IT Employment

Tips for the small-town hiring manager

If you're the IT hiring manager for a company in a small town, you're aware of the challenges of getting top-notch talent. Here are some tips for overcoming the issues of hiring out of the big city.

In a previous blog, I looked at the challenge faced by IT professionals residing in small towns as it relates to their efforts to finding suitable employment. Today, we're reversing the roles. Let's say you're a hiring manager working for a small-town employer that needs good IT professionals. What are the challenges you face?

I informally polled some IT pros and got the following feedback:

Paul Geigler, a software developer from Panama City, said, "For me, the biggest problem with being in this industry in a small town is the combination of rarity of high-tech jobs in that environment combined with the general ephemeral nature of such jobs.

It can be difficult to find a job that is going to last more than a year or two. In a small town you will almost certainly be forced to move again in order to find a similar job if the company has a layoff, goes out of business, or completes whatever project you were needed for.

Even without that, the opportunity for advancement will be very slim and you will be either looking at stagnation in your career or moving again in a few years once your experience and skill set has advanced."

Eugene, a developer from New York City, chimed in that the size of a city isn't much of a concern, unless it's isolated. This sentiment was echoed by several other comments. Fair enough. So now we're talking about relatively isolated small towns.

Here are some other issues that were raised about small-town opportunities:

  • High-tech jobs and small towns will never go hand-in-hand. (Vinodh, Behgaluru, India)
  • There is a lack of other nearby employment options. (Kate from Tampa, and others)
  • Relocation challenges exist. (Kate, Indika from Jacksonville, and others.)
  • Several people mentioned the issue of a cultural fit. Paul was the most specific: "Young, talented and unencumbered people are not going to go for it, in addition to the risks I mentioned before you are placing them in an environment where they have few peers and where they have few opportunities to socialize, a place where there is little or nothing catering to what they want or need. No Starbucks, no nightclubs, no music scene, no electronics outlets, no geek culture, etc."

All this flies a bit in the face of what I'm seeing right now as a recruiter. Granted, there are some people who are so talented or so fortunate that they don't have to look far to find their next position. However, I am seeing extremely talented people -- people who have marketable skills and solid references, spending months looking for their next opportunities. I sincerely believe that the market is improving, and general chatter among other recruiters tends to substantiate that, but we are far from where we need to be. To quote Tom Barlow, one of several contributors to a series of articles on big companies in small towns, "I suspect you'll find that during the recession people were willing to move to Antarctica if it meant a job."

It's still a recession, and they still are.

That's not to say that the above challenges don't exist. Addressing them as part of the selection process is certainly important. Let's say you didn't, though. There are still probably qualified candidates who would be willing to throw their belongings into a U-Haul, strap the kids on top, and ride across the country to Smallville, USA, for a job that would afford them an opportunity to provide for their families.

I also polled a number of HR professionals and hiring managers regarding how to address these issues. The best response, in my opinion, was from Andy Lyle, a very experienced recruiter and HR professional with whom I have had the good fortune of working on more than one occasion. She indicated that she used to recruit for an eCommerce company located in southeastern Kentucky, in a town with a population around 6,000:

"My strongest tool once I had found a candidate was a discussion regarding the 'quality of life' in a small community. I also realized that I had to recruit not only the candidate, but also their spouse and children. So, I put together information packets to send to the strong candidates discussing the area's high points, info on the schools, activities, arts, etc. Our focus was on hiring the entire family versus the candidate. That seemed to make a huge difference in getting commitment from a candidate who lived in a larger city."

I think Amy hit on some things addressed by a Georgetown University School of Business study, the focus of which was why employees stay in their jobs, as opposed to why they won't come or why they leave. The top two items on the list were:

Fit: An employee perceives herself as compatible and comfortable with the organization and the surrounding community. For example, she believes that her employer shares her values and that her knowledge and skills match the demands of her job. She also feels a sense of belonging to the community in which the company is located. Links: An employee has strong, positive connections with other people in the organization and with people and groups in the community.

The bottom line, in my experience, has been if an employee or individual feels connected in a positive way to an organization, he or she generally stays, despite many other factors that would otherwise cause an employee to leave. Here in Louisville, for example, I know of a couple of employers that have traditionally paid their employees significantly less than what the market might bear, but employees stayed and were happy, because they liked the culture and felt connected, useful, and appreciated.

In addressing such issues as quality of life, but more importantly, in involving the whole family in the recruitment process, Amy was helping them to connect not only with the employer but also with the community.

A few practical suggestions:

  • Lots of people mentioned the current housing market and the challenge of relocating. The phrase "upside down financially" came up more than once. If your business need is critical enough, consider offering significant relocation assistance. If you do, it's not unreasonable to require that an employee pay back that assistance on a prorated basis, if he or she voluntarily leaves within twelve, eighteen, or even twenty-four months of the hire date, depending on the amount spent.
  • Putting together information about the community or even coordinating with other employers to do so is time well spent.
  • Find a means of enabling your employee to keep his or her skills current. Perhaps you can partner with the local community college, which would probably bend over backward to offer classes that would keep one of the town's employers happy.
  • I'd like to offer an acknowledgement to a software engineer from San Francisco, who recently took issue with my defense of a company's right to try to hire the ideal candidate for each opening they have. (I still don't know why anyone would want to do otherwise.) What he didn't get was that the "ideal" candidate may very well vary from one situation to the next. Consider then that your best candidate might not be the high-priced architect who grew up in a big city and may bail on you as soon as the job market rebounds. Rather, it might be the very solid individual who has years of related experience but only recently picked up some classes on what you need. If that person is from a nearby small town, or even any small town, then she might be ideal.
  • Many small town companies find themselves with an HR manager who has been pressed into multitasking as an HR manager, payroll manager, and admin assistant rolled into one. In such instances, the concept of a well-defined new employee orientation may have fallen to the wayside, a victim of more immediate needs. If you find yourself in such a circumstance, bite the bullet and tackle this project. Remember, that hiring good people isn't the key right now. It's keeping them. Focus on some basics such as having a PC for the new employee that is powered by more than gerbils. Also, make sure that passwords are approved and the employee has e-mail from Day 1. Assign somebody, or several somebodies, to accompany your new team member to lunch for at least the first week. For a new employee, there's nothing quite so distressing as sitting in an office or cubicle, without a working computer, and watching the whole department leave to go to lunch with one another.
10 comments
IT_Stargazer
IT_Stargazer

As a hiring telecom manager in a *very* small town in a *very* rural part of western Maine, I've found that you must over-communicate the nature of the place, even if it eliminates good potential candidates before an interview. There's nothing worse than going through the time & trouble to bring a new hire on board, only to lose them in a year or two because they didn't understand what "rural, with long cold winters" or "nearest shopping mall is an hour away" really means. I also recognize that the neccesary skillsets are hard to find in this area, so I take a very broad look at experience. For example, recently hired a cable company technician with no prior telecom experience to do satellite earth station work. His key technical qualification? he knew RF & cabling systems -- and he was local. The hiring manager must truly understand the nature of the area he/she is in, including the job market, as well as how housing costs, shopping, climate, etc affect lifestyle choices people make.

pgit
pgit

If someone wants to raise a family, you can't beat a small town. Sometimes you have to weigh priorities, and although "career" may "suffer," the important things in life are, well, more important. Take it from one with a lot of experience spending years pursuing what in retrospect was the wrong priority.

ssampier
ssampier

Very good points. I am IT worker in an isolated small town. I recently quit my job for more opportunity. I would be happy to move to another small town, but I know it's just not in the cards. I need advancement opportunity; at my last job I felt like I was stagnating. So your advice for college classes is spot-on.

TheProfessorDan
TheProfessorDan

I spent a year living in a little town outside of Hattiesburg Mississippi and I spent four years living an hour south of State College Pennsylvania. And as much as I loved the small town lifestyle, the reality is that you have to be able to pay your bills. Don't get me wrong, you can find employment in a small towns but they are fewer and farther between. When I was laid off when I lived up by State College, it took me almost six months to find a job and even then the job paid less. When I got laid off in 2008, I had a phone interview the day I was laid off and was working shortly after that. The other factor is stability. People are always amazed that I drive 51 miles to work each way. The reason is that my kids need stability. They are in a great school and will graduate with the same kids that they went to elementary school. This is important to my wife and I.

blhelm
blhelm

First, you get what you pay for. If you want top talent with specific experience then you have to pay enough to attract that talent to overcome the shortcomings of a rural area. Then the challenge is to make it worth their while in order to acclimate themselves to the climate and the culture. That investment goes beyond the four walls of the office. Invite them to events that family and friends that you grew up with typically attend. Make them feel welcome. Don?t seclude yourselves into the local cliques. Small communities are traditionally not very friendly to outsiders and the North East is known for this. Second, before you attempt to ?walk the walk & talk the talk? you better know something about the subject matter. In my experience (30+years) in the IT industry, HR people and Recruiters typically have no clue what the job description and requirements mean. If you don?t see yourself doing the job how the heck can you intelligently interview a candidate for that position? If you lack the technical expertise then defer to someone that does have the technical knowledge to conduct a ?Technical Interview?. If you don?t have someone on staff that has the expertise, then hire a part time consultant that does or go through a Recruiting Agency that specializes in that part of the industry and pay the finders fee. It saves money in the long run by finding the right talent for the job. If you are a Hiring Manager and you know little to nothing about the work that this position requires then you are the wrong person conducting the interview. You may be able to determine if the candidate is a cultural fit for the company but you will never be able to determine if the candidate can DO the job.

sbmknight
sbmknight

My family moved from Brooklyn to a small New England town of about 2,000 when I was a child. The quality of education was terrible, there were no activities for children other than sports, certainly nothing for geeky kids ... and for teens? Just drugs & alcohol. For your kids sake, stay in the suburbs!!

jmbrasfield
jmbrasfield

Consider an older worker, one not so intent on career advancement or raising a family. An older worker may fit the bill for a small town business. As an older worker myself, I'm 57, I've climbed the corporate ladder and raised my family. I retired, got bored, went back to work but that career hunger is gone and my family now has family of their own. For an older worker, less pay along with less stress may just be what the doctor ordered. We, as a group, have gotten past the constant need to job hop for the career and may be more inclined towards the simple life that a small town offers. Peace and quiet verses chaos and noise, noise, noise. Besides, one employer is just like another employer. It's all the same B.S., just a different place.

techjmj
techjmj

I also drove 50 miles (1 hour and 30 minutes) both ways to work so my child would not have to change schools. I did this for 2 1/2 years until a job became available less than 25 minutes away. In most parts of South Louisiana, many people do this to find meaningful work in major cities like Baton Rouge or New Orleans, but want to keep the kids in better school districts in the smaller towns.

blhelm
blhelm

I have to agree with you sbmknight. I grew up on a small dairy farm in Central Wisconsin. My graduating class (from high school) was 32. It is very true that the only opportunities revolve around sports and nothing that appeals to the intellectual teen. Drugs and alcohol are an escape for kids that have little to no opportunities and very few adults that have the time (or money) to ensure that they have something to do. Now, with a poor economy, they have even fewer opportunities for getting jobs. Perhaps those Hiring Managers and HR Recruiters should spend less time on pandering and patronizing IT talent away from a bigger city and look for ways to home grow their own talent. Hiring someone with less experience and allowing them to learn OJT would cost them less. They want to pay less anyway. They will then get what they pay for.

blhelm
blhelm

A lot of us who started our career in IT way back when it was known as Data Processing also got our start with smaller companies in smaller communities. When PC's made it affordable for the SMB, we rode the technology wave into bigger and bigger companies bringing the experience and expertise with those newer technologies with us. The demand for our expertise rose to a level where the compensation made it attractive for us to make choices on where to live. Bigger companies took longer to adopt the new technologies and integrate them into the enterprise. For example: It took far less time to install and configure an Ethernet LAN in a 50 to 100 person office than it did 2,000 to 5,000 campus. Also, implementing standard accounting modules across the Sales & Billing, Warehouse, Purchasing, Payroll/Human Resources and Accounting (Bookkeeping) was far less complicated and took far less time than rolling out a complex ERP system. Currently, the demand for our expertise from larger companies in bigger metro areas has leveled-off due to the economy, the specialization of technical skills and companies believing (haha) that outsourcing is a more cost effective source of specialized skills. The IT expertise needed by the SMB's in smaller communities is still very broad. Unless a person is older and the "been there done that" type of experience they should have significant time working for a VAR. They need to have implemented LAN/WAN's from the NIC card level up to the configuration of a router. They also have to know how to install, trouble shoot and maintain MS Exchange, MS Server, LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP), accounting suites (Great Plains or MS Dynamics, Passport, Peachtree, MAS 90). That implies that an accounting class would come in real handy. This broad depth of experience is not hard to find in a smaller community but getting harder to find inside a bigger company. Hopefully, those SMB's in smaller communities will not be so short sighted as to think that youth is equivalent to longevity and loyalty. Also, the expertise that the older and more experienced individual brings to a SMB should have significant value and should be compensated accordingly.