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HR Magazine, January 2001: Employers Join Forces to Recruit
 

By Alison Stein Wellner  1/1/2001
 
HR Magazine, 
July 2000 Vol. 46, No. 1

In settings as different as snowy Syracuse, N.Y., and the Pacific island of Guam, employers are cooperating to develop jointly run web sites touting local jobs.

At 8 a.m., when most cities’ highways are jammed with stressed-out drivers balancing their cell phones and coffee, the roads in Syracuse, N.Y., seem practically empty. In this central New York metropolitan area, population 733,000, early morning traffic jams are practically unknown and commutes are short.

Except, of course, when the roads are blanketed with snow. An average 114 inches of the white stuff falls here each year, and it can make even the easiest commute an icy obstacle course.

Of course, there’s more to life here than just the traffic report. But when you ask local staffing managers why people should relocate here, “short commute” crops up near the top of the list. And when you ask them why recruits turn down job offers, they cite the weather.

This region, wracked by downsizing in the 1980s and 1990s, now faces the same labor shortage as the rest of the country. Employers here particularly need engineering and technical talent, as companies like Lockheed Martin and Carrier Corp. vie with competitors in sunny Silicon Valley or the cultural centers of Boston and Washington, D.C. Syracuse companies often can’t compete, which employers here say is galling, since about 7,000 engineering students graduate from area universities each year and then vanish from the region.

Three years ago, technology firms here would recruit in their competitors’ parking lots. But today, these competing companies have formed a recruiting consortium dubbed the DaVinci Project. The mission: Transform Syracuse’s image from that of a sleepy dinosaur buried in permafrost to a vibrant tech center bustling with job opportunities for engineers and other technical professionals. The tool for accomplishing this task is a web site that serves not only as a job board but also as a repository for information about local employers and the Syracuse lifestyle.

How competitors got together to create a recruiting site that could benefit them all—and how they still are learning from some missteps—are lessons other employers can use in these tough recruiting times.

Getting Together

As vice president of HR for Sensis Corp., a developer of air defense systems and radar, Peggy Dudarchik faced a hiring challenge in 1997. The company needed engineers but Dudarchik faced familiar concerns from potential recruits who believed the area simply did not have many engineering jobs. Especially because Sensis wasn’t a household name, prospective employees worried that if Sensis ever had layoffs, they’d have to move to find new jobs. And would their spouses be able to find jobs in the area? Syracuse’s image, stemming from years of downsizings, made Dudarchik’s job tougher.

She called other local employers’ HR managers to see if they shared her pain. “I didn’t know any of them at the time,” she says, but the calls soon led to a meeting where, Dudarchik recalls, “We realized that we needed some vehicle to showcase our area.”

The group considered joint job fairs and newspaper ads but that didn’t seem enough to re-cast an entire region. The web appeared to be the best way to inform a technologically savvy, national audience of engineers about the job opportunities and quality of life the area offers.

But developing a web site takes time and money. The initial 10 participants had to decide how to create and fund the site.

Why didn’t the participating companies just have their own, in-house web developers design the site? Most companies lacked the time and the staff to take on the extra work. And many of the companies dealt primarily with other businesses or with government agencies, not with consumers. Participants recognized that the recruiting web site needed a strong appeal for consumers—in this case, those shopping for jobs. So the group decided to hire a contractor to design and launch the site, figuring it would cost about $150,000. Each company agreed to contribute $15,000.

Not an insignificant chunk of change, recalls Jack Boyce, SPHR, manager of staffing and organizational planning at Welch Allyn Inc., a diagnostic equipment manufacturer in the Syracuse suburb of Skaneateles Falls. Although Boyce backed the web project, he faced concerns within his company. “People told me that they didn’t think it would work. They said, ‘There’s no way we can compete on the web with the likes of Microsoft or Boeing.’” Boyce got around the objections creatively. He positioned Welch Allyn’s membership fee as a community development investment, not as an item in the recruitment budget.

The funds for site development still didn’t cover promoting and maintaining the site. Tom Mushow, a contractor who was helping Sensis recruit, took the lead, putting his experience with economic development and community relations to good use.

With help from the Empire State Development Board, Mushow figured that the companies in the consortium would need to hire 1,000 to 3,000 engineers in the near future. The economic impact of that many new residents was estimated at $10 million, which convinced the development board to contribute another $150,000. The local Industrial Development Association kicked in an additional $40,000.

Fresh funds also would come from new companies joining the DaVinci Project. The consortium decided that any company that contributed $15,000 could be on the steering committee, voting on major decisions. Cheaper memberships of $5,000 and $10,000 would lack voting privileges but carry the right to post jobs and attend consortium events. All members would pay a $2,000 annual fee to help maintain the site, though smaller companies that found the cost of membership too steep could apply for matching funds through the Industrial Development Association.

With the structure in place, the consortium chose its web site designer and a name, the DaVinci Project. The connection: Leonardo DaVinci was an engineer who left his home in search of opportunity. The cost for the web site’s initial development was priced at $175,000, and expenditures for advertising and public relations were projected to cost at least $85,000 over three years.

The site (www.davincitimes.com) went live in March 1998, offering job information, links to member companies, internship information and lifestyle and housing information about the Syracuse area. Lists of available jobs cover technical and engineering positions as well as some non-technical jobs. The site averages 15,000 hits a month, and users have posted more than 2,000 resumes so far. They also can go directly to members’ corporate web sites to apply for jobs. The site gained a staff: Mushow heads the project full time, executive director of operations Susan Pale handles member relations and two interns help out. And the consortium has grown from 10 members to 56.

Improving Networking, Campus Recruiting

Mark A. McKee is the manager of Process Analysts Inc., a 12-person engineering company in Baldwinsville, N.Y., another suburb of Syracuse. He has hired three employees recruited through DaVinci.

“What I liked about [the site] is that it’s very focused on the region,” he says. As a transplant from Colorado, he appreciates the fact that the site’s local focus filters out people who aren’t willing to move to central New York. And for McKee, the price was right. The three people he hired cost him just $5,000 in membership fees. He figures he would have spent thousands more on recruiting firms.

Welch Allyn’s Boyce has hired 10 employees through the site, and calls them a good deal for his initial investment of $15,000, even though he needs to hire more than 100 each year. But other benefits of DaVinci involvement, such as the improved relationships with nearby employers, also make his job easier.

He recalls trying to recruit an engineer from Houston who was concerned about whether his wife, also an engineer, would be able to find work in Syracuse. Boyce had the engineer send in her resume and then forwarded it to eight DaVinci companies. Two immediately requested interviews and both later offered her a job.

Boyce recalls the engineer phoning him later to say, “I cannot believe it, but I’m going to accept your offer. I cannot believe that any company would go through so much effort to make me and my wife happy,” Boyce recalls. Without the relationships fostered by DaVinci, Boyce says, he might never have made that hire.

Philips Broadband Networks Inc., in Manlius, N.Y., has hired 12 employees through DaVinci, says Anthony Kumiega, senior HR representative. But Kumiega, like Boyce, notes that DaVinci provides benefits other than resumes. Participation also enables companies to pool their resources for events such as campus recruiting.

Kumiega used to coordinate his engineers’ visits to local high schools and colleges for the area’s annual Engineering Week, when students hear from local employers about engineering careers. The planning was a logistical hassle. With the DaVinci Project underway, members teamed up for an event at Syracuse University (also a member of the consortium) during its open house for high school students. They even featured a visit from Leonardo himself: Kumiega in full costume, right down to the false beard.

Learning from Mistakes

For all its other successes, the project can claim only 100 hires in its three years of operation. When they launched the site, the original members hoped to fill at least the 500 job vacancies among them at that time.

Marketing missteps are one reason for the low number of recruits, Mushow says. “The web site is a piece of cake,” Pale notes. “The challenge is in marketing the site. If no one visits it, then so what?”

The DaVinci team learned that broad marketing tactics don’t work for this kind of project. “We spent a lot of money on newspaper ads in Boston and in different areas around the country,” says Mushow. The results? “Dismal.” Direct mail targeted at alumni of local engineering schools and at previous DaVinci site visitors—in an effort to get them to return to the site—proved more efficient at drawing users.

“We’ve learned that the people who already have ties to the region are a very fertile group for us. They don’t have as many mental obstacles” to moving, says Sensis’ Dudarchik.

Member companies also need to get more involved. For DaVinci to succeed, member companies have to update their jobs and check the site for hits. Some companies didn’t move quickly enough to provide and update their corporate profiles, Mushow says. Some didn’t post or remove jobs quickly. “Keeping the companies moving forward is like herding cats,” he jokes. DaVinci members are figuring out ways to speed job postings, such as pulling them from corporate web sites directly into the DaVinci site, so the companies do not have to create separate postings.

Pale adds that DaVinci may be responsible for more hires than anyone knows. Many visitors start there, then click through to a member company’s web site to apply for jobs, never mentioning that DaVinci led them there. The staff wants to alter the site to keep track of such “click-throughs.”

As the DaVinci project looks toward technical changes, it also must grapple with growth. Last year, the consortium started hearing from companies beyond the Syracuse area who wanted to join. Figuring that more job postings meant more hits, the consortium said yes.

In Ithaca, N.Y., eight participating companies have lobbied to have their dues go toward creating a section of the web site showcasing Ithaca. Lisa Patz, HR director at Ithaca software firm CBORD, says, “I see the project providing us with the marketing dollars and expertise that we don’t have.” It’s not as much of a community investment for Patz—in fact, she’s hoping to recruit talent from Syracuse. She sees her membership dues as buying time that her marketing department can’t afford to devote to recruiting.

As the DaVinci Project accommodates the needs of different areas, it may begin to lose its local focus, notes Gerry Crispin, SPHR, an Internet recruiting consultant at CareerXRoads.com. “Every locale may be different and have different aspects and issues. I don’t know whether one model is going to be flexible enough,” he says.

A Cheaper, Simpler Model

Half a world away from Syracuse, on the Pacific island of Guam, an alliance of employers and government is using a simpler, less expensive Internet strategy to bring employers and employees together.

Unlike Syracuse, Guam, population 140,000, is facing not a labor shortage, but a 15 percent unemployment rate. The island’s tourist-dependent economy has been rocked by the Asian financial crisis. Making the situation tougher for job seekers, the island lacked a web site containing all the available jobs.

Karri Perez, HR director for Westin Resorts on Guam, decided to change that after attending a seminar on virtual hiring at the 1999 Society for Human Resource Management annual conference. As the chair of Vision 2005, a project of the Guam government to develop the island’s human resources, and as an HR professor at the University of Guam, Perez learned that the government and the university were considering similar ideas. The government, private sector firms and the university pooled resources and Jobsonguam. com was born.

Unlike the DaVinci Project, this web site would be run as a public service, open to all island residents and employers. With a budget of just $1,000 from donations, the project needed “sweat capital” to do most of the work, says Perez. A local Internet service provider donated server space, while the university’s computer lab manager wrote the code and other local businesspeople helped with legal and design advice.

Guam’s Department of Labor directs unemployed people to the site (www.jobsonguam.com) and provides them with the basic Internet training they need to use it. Employers can log on to it without charge to post jobs. Job seekers can fill out an online application, which they can make public or send only to particular employers. Jobsonguam.com lacks the lifestyle pages, regional information, research data and detailed employer profiles of DaVinci, but it serves a simpler purpose. It primarily connects local job-seekers with employers, while the DaVinci Project aims to attract recruits from elsewhere.

Since Jobsonguam.com launched in April 2000, 665 job-seekers have registered, 70 employers have listed jobs on it and more than 1,200 visitors have checked it out, Perez says. While she has hired a few employees through the site, Perez said its success in helping fill jobs is unknown because such information isn’t recorded.

Think Local

Although Jobsonguam.com and the DaVinci Project face different labor markets and have vastly different budgets, they offer a common lesson, according to Crispin: “Local [focus] matters.”

While thousands of larger job sites try to cover the entire country, job seekers who are not interested in relocating, or who are interested in moving only to a specific area, will have difficulty finding what they want on those sites, Crispin says. “The most successful sites are those that are able to have a strong local presence, a unique spot in the community, that will allow them to reach out and target their audience,” as the DaVinci Project and
Jobsonguam.com have done, he says. “In the case of Guam, not only does local matter but there isn’t an alternative to local. You leave Guam, you’re in the water,” he says.

The keys to success in a recruiting consortium are a strong local focus, a staff of local residents who understand the services and amenities new residents will want, and a plan for marketing to an audience with an interest in the area, Crispin says.

For companies considering a web-based recruiting alliance with other local employers, expect cost and complexity to increase if you’re going after an employee market that everyone else wants, he notes. And if you’re trying to bring those employees to a place they haven’t considered in the past, get ready for trial and error. That first cold call to fellow HR practitioners may be the easy part.

Alison Stein Wellner is a freelance business writer based in Newark, Del. 

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