Case Study: Paul’s Attempt to Find the Scarce

It was the beginning of autumn in New England, and the leaves were turning orange, yellow, and red. It was a glorious afternoon, but Paul scarcely noticed. He was stuck.

His company, ABC, needed some very specialized people and he couldn’t find them. For over two years, Paul had tried to fill some very specialized and always open positions by using Internet search and revamping the career site. He had even put his reputation on the line a few months back when he insisted that a central sourcing team would solve the perpetual lack of qualified candidates.

He had just finished a tough meeting with his sourcing team trying to figure out why there were no candidates in their talent pool. He had been certain that there would be several potential people from that pool; when the hiring managers had told him about their openings, he had assured them it wouldn’t take very long.

After all, the team had known about the competencies these positions required for months. Now it looked bleak.

What had gone wrong?

When he took his current position, he was aware that finding the highly specialized robotic engineers and technicians the firm needed was his number-one challenge.

Even though the organization was located in the heart of the academic world, with major research schools and labs everywhere, these robotics people remained a scare commodity and the few that he did find were happier remaining in academia.

He had worked with compensation to sweeten the incentives and he had spent time with a big-name advertising agency honing the recruiting messages and redoing the career site. They had won awards and been written about in ERE and in recruiting blogs. Paul had been given several awards. But he was failing.

The company was quite unique. It developed robots that mimicked the human hand. These mechanical hands were incredible. They could pick up an egg without breaking it and yet they could slice through a piece of steel like scissors through paper. They could manipulate, sew, pick up tiny parts, and insert them into circuit boards and they could perform some types of surgery, with assistance from a human doctor.

The demand was growing rapidly, yet the supply of people to design, improve, and manufacture them remained small. Not many schools turned out robotics engineers and not many students choose that as a career.

The engineering team had also placed tight competency requirements on candidates. Every candidate had to have degrees in at least two related disciplines, such as mechanical and electrical engineering, or computer science and mechanical engineering. Or, they had to have 5 or more years of experience and a single degree.

Hiring managers wanted prior experience in robotics, if possible, or experience in manufacturing or designing miniature components or nanotechnology. They wanted engineers capable of demonstrating these products to a global customer base. And each robot had to be installed and “tuned” for each customer, which frequently required foreign travel for a long period of time.

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Even though Paul had pushed back on these tough requirements, he had not been able to change their opinions. And his sourcing team couldn’t find the right people.

So here he sat on a lovely afternoon, befuddled and at a loss. Should he quit? Did he admit defeat? Was there a way out? What strategies or tactics could he apply to this situation that might rescue him, and the organization?

I am hoping you can help Paul. What are your ideas and suggestions? I will summarize them and add my thoughts in a future column.

About the Author

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.

  • Britton Stuhldreher

    Niche candidates, historically, have been championed through professional networks and competitive cold calling. Employee referrals programs generate strong candidate leads as well.

    Internal, captive recruiters appear to rely too much on the post & pray system, and perhaps, Paul needs to coach and develop his internal staffing team to hone in on passive candidate recruiting skills.

  • Benjamin de Seife

    First off, don’t think like an internal recruiter. Go to big name schools in the area, sit in on relevant Masters or PHD classes. Ask professors for their advice on where to find people, the good ones work with graduate students in research assistant positions who fit what you’re looking for.

    Secondly, open the position to relocation and call external recruiters. We will find you people, we will sell them on the company and the area, and we will be excited because you calling us will mean that these are extremely hot positions.

    And finally, when you do get these people in front of the hiring managers. Make sure they have real, relevant reasons for turning down candidates. If the reason is anything like “Well he’s not bad, but he’s not perfect” hit them on the nose with a rolled up newspaper.

    Benjamin de Seife
    Global Employment Solutions

  • Randy Dalmas

    Attending professional conferences and working with professional societies can be a produce some results. Another way is to promote the company and have candidates come to you — articles in journals or speakers at conferences. Now might also be the time to start grooming engineers and developing your own training programs. Find bright kids out of college, promise them to top-notch training, and then get a 2 or 3 year commitment.

  • Stephen Marsden

    Get off the internet and get on the phone. The best of the best and the highly specialized are not actively looking for Paul’s job. They are probably busy happily doing their job.

    It sounds like this role has a great story to tell. Paul should start actively engaging and developing his audience. Target people who might run in the right circles. Tell them about the opportunity. Then ask them who they know.

  • Rob McIntosh

    Kevin – What I find interesting is that when I hear these scenarios play over and over again 99% of people think that some creative sourcing strategy is going to solve the problem. When is actual fact recruiting is trying to solve a business problem.

    What recruiting can’t control:

    1. Number of students looking to gain degrees and expertise in what you describe as a very niche market
    2. The size of the total available talent pool.

    What recruiting can control:

    1. Provide business leadership with the facts and analytics on the size and demographic makeup of their current talent pool that can frame the discussion based in reality
    2. Speaking with candidates that say they prefer to stay in academia and really get to the drivers on what is causing this desire vs. moving to corporate life
    3. Helping educate and consult with business leaders on external factors that are directly out of recruiting’s control (market conditions, requirements out of whack with Demand/Supply) and move out of a master/servant relationship.
    4. Partner with the business to craft EVP messaging that targets the talent pool on “why company x” vs. academia or other career paths.

    Like building a house, once you establish the foundation of 1,2,3 and 4, then weaving in a sourcing, candidate attraction and development strategy is akin to building a house on terraferma vs. on quicksand.

    Rob

  • Chuck Clevenger

    Is it possible that some of the robotics people who are happy in academia would like to supplement their income by doing some moonlighting? Could some of the workload be carved into chunks that are sizeable enough to be handled by a PT PhD?

    It also seems that this is a company that would profit from a co-op/internship program. Providing challenging internships would increase the buzz on campus and aid recruiting. And, it might prove to the hiring managers that their requirements are too strict. That an experienced intern with a degree in only one discipline could contribute significant value.

    Their robotic applications have all the ingredients for a killer video. How about combining a You Tube video with a competition for recent graduates to create some new feature for the robots? Wouldn’t that increase publicity and the candidate pool.

  • Tisha Ervin

    Paul should start actively using companies that target passive candidates such as my company, Augustine Inc. We completely focus on passive candidates and supply our clients with the market intelligence during the initial search. Passive candidates are typically happy in their current position and you want to focus on content people it tends to make for a better hire.

  • Colette Feeney

    Seems all the focus and responsibility is on Paul’s team. I believe the Hiring Manager also has a role to play.

    Engage with the Hiring Managers and teams to brainstorm and identify possible targets. In this type of niche industry, people are usually aware of the players. The specialist staff already hired need to act as ambassadors for the company and the project.

    Use these staff to determine common motivations (time for academic researche etc) and clearly outline the employment proposition to address these needs.

  • K.C. Donovan

    Well being that this is what we deal with for everyone of our projects – perhaps we can give Paul an idea as to how to get it done…it is never easy, but typically projects such as this will only have 100 people or less that fit the requirements fully in the entire marketplace. If you consider that 70-80% are happy in their current role, 10-20% would consider it but can’t make a move due to various reasons (relo, etc.) and 10-15% are looking but carry some sort of baggage (a high percentage are usually not top 20% performers) – you can easily see why Paul is stumped. No amount of marketing or advertising will be of value with the largest group available, as the last thing they are doing is scanning career pages or job boards on the Internet.
    The best way for Paul to be successful is to create a system where he can uncover the 60-70 people that do this work who reside in the “happy where I am camp,” and isolate those that are in the top 20% from a talent perspective. This can be done by speaking with all of these individuals (or a majority of them) and asking them all the same 2-3 questions – using your emotional intelligence skills to separate out the best 10-15 or so individuals – I didn’t say it was going to be easy! The top performers are typically defined as “challenge junkies.” Once you know who these people are, you need to present them with the unique challenges that your roles possess. Simply put, if your challenges are more interesting than the ones they are currently involved with – you have a winner! Obviously, it is vital in this approach to be able to articulate several unique characteristics about the role, the challenges and the company. Certainly from what Kevin has mentioned about the “mechanical hands” that Paul’s company creates, provides a terrific story to get anyone interested.
    Obviously, not many companies have the resources to be able to create a system as I have outlined. If so, a thorough examination of a consulting company that has a track record of successfully employing a method as I have described can help. Be careful that you get them to fully explain in detail the specific companies they will source from, the methods they will employ to uncover the top 20%, and the story telling capabilities that they will employ – as they will be representing YOU to a very small talent pool and if you want to go back to this pool again (and you will), it is vital that you and your organization are presented positively, ethically, and professionally.

    Good Luck!

  • Eric Putkonen

    (actually, now that I am done with the response…get executive and top level backing on everything first)

    As the engineering team is hung up on what candidates have…I would get executive backing and try Performance-based Hiring (ala Adler Group) and focus on what the candidates can do and have done. Make performance profiles and find out what the person has to be able to do in the next year…and then look for candidates who can do it. It may be found that candidates don’t need 2 degrees or 5+ years and a degree…etc. That may loosen it up some and allow a bigger pool.

    I would go get a few corporate videos made…specifically one on corporate identity and brand…and then more specific videos on the talent hub or specific engineering positions (depending on number to fill or how consistent they are for openings). With cool looking technology like this…it could be outstanding video that may be a hit virally (not to mention can be included with emails and job posts).

    I would go to the engineering team and find 3-6 engineers who want to start a blog. I would go to Ning or some other side and start a robots engineering blog for the company (with links to it from the company website). Cool stuff that is being done (non-proprietary or secret of course) and day in the life stuff of engineers. This gives candidates an inside look at the company…and it is another way for the search engineers to find you. I would restrict who can see the members of the blog (don’t want third party recruiters poaching your blog members). Give lots of information. This will not give results right away and don’t expect anything for a year…but eventually this will become a major source of people in the field and very interested in this. Maybe even start a community using something like Ning.com…but this will open the members more to TPR (third party recruiters) who will likely join to see candidates in the field.

    Beef up the employee referral program…and also college student referral program (article on ERE just recently). Make the referral program a part of the culture that everyone knows about. Have referral cards made even and offer spot awards when an HR person picks someone randomly a couple times a month if they have a referral card and they have one on them. Get your employees to become the salespeople of the company to get more candidates.

    Take a post or be active in all the local professional associations and groups about this kind of engineering. If there isn’t one in an area, create the local branch of the association yourself…host the meetings at your headquarters. Offer to bring food to associations…whatever…just so they know who you are and are regularly reminded.

    Be active in the universities that offer degrees in these areas…make sure the students in these areas know who the company is. Like the associations…offer food…speak at meetings…offer to go into classes and offer a talk in real-world terms (the professors would love it). Make relationships with the professors and teachers. Also take advantage of internships and any other way to get students in the door (tours, etc).

    Relocation program – to open up the pool…make it worth people’s while to relocate. You may be people across the country or world (yes…world) who are in the field and may be interested.

    At the moment…this is all that is coming to mind.

    ~ Eric Putkonen

  • Joshua Letourneau

    Well-written case — It was quite enjoyable to read, and resonates with me personally because my firm helps organizations like Paul’s tackle these problems. Here’s my take . . .

    Positives and Negatives:

    1. Paul understands his most critical talent pool — Highly Specialized Robotic Engineers (I mention this because most organizations don’t understand their most critical talent pools from an organizational strategy standpoint).

    2. Paul is trying to improve the marketing presence (employment brand) of the firm. HOWEVER, I do not see any notes to whether Paul simply revised the career site to reflect the over-arching values of the organization . . . or whether he’s executing true VPM. When it comes to highly specialized talent pools, this is not enough; this is nothing more than reaching parity. You need to perform a VPM (value proposition management) initiative to ensure that there are no gaps in your overall value prop among those highly critical/pivotal talent pools that most drive your success (and let’s not forget the relevance of a Porter 5-Forces study relative to each individual talent pool).

    3. Paul has learned that awards are nice to put on the wall, but matter little where the rubber meets the road. To take a line from Sergio Zyman, former CMO of Coca-Cola, “Who cares if you have a ‘cool’ ad, but don’t increase sales?” Likewise, who cares if you have a ‘rockin’ careers site, but don’t hire more great people for less money in less time than your competition?

    4. Paul “worked with compensation to sweeten the incentives.” This is a step in the right direction, however Paul should understand that many talent pools have their own DNA, and in this case, it may not be compensation or incentives that are the ultimate differentiator to whether the highly sought after candidates accepts your position . . . or your competitor’s.

    5. “The demand was growing rapidly, yet the supply of people to design, improve, and manufacture them remained small.” This is the classic supply-demand imbalance. Despite the existence of a dedicated Strategic Sourcing unit, controlling the macro-economics of the talent pool is a long-term play. Just ask Defense Contractors that are dying for Engineering talent . . .

    6. “The engineering team had also placed tight competency requirements on candidates.” Obviously, the more you tighten up restrictions on an already finite talent pool, the more you diminish it. There may be opportunity for training programs for engineers looking to migrate from one area of Robotics Engineering to this core focus. Again, this also represents a long-term play, however . . . and as a result, doesn’t solve the immediate dilemma.

    7. Job Design appears to be a problem. “Hiring managers wanted prior experience in robotics, if possible, or experience in manufacturing or designing miniature components or nanotechnology. They wanted engineers capable of demonstrating these products to a global customer base. And each robot had to be installed and “tuned” for each customer, which frequently required foreign travel for a long period of time.” My suggestion here is that Paul’s firm investigate the delineation of some of these responsibilities – instead of looking for candidates with ALL of skills A,B,C,D,E,F, perhaps they hire a “team” that collaboratively brings these skills to the table (which again, may constitute an increase in costs . . . however, we can’t always have our cake and eat it, too).

    I could continue, but the above appears to be the major issues. As my firm solves these types of problems for organizations like Paul’s, and although I would like to believe that my firm can implement a ‘play’ (or series of ‘plays’) to improve an organization’s competitive position within critical talent pools, there are times when the sourcing isn’t the problem. If you send an Oil Exploration team out to find oil in areas where there is none, then it doesn’t matter how long or how hard they drill – there just is none there. In these cases, a revamp of strategy is necessary . . . the positive point being that now you have several months of data (‘failure data’, if you will) to show that the real problem is not the recruiting and sourcing. It’s the strategy and job design itself.

    Again, well done, Kevin. Keep these great case studies up 🙂

  • Darryl Clements

    This challenge seems very “specialized” so I’d recommend a very different approach. If, in fact, Paul’s organization really wants to get people and not just blame the staffing team, then perhaps they should host an event around the technology that can lead to opening up such a small circle of tightly focused professionals.

    If the organization has a decent idea of who some of the specialized candidates might be and who some of the people in academia who are also focused on the same or very similar technology, why not host an onsite technology innovation showcase or event open only to every professional that they’ve been able to uncover? Also, allow those people to make recommendations of people who may be qualified an interested or to extend the invitation to other professionals who have to contact Paul’s team to confirm attendance.

    At the event, allow the company to showcase what it’s doing and to highlight what’s next. You could then ask people for feedback and if anyone would be interested in participating on a part-time or full-time basis. Those who are interested become your “hot” prospects, those who might be interested but can’t for some reason or another become “warm” prospects with who Paul’s team should have ongoing dialogue because they might be able to spread the word to others, and those who don’t seem to fit are “cold” and just get thanks for attending.

    I’d also recommend Paul’s organization even consider making a scholarship contribution to a specialized science field to designated technology institutions or directly to the research fund of any academic professional who refers someone who’s ultimately hired.

    I often find that someone with a good record like Paul suddenly takes unnecessary credibility hits when faced with an almost impossible situation.

    Using football as an example, would any hall-of-fame quarterback from any era be considered a failure if he was unable to convert fourth down and 50 yards to go with no timeouts and one second left on the clock? Of course not. However, you could expect that same quarterback to be considered a failure if he never made an attempt to make a play.

  • Carla Orr

    I would hit Carnegie Mellon University, they are known for this type of technology.

    Carnegie Mellon University
    Robotics Institute
    5000 Forbes Avenue
    Pittsburgh, PA 15213

    Regards,
    Carla Orr
    3Tech Group
    carla@3tech.com

  • Melynda Fox

    Though many short term “fixes” have been addressed, start looking at the long term strategic. Many college students have employment before they graduate. Offer internship programs at colleges and universities throughout the company with a signed letter of intent for employment upon graduation. In addition, look to the alumni programs current employees are associated with. Many times, these schools will welcome a niche degree program and incorporate your successful engineers (in this case) as Associate Professors or Course instructors. In addition, many technical schools offer associates degrees for students interested in a career in Engineering. Look at 2 yr program schools as well for interns.
    Lastly, the Military is an untapped resource. Look towards the navy and the Air Force as some MOS’s deal with this type of technology for weapons.

    Above all, don’t give up. Recruiting Administrative/Clerical positions is BORING!

  • Kay Pacheco

    I agree that Niche candidates, historically, have been championed through professional networks and competitive cold calling. Employee referrals programs generate strong candidate leads as well. But this issue seems to be how to touch these candidates in a way that would make them want to work for your company. I work in Health Care recruitment and one of the ways that has been successful for us in very Niche markets is to Seminars or conferences that attract these niche candidates. I am sure that new technology is developed on a regular basis for candidates in this market. Your company should host training seminars or a conference for these candidates to come to your facilities to hear about these new technologies and if possible to attend a workshop so that they can be trained in this technology. This works best if your robotics engineers speak and teach at these workshops. That way candidates can get to know your robotics engineers and your robotics engineers get to know other robotics engineers that they would like to have working with them. There is no charge for this conference or seminar but participates would have to pre register and give you their contact information so that you can send them information about the conference or seminar, it also gives you talent pool to resource from.

  • Neil Vaughn

    Only question I have after reading the case study is: Are they finding candidate that don’t pass the interview process or are they just not finding any candidates at all.

    If it is a question of finding candidates but they are being rejected in the interview process, I would focus on the Hiring Managers and their expectations, are they realistic? Seems like they want the perfect candidate and not someone that can get the job done.

    Also it seems like you have 2 jobs here, why not separate the customer interaction (set up and demo for customers) part out into a more junior level type role (ie. sales engineer). Just seems like a huge waste of time, to have a senior robotic engineer off-site handling the customers.

  • Chris Henrikson

    My perspective is as an engineer at the beginning of his career. I am very frustrated with job postings that are consistently over-specialized. It seems like you need a very specialized ‘gear’ that has to fit into the ‘machine’. Well, we are people, not ‘parts’.

    People can and will learn and grow. Great engineers are not pressed out of some machine at a university, they are like a bonsai tree which can be pruned and formed into the desired shape over time.

    Sturgeon’s second law: “90% of everything is crud”. This includes engineers. I can see why you want someone with the specialized credentials, the job requires them. If the proper candidate(s) show up on your door one day, you have achieved your goal, but it seems like this approach is not working.

    I encourage you to take a chance. Strong engineering teams are grown, not ‘acquired’. Find some good grads; ones that are bright, motivated and work well with your team. ‘Butter up’ your engineering team to the idea of mentoring and training the grads. I would suggest the grads build the products from the assembly line on up to get an overview of how things are done. Then, have them work under your engineers, doing the more ‘repetitive’ parts of their work, so the grads can gain experience and the senior engineers can concentrate on the tough parts (usually the more fun parts) of their work.

    I realize that this does not solve your immediate needs, but it is a sound long term plan. It’s a proactive solution that you can take now, instead of sitting on your hands. Good luck!

    p.s. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend Nick Corcodilos’ newsletter, blog and site: http://www.asktheheadhunter.com

    p.p.s. I’d also like to toot my own horn, my Alma Mater:
    http://www.space.com/news/061026_xprize_nowinners.html
    Students from my university came very close to winning an X-prize for designing a ‘crawler’ that may lead to building an elevator into space. Two of the most competent engineers that I went to school with are now working for Apple in California.