Dealing with Choosier Job Candidates

Continued tightness in the labor market is forcing employers to find out what today's jobseekers are looking for.
By: | January 2, 2017 • 6 min read

Amy Williams says there’s been a noticeable change in the job candidates that her insurance company, Penn Mutual, is interviewing these days.

“Three years ago, people were just looking for something to pay the bills until they found their dream job; now, they’re much choosier,” says Williams, assistant vice president of human resources for the mid-sized Horsham, Pa.-based life insurance company.

Williams’ experience is hardly unique these days. With the unemployment rate at an 18-year low and jobseeker confidence near an all-time high, HR and talent acquisition leaders find themselves having to hustle like never before to attract qualified candidates. This year promises to be even more competitive, with employers in all 13 industry sectors expecting to add staff during the first quarter of 2018, according to ManpowerGroup’s latest Employment Outlook Survey, with employers in industries such as construction and durable-goods manufacturing forecasting their strongest outlooks in more than a decade.

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Candidates can afford to be choosier than in the past, which means employers must learn how to market their open positions in ways that resonate with what today’s jobseekers are looking for, says Dan Weber, director of global workforce analytics at Aon Hewitt in Austin, Tex.

“The over-arching trend we’re seeing is that candidates want answers to questions like, ‘What are you, as an employer, going to do to help me advance my career, my personal development and help me align my personal goals with the work that I do?’ ” says Weber, who advises companies in the technology and life sciences industries on how to attract and retain top talent.

At global software firm SAP, which came in at No. 11 on Glassdoor’s latest list of the best places to work in 2018, the company’s new employee value proposition, “Bring Everything You Are, Become Everything You Want,” is designed specifically to appeal to the desire among today’s candidates to get a genuine sense of what it’s like to work at a company, says Jenn Prevoznik, the Walldorf, Germany-based company’s global head of early talent acquisition. The campaign includes video testimonials from a diverse group of SAP employees explaining what drew them to the company and what keeps them there.

A few years ago, college grads tended to be focused on benefits, says Prevoznik, who oversees SAP’s campus recruiting. However, today’s grads are focused on the work they’d be doing: Who will I be working for and with, will the company invest in me, is the work compelling? “Companies tend to overpromise and under deliver, so being authentic in the conversation from the very beginning is super-key,” she says. “The best way to communicate our EVP is to have employees speak on our behalf.”

Executive recruiter Angie Salmon says she’s been seeing many more questions from high-level candidates about organizational culture than in years past.

“We’ve been getting a lot more questions about diversity, philanthropy, flexibility, what type of organization it is and whether they could see themselves working there long-term,” says Salmon, senior vice president at EFL Associates in Kansas City. “That’s different from what we saw seven to 10 years ago, when it was all about cash, base compensation, and short-term and long-term incentives.”

To be sure, executives are still interested in those things, she says, but culture and flexibility are increasingly seen as equally important.

“That’s consistent across all levels of candidates” from exec to entry level, says Salmon, who helps companies fill positions at the C-suite level. Additionally, more candidates are turning down a job because they feel “the job didn’t seem like a good fit” rather than inadequate compensation, she says.

The economic turmoil of the late aughts is also a factor, says Prevoznik, who says she’s noticed a change in what young candidates are looking for today compared with a few years ago. “They still want great pay and benefits, but the awesome cafeteria and bring-your-dog-to-work day are no longer a priority — this is a generation that saw their parents battered by the Great Recession and is struggling with heavy school debt, and they want financial stability,” she says, adding that SAP is emphasizing financial counseling and is looking into student-loan-forgiveness programs. “Financial wellness is almost as important to them as physical wellness.”

However, viewing “millennials” as a monolithic bloc is short-sighted, says Weber.

“There are two groups of millennials — established millennials and emerging millennials,” he says. “Both groups want cool perks, but their perspective changes as they settle into the workplace.”

Established millennials, the older members of the generation, tend to have young children and are focused on work/life balance, while the emerging group puts more emphasis on factors like pay and fun — and also want to know whether a job meshes with their purpose in life, he says.

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Employers, for their part, are responding by taking a hard look at their employee value proposition and using that as context for what sort of perks and benefits they plan to offer new and existing employees, he says.

“To me, the millennials are really speaking for what’s trending in the rest of the workforce — they’ve taken us in a really positive direction in terms of the value proposition we offer employees,” says Weber.

The companies that seem to best understand this are those undergoing “digital transformation,” says Weber — established companies in traditional industries that are trying to attract tech talent as they evolve to compete in a business world dominated by the likes of Amazon and Google.

“They know they can’t compete in terms of giant equity packages, so they’re competing in terms of work/life balance, the state-of-the-art technology they’re investing in and job stability and career advancement,” he says.

High-performing companies also “seem to be plowing more money into peer-to-peer recognition, and we think it’s because it lets employees and managers reward behaviors that reinforce the company culture much more quickly and proactively,” says Weber.

At Penn Mutual, the company emphasizes its peer-to-peer recognition program, called Pride, as well as its collaborative culture, says Williams.

SAP has also tweaked its benefits offerings to keep them fresh and appealing for today’s candidates, adding ones such as Milk Stork, a delivery service designed to make it easier for new moms who are traveling on business to have their breast milk delivered to their homes. Another service, Color, lets employees have their saliva tested for genetic risks and share the results with their families.

“We wanted to create a portfolio that lets employees pick and choose what’s best for them,” says Prevoznik.

All of this means HR needs to be thinking hard about the types of candidates they want to attract, and whether their culture is attractive to those types of candidates, says Salmon.

One of the biggest recruiting mistakes a company can make is when the culture it professes to have during the early stages of outreach is undermined by the words and behaviors of recruiters and hiring managers farther along into the process, she says, as well as what candidates see when they actually visit the company.

“It’s not wise to claim to have a culture that prizes diversity and flexibility only to have candidates see rooms full of nothing but white male managers and restrictions on where and when you can work,” says Salmon.

HR should also keep in mind that although competitive pay is important, it’s hardly the only factor that can help their company attract A-list talent, she says.

“I worked with a client that offers little in the way of competitive compensation but a lot in terms of flexibility,” says Salmon. “Yet the flexibility really helps in terms of recruitment and retention because, once you have it, it’s really hard to imagine giving that up, even for more money.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine is senior editor for talent acquisition at Human Resource Executive®. He oversees coverage of talent acquisition and recruiting and also edits the weekly Recruiting Trends Bulletin e-newsletter and its associated website, RecruitingTrends.com. A Penn State graduate, Andy also spent two years in the U.S. Army prior to attending college and attained the rank of sergeant while serving in the Army Reserves. He can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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