Some Employers See Hiring Opportunity
By CARI TUNA
Cancer Treatment Centers of America Inc. received 19,000 applicants for 100 jobs at a new hospital near Phoenix, opened in December — six times as many as when it last opened a facility, in 2006.
Applicants included administrators, physicians and nutritionists — both unemployed and employed. Chief Executive Steve Bonner was so overwhelmed that he is considering hiring additional employees long before he needs them, likely in 2011. “I’m asking myself: where are my weak spots, and is this an opportunity to plug one?”
Like Mr. Bonner, some employers are seizing the recession as an opportunity to strengthen their talent pool, poach stars from rivals or rebuild after layoffs. Every opening attracts dozens of qualified, and overqualified, applicants. Unemployment is 8.1% (since raised to 8.5% as of the Friday, April 3, unemployment report), the highest since 1983, and 12.5 million Americans are out of work. Yet the Labor Department says there were fewer than three million job openings in January, the fewest since it began tracking the data in 2000.
Strategically hiring skilled, productive employees can help employers boost efficiency and save money, says DeLynn Senna, executive director of permanent placement services for North America for Robert Half International Inc., a professional staffing firm. Good hiring decisions now may allow companies to best competitors when the economy rebounds, she says.
Many of the employers that are hiring are in sectors such as healthcare, government or utilities, which are still adding jobs. The U.S. Census Bureau is staffing ahead of next year’s population count. The Los Angeles regional office has received more than 80,000 applicants for an initial 10,000 jobs, from field workers to office staff. Applicants include PhD and MBA holders “who would not typically apply for temporary positions with the Census Bureau,” says Celeste Jimenez, an assistant regional manager.
For the Palm Beach County, Fla. School District, the recession means savings on recruiting and training bus drivers. Two years ago, the district was so desperate for drivers that officials parked a bus outside a local mall and handed applications to shoppers. This school year, the district has received more than 1,000 applications for fewer than 100 driver positions, paying around $12 an hour plus benefits. Many applicants have commercial driver’s licenses, which were rare in the past; that cuts training costs, says transportation director Yevola Falana.
Other employers still hiring are gaining at the expense of rivals. Revenue at Family Dollar Stores Inc. grew 8.7% to about $2 billion in its fiscal second quarter, ending Feb. 28, as overall retail sales for the same period fell 9.4%. The Charlotte, N.C., discount retailer, which employs about 45,000 people, plans to open around 200 new stores and add more than 1,350 workers in 2009.
Each opening attracts a surge of applicants, helping Family Dollar trim recruiting costs and fill jobs faster with stronger candidates. “We’re seeing a level of applicant we haven’t ever seen before,” says Bryan Venberg, senior vice president of human resources.
A recent posting for a New York City store manager drew 700 applications in two days. A listing for a human-resources manager drew more than 100 applications in 24 hours. Two years ago the company would have tapped a recruiter to fill the HR position, Mr. Venberg says.
To bolster its information-technology department, Family Dollar contacted managers at Circuit City Stores Inc., which recently liquidated. Family Dollar ultimately hired four IT specialists from the defunct electronics retailer, Mr. Venberg says.
Danish drug maker Novo Nordisk A/S, boosted by sales of new diabetes treatments, is hiring salespeople and researchers in the U.S., as many pharmaceutical companies shed jobs. Novo Nordisk employs 27,000 people worldwide, including more than 3,000 in the U.S. Novo Nordisk drew more than 4,000 applicants for 80 positions at a new research facility in Seattle, opened in October, including research directors laid off elsewhere. “Highly qualified people are trying to get lower-level jobs,” says human-resources manager Rebecca Capuano.
Ms. Senna, of Robert Half, says small and mid-sized employers are benefiting too, as some large companies lay off workers and cut wages and benefits.
Consider Model N Inc., a closely held Silicon Valley software maker. Kamal Ahluwalia, vice president of corporate marketing, says Model N traditionally faced tough competition for employees from software giants such as Oracle Corp. and SAP AG, as well as smaller startups.
“Now, all the big guys are on hiring freeze, and most of the startups are dying,” he says. “In this downturn, we really do have an opportunity to hire the best talent.”
Buoyed by rising sales of its revenue-management software, Model N plans to add 30 to 40 employees to its 275-person staff in 2009. In February, Model N tapped Jim Gavin, an SAP salesman in Palo Alto, Calif., to lead sales to big technology companies.
In January, SAP had said it would cut 3,000 jobs, or 6% of its workforce. The layoffs “put the whole organization on edge,” says Mr. Gavin, who had worked for SAP for three years. He started looking elsewhere.
Model N tapped Mr. Gavin through a recruiter he had used to hire employees for SAP. Mr. Gavin’s total potential compensation – between $260,000 and $300,000 – is similar to his target pay at SAP. But his fixed salary is higher and sales targets more achievable, he says. “Here you have a little bit more control,” he says.
Mr. Ahluwalia says Mr. Gavin is better-qualified than his predecessors, who typically arrived from mid-sized technology companies with fewer contacts and less experience selling to big companies.
But hiring in a downturn can be tricky. Job seekers are not only more numerous but more desperate, hiring managers say. Weeding through hundreds of resumes is time consuming, and mistakes can be costly. Some employers are trying to screen out applicants who are merely seeking a paycheck until the economy recovers.
Defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. expects to receive a record 1.5 million applications for around 20,000 positions in 2009, up from 1 million for between 12,000 and 13,000 openings in 2007, says Ken Disken, senior vice president of human resources.
He says interviewers have been instructed to pay closer attention to candidates’ career goals than in the past. “We want to make sure they want to come to Lockheed Martin to pursue a career, not a job,” Mr. Disken says.