “There are very few active candidates” so bosses have to go out and recruit candidates who aren’t in the market. 

Over the past month or two, as demand for workers has spiked, many companies have seen a 20% decline in the share of people who apply after clicking on a job ad, says Chris Forman, CEO of Appcast, which makes job advertising technology. Forty-two percent of small businesses surveyed in March said they had job openings they couldn’t fill, a record high, according to the National Federation of Independent Business. 

“I’ve never seen the hiring market shift as quickly,” he says.

The headhunter-style tactics are forcing companies to raise starting wages and benefits to attract the employees and work harder to hold on to staffers who could just as easily be wrested away by competitors, McCoy says.

Companies are courting skilled workers and managers in technology, such as software developers and cybersecurity specialists, as well as people who work in sales, finance, health care, legal, warehouse and trucking, among other fields, McCoy says.

Grocery, big-box workers draw suitors

Even airlines, grocery stores and big-box retailers are poaching many of their low- and mid-level managers from rival companies, McCoy says.

Before the pandemic, companies sometimes plucked job candidates from competitors, either on their own or through agencies. But McCoy estimates about half of all professional job openings were filled by job seekers responding to ads or sending out cold applications. Now, he figures, businesses are recruiting about 75% of their white-collar hires.

Why the turnabout?

The health crisis split the economy in two. Some industries have catered to people living, working and shopping from home, boosting technology, warehouse and delivery companies, and grocery and convenience stores. But restaurants and other sectors that depend on in-person services were decimated. As a result, companies are jostling to fill lots of openings for a handful of in-demand positions, such as truck drivers, nurses, software developers and grocery store managers. These job titles now dominate postings, with the 20 hottest jobs making up 63% of all online openings, up from 25% before the pandemic, Manpower says.

Also, restaurant and retail positions are coming back as states ease business restrictions, adding to the swell of job openings.

At the same time, about 4 million Americans have stopped working or looking for jobs the past year because they fear contracting COVID-19, are caring for children or sick relatives, or other reasons, Labor Department figures show. Many workers also have been reluctant to change jobs in an uncertain economy, McCoy says.

Others, he says, are job hunting but turn down offers because they don’t want to give up unemployment benefits that include a $300 federal bonus under Congress’s COVID-19 relief package. That makes hiring a challenge even with a relatively high 6% unemployment rate. 

The upshot: Businesses are scrambling to fill an abundance of similar job openings from a limited pool of candidates. That forces them to zero in on those they favor and cajole them. 

‘Like a blessing’

Lowe, the CEO of ROI Swift, says her new recruiting strategy has been aided by her decision to allow remote work anywhere in Texas. She won’t permit teleworking anywhere in the U.S. because that would trigger additional state taxes, she says. Although she typically can’t compete on salary with Facebook and Google, which have opened offices in Austin, she offers training and touts her 12-employee firm’s more flexible culture.

Since Lowe recently began to more aggressively seek out candidates, she says it has taken her about a month to fill openings, down from six months previously.

Last summer, one of her recruits, JeanPaul Aguilar, 25, was growing restless as an account manager for another digital marketing agency and was gearing up to fire off his usual quota of about 25 applications a month.

Then he received an email alerting him to a LinkedIn message from Lowe about a job managing Google ads for clients. After interviewing, he accepted a salary offer that was 15% higher than his previous pay. The position also gives him more decision-making authority. And it lets him follow through on his plans to move to San Antonio.

“It kind of felt like a blessing,” Aguilar says. “It was perfect timing.”

In the more tough-and-tumble hiring environment, businesses that don’t allow remote work may have to loosen up.

“Companies not willing to let people work remotely are going to be at a much greater risk of losing employees,” says Jeanne Branthover, a managing partner at DHR International, an executive search firm.

Vancouver, British Columbia-based MediaValet – which stores movies, videos and other digital assets for companies on the cloud – now hires sales and marketing managers, software engineers and product designers who can work anywhere in the world, says CEO David MacLaren. A handful of his 100 staffers work in states such as New York, Florida, California and Washington.

“I was a diehard, you have to work in the office type, ” he says. “I always thought you can’t create and maintain a healthy culture working remotely.”

But, he says, COVID-19 “forced us to find technology and processes to mimic what we had before” while eliminating wasted commuting time. 

The global remote work policy helps MacLaren recruit about 80% of his new hires, up from about half before the pandemic.

“We need to be more aggressive,” he says. “Pre-COVID, we would just put out an ad.”

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