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Staffing Management: Time, Ingenuity Needed To Re-Employ Hurricane Victims

Stephenie Overman  10/1/2005
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Vol. 1, No. 3

Employers are bending their rules to find jobs for hurricane victims, but it will take time for evacuees to make their way to where the jobs are.  

Positions are available in one location. People left homeless and jobless by Hurricane Katrina are in another.While technology may help link the two, it takes human ingenuityand some bending of normal proceduresto successfully close the deal.

With so many employers worksites in the Gulf Coast damaged or destroyed by the hurricane, it is often impossible to check references and credentials. But, with a bit of resourcefulness, its still possible to make a good hiring decision, says Gerry Crispin, a principal of CareerXroads, a staffing consulting business in Kendall Park, N.J. Crispin took a 2,300-mile trip through nine states in eight days in September to see first-hand the devastation and rebuilding following Katrina.

Lots of people did leave [home] with documentation, Crispin says. Eighty percent evacuated ahead of time. In cases where applicants do not have proper documentation, however, employers should make job offers conditional on eventual background checks and be a little more creative about how they verify what a candidate tells them, he says. For example, you could find an alumnus who graduated with the person you are trying to hire who can confirm the persons academic degree.

If youre committed to hiring someone who is impacted, Crispin says, to nitpick a bureaucratic detail that can be waived, made contingent orwith a little extra workcan be solved is pretty pathetic. Then youre operating as a bureaucrat. Youre not sensitive to people in crisis.

It is possible to speed up the process, to move forward, he says. It may require extra work or creative discussion.

This is a time to throw a lot of [rules] aside, agrees Michael Moore, president and CEO of RCI Recruitment Solutions in Jupiter, Fla. Companies need people, and people need to get re-employed.

Later, when the crisis has passed, I think companies will go back and do the things theyve seen to be prudent and right, the checks and balances, Moore says. Just because peoples needs and companies desire to help may change the hiring process temporarily, that doesnt mean you throw away all the good stuff. But all rules are made to be broken in times of emergency.

Nationwide Efforts

About 76 percent of employers nationwide are making special efforts to hire displaced hurricane victims, according to a poll by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The survey of 388 member HR professionals during Sept. 21-27 had a margin of error of 5 percent.

Houston employers are relying on professional licensing agencies to help them check the credentials of displaced jobseekers, says Marilyn Stadler, employer services manager for WorkSource, a Houston-based nonprofit federally funded partnership between business, education, labor and community organizations. For instance, the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners and State Board of Education have established emergency licensing procedures to accommodate nurses and teachers from Louisiana.

Everybody has been trying to grab up nurses and school teachers, she says, especially because of the influx of young evacuees who are expected to stay in their new area for at least a year. And, Stadler notes, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has said it would not sanction employers for hiring victims of Hurricane Katrina who were otherwise eligible for employment but were unable to provide the necessary documentation.

Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon, an architectural design and engineering firm in Nashville, Tenn., hired two structural engineers from New Orleans despite not being able to fully check their qualifications. The two candidates went through the normal hiring process, says Denis Blackwelder, HR senior vice president and corporate development director for the firm.

They had resumes. We were not able to fully check the references because their businesses were not open but we were able to track down individuals who could help with the verification process.

But the firm could be certain they had the right engineering skills because we have good engineers who can tell whether a person has the technical qualifications, says Blackwelder, who is president of the Nashville SHRM chapter.

Hurricane Backlash?

The Wall Street Journal reported on Sept. 13 that some unemployed people outside of the Gulf Coast felt that Katrina victims were receiving unfair preference at their expense, but Crispin believes it is unlikely that local candidates have lost jobs to evacuees.

If youre a civil engineer who is applying for a job and suddenly I say to you Im going to hire a civil engineer [who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina], maybe youve got a beef. But, he says, that scenario is unlikely.

Most of the long-term unemployed have remained unemployed because they dont have the skills employers need, he explains. If someone has skills, and wants to work and cant find a job, that person needs to talk to a career counselor -- there are plenty of jobs. The question might be is the job where you want it and are you fully qualified?

Crispin says he has not seen companies create jobs just to be able to hire Katrina victims. But in areas that have been overwhelmed by evacuees, businesses such as convenience stores have had more customers and have added employees to accommodate the increase in business.

Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon had the positions open for two months before getting these [two applicants], Blackwelder says. Its not like we havent had the position open; we just had not had a real strong response, he says, adding that the two engineers have relatives in the Nashville area and the firm expects them to remain long-term employees.

Finding the Right Fit

At Jack Lyons and Jones, a law firm in Little Rock, Ark., it was a matter of finding someone unusually qualified for the position of law clerk.

The firm decided to add another clerk during the school year and had notified area law schools. It had received several applications when "gwe got an e-mail saying there were displaced attorneys or law students who might be looking for work," says John Bryant, an associate with the firm.

The firm interviewed Tony DiCarlo, an attorney who is licensed to practice in Louisiana but who has been displaced and is now living with his in-laws in Little Rock.

"We didn't delve deeply into his background check because his previous firm is under water. He made a good impression, and we decided to give him a chance.We decided to hire him without checking references," Bryant says. "We both went in with the understanding that the law in Arkansas is different than the law in Louisiana that he's been used to. There's an understanding that if it didn't work out we'd have to make a change. He indicates that he's strongly considering staying in Arkansas," Bryant says.

"We went about the interview the same as the rest of the people we interviewed," he adds. "It's not that we were not finding people. It's the advantage he has of actually being a practicing attorney. It's not often you get an attorney who will work as a law clerk."

At WorkSource "we cannot, we don't discriminate. We're trying to help all," says Stadler, noting that its 36 career centers are open to everyone and it has been working with people who lost jobs as a result of Hurricane Rita as well as Katrina.

But, she notes, a lot of local residents are not willing to relocate, while victims of Hurricane Katrina may have little choice but to go where the jobs are. One enterprising employer from Wisconsin who had 14 jobs to fill brought a bus to Houston, according to Stadler. "The company had temporary housing for these folks and their families. Some evacuees did go."

But an overall reluctance to relocate remains a barrier, Crispin says. "Many of the folks impacted by the storm are in the wrong place to get hired. These people are overloading small cities and towns throughout the South. They have to get around to deciding they are willing to go" somewhere else and not try to return to the New Orleans area.

Eventually, instead of just 100 Katrina victims in Chicago, "we'll see 2,000. There will be movement from where they are now that will eventually absorb them, but I think that will be pretty painful for them. Is there an easier way? What is it we can do as employers?"

A Rough Road Ahead

In a blog entryabout his trip through the affected area, Crispin disputed an article stating that Katrina evacuees would be easily absorbed in a tight national labor pool. "What makes that article so naive is that the author assumes we'll easily match the skills, interests, experiences of evacuees with open jobs and locations and folks will simply move there," Crispin wrote.

"The access to information about outside jobs is restricted in these communities, not to mention the help evacuees need to choose from among the options, track down the employers, advocate their candidacy and then assist them in reaching the areas and getting the additional help they will need to adjust to the community.

"This is not a trivial task. Without help, tens of thousands will simply migrate from one town to the next encouraged by job sites offering large numbers of openings" without making the right connection, Crispin wrote.

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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