How to Recruit in a Struggling Industry

Overcome inaccurate perceptions by focusing on the future and the unique opportunities it will bring.

By Mark Feffer Apr 1, 2016
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Mark Green, chief human resources officer at Kodak, had found the perfect candidate to fill an open position. The problem? The prospect wasn’t convinced that the company could offer any real opportunities. In recent years, Kodak has moved from its legacy businesses in film into the realm of digital imaging. But some still see the organization as a dinosaur—an old-school business trying to trade on its past success. That picture, Green contends, is far from accurate.

To prove it, he had the candidate spend time with Kodak’s chief technology officer to get a feel for the range of new materials-science and imaging technologies that the Rochester, N.Y.-based business is developing. The prospect “instantly saw the potential and how rewarding it could be to grow these ideas into real businesses,” Green says. Now, the once-skeptical individual is a member of the company’s forward-looking team.

That anecdote illustrates how recruiters can approach talented people for jobs in industries that are, for whatever reason, trying to remain relevant—such as print media, textile mills or DVD rentals. For Green, it’s about getting the message out. “The key is getting back out there and re-educating what Kodak is all about today and going forward,” he says. “It’s about sharing our employee value proposition internally and externally.”

Notice that Green talks about the Kodak of today and of the future—not the storied giant of the past. It’s the tack most recruiters take when approaching candidates about roles in troubled industries. Whether you’re looking for executives who can engineer a turnaround or smart new graduates who can help build bench strength, enticing potential employees has little to do with the industry at all. Instead, it requires focusing on the individual’s needs and matching those needs with the often-unique opportunities a struggling organization can present.

Close to the Edge

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these industries will see the most rapid declines in employment in the U.S. during the period from 2012 to 2022:

  • Apparel manufacturing.
  • Leather and allied product manufacturing.
  • Communications equipment manufacturing.
  • Postal services.
  • Computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing.
  • Spring and wire product manufacturing.
  • Newspaper, periodical, book and directory publishers.
  • Hardware manufacturing.
  • Textile mills and textile product mills.
  • Miscellaneous manufacturing.

It’s wise to remember that industries labeled as “dying” often are, in reality, battling their way through a transition. For example, the conventional wisdom has had legacy newspaper companies on their deathbeds for years, yet many are finding ways to restructure and grow as they focus on delivering more community-focused information through digital channels.

Recruiters for these types of companies need to be adept at pointing out the difference between decline and transition, and then they need to be ready to make the case that the employer has the vision, plans and resources to remain in business over the long haul.

It’s the Employer, Stupid

How you frame your message matters. “ ‘Dying industry’ isn’t a correct term,” says Lynn Radice, an executive recruiter and president and CEO of Radice Consulting, based in the New York City area. “If companies are hiring, there’s opportunity.”

When talking about troubled industries, recruiters should start by zeroing in on the dynamics of the individual employer. “It’s more about the brand than the industry,” says Ricardo Alvar, managing director of global search at 24 Seven, a New York City-based search company that concentrates on the fashion, retail and marketing sectors. For example, manufacturing has a reputation for having declined in the U.S.—but that’s not necessarily the case for all companies. “Many manufacturers are very healthy, but they have a lot of their operations overseas,” he says.

The challenge in such cases is educating prospective employees about the true state of the business sector and the viability of the employer. To do that, you need to arm yourself with information to convince people that their perceptions about the industry in general and the company in particular are off-base.

“Many industries look to pivot during times of transition,” says John Touey, principal of executive search firm Salveson Stetson Group in Radnor, Pa. However, that’s not always obvious from the outside. “The candidate may have the perception that you’re dying, when you’re really not,” he says.

The Elephant in the Room

Recruiters should always acknowledge the possibility that a candidate might have a negative view of the company. There’s an “elephant in the room, and you’ve got to talk about it,” says Allen Geller, managing director of search firm Raines International in New York City.

Candor is crucial to making the right match. “You have to be transparent,” says Richard Eib, a partner at 212 Staffing, also in New York City. “You have to be honest about the situation, or the hire’s going to leave and you’re going to get a bad reputation. So, always be honest about the downsides.”

Still, if your organization is hiring, it’s for a reason. “You have to acknowledge the reality and then stress the opportunity,” says Mike Kahn, executive senior partner at Lucas Group, an Atlanta-based recruiting company.

And the recruiter must communicate what lies ahead. “The candidate needs to understand if the company has a solid map for how it’s going to face the future,” Eib says. “Does the management team understand the challenges?”

Assuming the team does, the organization needs to be clear about where it stands and what it needs, says John Mazzei, managing partner at financial recruiter Rand Thompson Consultants in New York City. “Only then can you make candidates see how the situation could work for them.”

Opportunities in Surprising Places

Often, struggling companies offer opportunities that aren’t available at other businesses. “Declining brands need exceptional talent,” observes Michele Magazine, managing director of New York City-based Michele Magazine Search, which specializes in media recruiting. “And people know a year [spent] trying to turn around a company can make them look very good.”

“You can go to [a large company] and do a great job that you’ll get no credit for because the firm is so well-run,” Mazzei says. “But if you can manage in a crisis, you’ve really got something to talk about.” In other words, working for a business that’s on the edge has inherent value.

That’s a statement many people might balk at. And, to be sure, taking a job at a company that only rents DVDs is going to be riskier than working for Netflix, which wisely added streaming and original programming to its business portfolio. But if the job opportunity is presented in the right way, candidates will find the risk worthwhile. “It can be an opportunity to shine,” Radice says.

In addition, working at a transitioning business can allow employees to develop advanced skills at an earlier point in their career or to assume positions that might not be available to them at more-stable businesses. “Most companies want someone who’s already done the job. At a company in a struggling line of business, they may not be able to get that,” Geller says.

Sometimes, emphasizing the opportunities requires connecting the dots for the candidate. For example, ranked insurance underwriter as the ninth most-endangered job of 2015. Underwriters decide whether to provide insurance and under what terms, but advances in technology and data analytics are increasingly taking the human element out of the equation, says David E. Coons, senior vice president at The Jacobson Group, a Chicago recruiting company that focuses on insurance industry jobs. However, recruiters may be able to explain how an underwriter could parlay the position into a different role. “There are paths from underwriting to other career tracks,” he says, such as actuarial jobs, as well as positions in accounting, finance, marketing and sales.

“Underwriting requires strong critical thinking and communications skills,” Coons explains. “People don’t realize that underwriters do a lot of client-facing work and work with other teams. If you look at it in a vacuum, you’re not seeing the whole picture.” For more-experienced workers, underwriting can provide a route to taking on a leadership role or making a transition to another field of work, he adds.

Dan German, senior vice president of human resources for the eastern U.S. at Digital First Media, has a lot of experience at a transitioning business. The Denver-based company owns a variety of both print and digital news products, including the San Jose Mercury News in California and the New Haven Register in Connecticut. When wooing candidates, its recruiters stress the organization’s future, not its past as a print publisher.

Advice in a Nutshell

  • “Be smart and bold. Have a solid proposition about why people should work for this organization.”
    —Richard Eib, 212 Staffing
  • “Be proactive. Develop your message ahead of time and have success stories to tell. Know what the carrot is: What’s the candidate going to get instead of just a job?”
    —Ricardo Alvar, 24 Seven
  • “Be honest about the situation. There’s some reason you’re still hiring. You have to acknowledge the reality and then stress the opportunity.”
    —Mike Kahn, Lucas Group
  • “You have to be transparent, but that doesn’t mean negative. If someone’s not interested in the risk, find out what it would take to make them feel better.”
    —Michele Magazine, Michele Magazine Search
  • “This is less about recruiting around the firm and more about being a career consultant with the candidate.”
    —John Mazzei, Rand Thompson Consultants
  • “The difference between a struggling industry and a dying industry is hope, a feeling that this is temporary and if we do the right thing, we’ll come out of it.”
    —John Touey, Salveson Stetson Group

“That starts the conversation,” German says. “We’re not a newspaper company but a news and information company in transformation. Then we get into a conversation about what that looks like.”

In one instance, an internal recruiter asked German to speak with a candidate who was hesitant to take a sales position. “He was nervous about the idea of moving into the newspaper space and a company that was in transition,” German recalls. “So I spoke about the transformation of the company and how digital sales have been ramping up. I explained what was going on in the industry—a massive amount of change that’s heading in the right direction.” His arguments convinced the individual to accept the offer.

German has also found that having candidates talk to several people around the organization—including publishers, sales representatives, financial staffers and those in the newsroom—can be an effective way to address their concerns. “They get a sense that there are people who are jazzed about working there,” he says. “The conversations generate excitement.”

Beyond Opportunity

But effective recruiting goes beyond emphasizing the opportunities. “The truth is, whether you’re talking about a good industry or a bad industry, jobs have to serve the candidate’s need,” Mazzei says. “People don’t spend 40 years at one company anymore. It’s harder to sell the industry, the defined career or the firm as being ‘the thing.’ ”

So it’s vital to understand what’s driving the individual to consider a move and identify ways the business’s tribulations can provide fulfilling opportunities.

Mazzei says people work for three reasons: money, fun and learning. “You have to ask candidates whether there’s something in that job that would enrich them—contacts and connections, for example. Then, will the company make it worth their while with money, quality of life, benefits—a package that works? You’ve got to get candidates on at least two of these three points—money, fun or learning—for the match to work.”

Doing that often means uncovering what’s lacking in the person’s current situation. “Where do they want to go? What are the challenges they have in their current job? For lack of a better word, you want to exploit those pain points,” Eib says.

This can be especially helpful when a person is thinking about more than just money and career advancement. For example, your prospect may be a senior professional who wants to travel less and work from home or an executive who will tackle a corporate turnaround for the challenge as well as a potentially lucrative payout. The key is to “find the motivation of the candidate and the company, and find the unique synergy,” Radice says.

Sometimes, however, executives may believe that a business has only a few good years left before it winds down, and during that time it still needs talent. In those situations, “you have to sell the near term” by showing people how they can leverage their experience at the employer into career gains somewhere else, Touey says. He notes that you may have to overpay in such circumstances. “You have to protect the person in case things don’t work out.”

Marketing and the Message

Here’s the bottom line: To attract qualified prospects to a struggling business, recruiters have to be creative and strategic.

“The fundamentals remain the same,” says Kaushik Nag, leader of talent acquisition and global change management for network marketing company Amway, based in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area. Though he notes that Amway’s business sector isn’t in decline, Nag has faced difficult situations in hiring for other companies that had no brand name or had a dicey reputation. “It comes down to how smart you are as a strategist,” he says. “How smart are you in execution? In using the right tools? That’s what matters when you’re recruiting in any industry.”

A coordinated marketing strategy is key here. Both the recruiter and management have to be in sync when delivering the message. “Everyone has to present the same vignette,” Geller says.

As an example, he describes a Midwestern building-products company he worked with during a downturn. The organization hired a chief executive to rebuild its business as it emerged from bankruptcy. The CEO wanted a new tax director, treasurer and controller. By working closely with the CEO and CFO, Geller was able to educate candidates about the organization’s potential and make sure everyone in-house presented the same vision. That effort, he says, played a big part in enabling him to fill the positions.

“You have to go and get as much information as possible from the hiring manager to paint a picture of the job and the future,” Radice says.

Should You Settle?

Then there’s this reality: Companies in struggling industries often have to settle when it comes to talent. “If you’re not growing, you’re not getting the same caliber of candidate and you have to adjust your sights,” Geller says. People who don’t need to take a risk in their career path generally won’t.

Such situations demand that the recruiter manage the employer’s expectations. “You have to be realistic about who you’re going to attract,” Geller says. “Once you understand that, the search process becomes a whole lot easier.” Part of the job, he adds, “is to make sure the people doing the hiring understand what they’re capable of getting.”

Others argue that’s not the best approach. “The only way to change a company is to hire the best,” Radice says, so the organization might have to upgrade the job, title or salary to land the candidate it wants. “You need to overachieve in this situation,” she says. One way to do that is to bring in someone who can handle multiple tasks, she suggests, thus making the hire more cost-effective.

Whatever the situation, recruiters know businesses can’t simply coast along, sticking to old ways while their industry changes around them. After all, if a business isn’t operating at the top of its game, how can it expect to find talented people operating at the top of theirs?

Mark Feffer is a freelance business writer based in Philadelphia.

Web Extras

SHRM article: 5 Recruiting Trends for 2016

SHRM article: 8 Critical Steps to Effective Recruiting

SHRM article: Recruiting the Class of 2016

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