War for Talent Fuels Program Hiring

Companies find positions for new hires after making offers

By Steve Bates Jan 6, 2016
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Add matchmaking to the list of skills that recruiters and managers should aim to master: It’s a key feature of program hiring, the practice of offering jobs to people and then spending a few months figuring out what position each one should fill.

Used primarily by large organizations—and by firms in sectors such as technology, finance and consulting—program hiring has been around for decades. However, it might be drawing more interest now as the war for talent grows increasingly fierce, say those in the trenches.

“The process is not for everyone,” said Dawn Carter, director of university recruitment for Mountain View, Calif.-based technology products firm Intuit. But she added: “We feel it works for us.”

Intuit hires college seniors in droves—as many as 200 annually. Company recruiters visit college campuses around the country. They develop relationships with the students, learn about their interests and explain opportunities at the organization. While some candidates for program hiring participate in internships at Intuit before being offered employment, it can still take a huge leap of faith to accept a job offer without knowing exactly what job will be waiting at the end of the process.

How It Works

It’s not all mystery. At Intuit, those offered employment know their starting salary and have a rough idea where they will fit in. For example, budding software programmers know that they will be programming software. HR students will do HR work. Marketers will market. The onboarding process is crucial, providing several months for the new hires to get to know the organization and vice versa.

During that time, “We really work with the students to understand their preferences,” said Carter. The new hires meet with various managers who are adding staff. The matchmaking is refined in conversations between recruiters and managers, and eventually the new hires join their teams. Throughout the process, the company holds focus group meetings with the recruits to address the inherent uncertainties. The new hires bond on their own as well. “They form their own communities. And they have no problem giving you feedback,” noted Carter.

In addition, managers provide feedback to Carter and her team as the new hires settle in. That helps improve the program hiring process. For example: “In the past we’ve hired into one pretty large software bucket,” said Carter. “This year, we’ve broken those out into more talent pool lanes for those students”—such as front-end and back-end work.

Though Intuit’s program is in its early years, the company is already analyzing metrics to determine its effectiveness, Carter said. “We’re looking at trends: How long did they stay in the first job? Where did they rotate within the first year? Why are they rotating? We can refine our process and make sure we are pulling the right levers.”

There are downsides to program hiring. Some people—particularly college students who may never have held a regular job—are not comfortable accepting an offer without a concrete job title or function. Some students expect to be shown a clear career track.

Employers take on risk, too. High-potential recruits can get poached by the competition. New hires may decide that they are not happy in a chosen field or location. Or sometimes their expectations are too high.

Marv Russell, an HR consultant and author based in Delray Beach, Fla., was involved in program hiring earlier in his career. He recalls hiring someone with an engineering degree from a top school who decided that he wanted to manage the plant where he was placed. “The plant manager was not really happy about that,” said Russell.

While some people recruited through program hiring are told that they can expect job rotations and eventual promotions, Russell urges recruiters not to be specific. The employee might view any statements made as an implied contract. “Make sure that the person understands that there are no guarantees.”

Dennis Theodorou, the Detroit-based vice president of executive search firm JMJ Phillip Group, agrees. “There need to be guidelines and expectations set at the very beginning.” He recalls a program hire with an MBA from a top college who had consulting experience. The employee “did some really great things” but had a few ideas that were a bit unorthodox. His company, not wanting to suppress the worker’s enthusiasm, let the worker implement some of the ideas, but “it was a struggle on our end managing that.”

“It’s kind of a test process when you hire people like that,” said Theodorou. “It’s important that they have a passion for their work.”

“It’s a challenging situation, particularly on the HR side,” said Allison Cheston, a New York City-based career counselor. She said the hiring period for graduating college seniors starts earlier every year, making it difficult to keep program hires in the pipeline. “June is a long way off. A lot can happen in the intervening months.”

Among the staffing companies taking advantage of program hiring is Robert Half, which acquired more than 100 people for its own staff through the process in the past year. Addressing uncertainty in the minds of the new hires is critical, said Brett Good, senior district president of Robert Half, in Irvine, Calif. “They are told: ‘Here’s what will happen week one, week two, week three,’ ” he said. Finding the right match of person and job involves more than just a resume review, Good added. During onboarding, “We are assessing attitudes, attributes and where they fit in the organization.”

Good said the future of program hiring is difficult to predict. “If there’s a shift in the market, it will be interesting to see what happens.”

Intuit’s Carter said she believes that “this type of fungible hiring will always be around. What it looks like today and what it looks like in two years might be different based on the students in that generation.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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