The Art and Science of Talent Acquisition

While a post-Thanksgiving chill gripped much of the U.S. in late November, the weather was mostly warm and sunny in West Palm Beach, Fla., where recruiting professionals flocked to attend the 2017 Recruiting Trends & Talent Tech Conference at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, which featured more than 65 speakers–including Tim Sackett, Gerry Crispin, Dr. John Sullivan and Dick Finnegan–presenting on a variety of recruiting topics.

These included technology, of course, with sessions featuring experts such as Elaine Orler, senior vice president of Talent Sonar and the conference co-chair, who delivered her assessment of the recruitment technology landscape for this year and beyond. Veteran HCM consultant Jon Sumser offered his rather skeptical take on the (perhaps overblown) claims by talent-acquisition vendors about how artificial intelligence will reshape recruiting. Technology figured prominently into the popular “Ideas & Innovators” session on the Thursday morning of the conference, in which eight presenters delivered five-minute “TED Talks”-style presentations on their ideas for rethinking and improving the recruitment process, complete with PowerPoint slides automatically timed to advance every 15 seconds.

Sackett, who delivered the conference’s opening keynote, generated lots of laughs with his irreverent commentary while seriously urging recruiters to sharpen their skills and those of their team. Closing keynoter Finnegan pressed attendees to consider seven smart ways to limit early turnover, including by giving candidates a realistic preview of the job in question–not in a futuristic virtual reality sense, but actually working the griddle at a fast-food restaurant while hustling orders, for example. Doing this, said Finnegan, will help filter out people who are unsuited for the job in the first place and let hiring managers see for themselves who has what it takes to thrive in the role.

In between, plenty of other speakers challenged attendees to rethink their old practices and offered them new and improved ways of helping their organizations find the best people. What follows is a summary of the highlights from the 2017 conference.

Defining Greatness

Greatness is a trait that may be simple to define on paper but is often difficult to spot on the street.

That’s according to Sackett, who delivered the conference’s opening keynote to a packed ballroom.

In a presentation titled “The DNA of Great Recruiting Pros: Transforming Yourself and your TA Shop to World-Class Levels,” Sackett began by projecting well-known action shots of Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan on the ballroom’s screens, followed by a photo of a seemingly unremarkable man crouching over some menial task in a parking lot. The latter photo’s subject? Art world darling and street artist Banksy, whose graffiti-style pieces often sell for millions.

“He’s considered great,” said Sackett, “but how many of us consider graffiti artists to be great?”

From there, Sackett, a popular speaker, blogger and president of HRU Technical Services, laid out the traits that are attributable to great recruiting professionals, including strong presentation and marketing skills, the ability to speak truth to power when necessary and personal political savviness.

“Are you a purist, a team player, a street fighter or a maneuverer?” he asked rhetorically. “If you work for a super-conservative organization and you’re a street fighter, there’s some misalignment there, and that is not going to work, because you’re going to pound your head against the wall and they’re going to hate your guts.”

Sackett also advised the audience to “constantly try new stuff” at work and to “do things that make us uncomfortable,” such as defending a work colleague when necessary. He acknowledged that it’s difficult to do because of concerns for one’s own career, but “to be able to go out and stand up for someone else gives you so much courage, and people will look up to you for that.”

It’s also important to view “recruiting as sales,” Sackett said, sharing an anecdote he picked up while working with Quicken Loans’ Jim Livingston.

The head of mortgage banking sales for 16 years, Livingston recently changed titles to become the company’s talent-acquisition leader, a role he used to help “transform the organization” by incorporating some of the same sales techniques he used in his prior role. Among the changes at Quicken Loans–which is looking to double its headcount to 30,000–was the installation of large flatscreen monitors that show the activity and performance on a minute-by-minute basis of the company’s approximately 100 recruiters.

Sackett said he now considers Livingston to be one of the top-five TA leaders in the country.

“[Livingston] didn’t know anything about talent acquisition when he started,” Sackett said. “All he knew was sales and how to drive them.”

Finally, Sackett said that a deep knowledge of a company’s talent pool is critical for greatness.

“Always keep that larger organizational picture in mind,” he said. “But don’t let anyone else be the expert at talent at your organization. Nobody should know the talent in your organization better than you do.”

HR: It’s About Quality, Not Quantity

Most organizations are structured along the following lines: On one side you have the competitive differentiators–sales and marketing, product development, customer service. And on the other side, you have compliance and cost containment–finance, legal and HR. The competitive-differentiator side tends to get the lion’s share of funding and attention–and that’s the side HR and recruiting need to be on, said Orler, Recruiting Trends & Talent Tech co-chair, during a session titled “Talent Acquisition Technology: What’s Ahead for 2018 and Beyond.”

Orler said that “talent is the only real competitive differentiator.”

Too often, she said, HR must scrape and beg for the money to implement the tools and systems that make talent acquisition faster and more effective. It needs to reorient its mindset away from cost-containment to value-added, and have the confidence–and the data–to successfully present this argument to the C-suite so it can get the resources it needs.

We need to have those straightforward conversations–that if we only have 30 days to find a candidate, we’re only going to come up with C-players,” she said. “We need to advocate for 40 days and 20-percent more salary, for example, to fill that position with an A-player.”

Orler, who’s worked as a recruiter and technology consultant for 20 years, also discussed her predictions for what we can expect to see in talent acquisition during the next year and beyond. One trend will be “total talent management,” she said, in which organizations will need to take into account the growing number of non-employees who fill critical talent roles. HR needs to take ownership for the contractors, gig workers and temps who fill these jobs and help them develop their careers and skills, even though they’re not full-time employees, she said.

Another development will be the realization that machines are not going to take over after all–but millennials and Gen Z will, and HR needs to help companies adapt to the different way in which the younger generations prefer to interact with their employer, said Orler. “We’ve got five generations in the workforce now–that’s unprecedented,” she said. “We’ve got to address how to manage the mixed workforce, and technology will help us do that.”

Then there’s what Orler refers to as “Suite Play 2.0,” or the growing availability of “plug and play” talent applications enabled by so-called “partner ecosystems,” in which HR tech vendors share their APIs with other pre-approved vendors to make it easier for clients to install new point solutions on their platforms without going through all the implementation and integration headaches of yesteryear, said Orler. “This is going to make things easier and faster,” she said.

Finally, talent acquisition will increasingly be measured by quality, not quantity, she said.

“If I could ask you to do one thing, it would be to refuse to allow TA to be measured by time-to-fill,” Orler told the audience. “Time-to-fill only generates quantity. Measure quality instead–that’s how we can show that we’re on the value-added side of the business, not the cost-containment side.”

“Listen Up, Hiring Manager”

If you’re a recruiter who feels as though you don’t have the respect of hiring managers, you’re probably not alone.

During a mega-session titled “Getting Hiring Managers to Focus on Great Recruiting,” San Francisco State University Professor John Sullivan said that only one out of three hiring managers think recruiters have a positive impact on their businesses. But he also told those attending that recruiters have a number of options at their disposal for changing that dynamic.

Sullivan said that the best way to get the attention of hiring managers is to approach them with data that matters to them. Recruiters, he said, shouldn’t waste their time trying to change what hiring managers care about, because they won’t change. Instead, he said, they should focus on what they do care about: money.

“Managers live in a world that’s data-driven, but mostly it’s about money,” Sullivan said.

If recruiters want to get through to hiring managers, he said, they need to be able to explain how what they do impacts each of these four areas: business goals, bonuses, getting promoted and time.

“Don’t bother coming in to talk to hiring managers about diversity or time-to-hire, because it just glazes them over,” he said. “But if you come in and tell them you can increase their sales by 20 percent, then they will listen to you, instantly.”

Sullivan noted that recruiters have a compelling story to tell. “If you do great recruiting, you can increase revenue by 3.5 times,” he said, adding that leadership development has roughly half that impact.

“Every other manager on the planet measures process effectiveness,” Sullivan said. “But only 33 percent of firms actually measure quality of hire.”

How can recruiters know they are doing a good job if they’re not measuring the right outcomes? he asked.

At the same time, Sullivan said, everyone else in the organization measures failure rates, but not recruiters. (New hires, he said, fail nearly half the time, with a 46-percent churn over an 18-month period.)

Not good, he said.

Sullivan advised those attending to show hiring managers what a weak hire costs their organization. “How much damage can one employee do?” he asked. “A lot. They can cost you 10 times their salary.”

Curing Healthcare’s Hiring Woes

Few sectors exemplify the scope of the challenges facing today’s recruiters better than healthcare.

As iCIMS Chief Economist Josh Wright pointed out during a breakout session titled “Approaching Intensified Competition for Talent in Changing Times,” employers in healthcare continue to struggle in their quest to find and attract the talent that’s needed.

Healthcare, he said, continued to grow even during the most recent economic downturn. “The reason is pretty intuitive,” he explained. “People don’t stop getting sick just because the economy slows down.”

Wright noted that healthcare is becoming a much larger part of the economy and predicted that that trend most likely will continue. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, he said, projects average growth will be 6.5 percent between 2014 and 2024 for all healthcare occupations.

Technical and support jobs, he added, are positioned to grow the fastest because of today’s aging population (16.4 percent and 23 percent, respectively).

He said that wages are rising, though only modestly. “Most economists are scratching their heads as to why, with unemployment so low, wages aren’t moving up more aggressively,” he said.

These economic and labor realities, Wright said, are forcing healthcare institutions to revisit and rethink their hiring priorities and practices.

During the breakout session, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Director of Talent Acquisition Kyla Nemitz shared her institution’s story, which includes a major expansion.

Nemitz said that each new site opened by the healthcare organization requires hiring 250 to 300 people. In 2019, she said, the organization plans to open a new center financed by the Koch Brothers that will require the hiring of up to 1,500 people.

Market data shows that patients are at risk if the patient-to-nurse ratio is 4:1 or less, she said. “We have to hire those nurses,” she explained. “They have to be there.”

To address its staffing challenges, MSK’s talent-acquisition group realized in 2011 that it needed to develop a formal workforce plan. “We knew that we were going to open all these sites and needed a strategic roadmap,” she said.

Nemitz said TA worked closely with finance and strategy planning to make that happen.

MSK has also been able to successfully use market data to drive recruiting efforts, she said, noting that the company uses LinkedIn data to identify what’s happening in the market.

In addition, the center has begun to use employee-survey data to help drive its TA strategy, reviewing the numbers to determine what motivated workers.

In the case of service workers, Nemitz said, respect was a key driver. Based on that insight, she said, MSK began to modify its messaging to attract those workers, who include security guards and janitors.

Nemitz said that sometimes the best solution can be found internally.

“We were looking at our internal data, as well as the market data, and realized that lab technologists are an aging field,” she said. “The market data showed us that people were not going into these programs and we had a ton of openings.”

So what MSK did, Nemitz said, was spearhead a program of its own called the Lab Scholars Program. “We partnered with a school in the area, sending five to eight of our employees to an 18-month lab technology program,” she said.

Roughly 20 lab technologists either have graduated from the program, now in its third year, or will be graduating, she said. In order to participate, workers were asked to sign a “commitment letter” that requires them to stay with MSK for three to five years.

Through that program, she said, MSK is finally “making a dent” in filling those positions.

Treating Candidates Like Customers

What percentage of your company’s job candidates are also your customers?

Most organizations don’t keep track of such information despite its growing importance as a business metric, said Gerry Crispin, who moderated a panel discussion titled “The ROI Realities of Improving Candidate Experience.”

However, some forward-thinking organizations are moving toward a more customer-centric view of the candidate process, said Crispin. And he would know.

Crispin, principal at the CareerXroads consultancy, also works with Talent Board to annually honor winners of its Candidate Experience Awards, which recognize companies that are making efforts to improve the candidate experience.

“We’ve been collecting data [through the CandEs] for seven years now,” Crispin said, “and that data is getting richer and richer in terms of putting a stake in the ground on some of the things that are critical not only to make the candidate experience something that we can measure and understand as an organization, but relate it to our performance as a function and our performance as a company.”

Esakki Subramanian, vice president at Virtusa, an IT consulting and services firm, says the company’s decision to change how it views its candidate process has shown bottom-line benefits through an increase in its fulfillment rates for clients’ job requisitions.

“Four years back, we were at mid-50s for fulfillment,” he said. “After a couple years, we graduated to the 60s, but it still wasn’t where we wanted to be.” But after recognizing the value of making candidates “partners” in the recruiting process of its workforce of 19,500, Virtusa began collecting candidate feedback during every stage of the process and used that information to tweak its process going forward, he said.

“That has really helped us to put things in perspective,” he said, adding that now the company makes better hiring decisions. “Fulfillment rates went from the mid-60s to 80 percent to 85 percent now.” He added that revenues and client-satisfaction rates have risen as well.

So how do you start making changes to your company’s recruiting process?

For Rose Marie Forlini, senior manager talent strategy, planning and development at Air Canada, the change began with something simple–yet entirely foreign for a self-described “numbers” person like herself.

“It came down to words,” she said. “We started to look at the communication [going out to candidates] and our recruiters said, ‘Oh my god, we’re actually sending this out to our candidates?’ So then we started looking at all our messaging and even where we advertise for our candidates. We started looking at changing everything. Now, [our recruiters] are so much part of the solution and they’re driving the change.”

Air Canada, she added, is currently putting the finishing touches on an internal hiring-manager scorecard that reflects the airline’s new focus on improving the candidate experience, and recruiters are helping to reinforce the “candidate-as-customer” message.

“The recruiters,” Forlini said, “are actually now telling these managers, ‘Hey, you’re driving this [process], and it has a huge impact on the candidate experience. The [candidate] is also the person buying our airline tickets. We need to make sure we treat candidates like we treat our customers when they board our aircraft, the best airline in North America. And that’s what you need to do every single time.’ ”


The 2019 Recruiting Trends and Talent Tech Conference will be held February 20 through 22 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Go to to learn more.