Tech & Work

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.

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