HR Magazine, April 2001: Hiring in the Hinterlands

By Andrea C. Poe Apr 1, 2001

HR Magazine, April 2001Vol. 46, No. 4

Small-town life appeals to many, but employers often have difficulties recruiting workers to rural America.

Recruiting challenges abound nationwide, but nowhere are they felt more keenly than in rural America. Companies far from the bright lights and big cities must be more aggressive than others in developing recruiting strategies.

Rural businesses are no longer primarily agricultural. About 19.2 percent of all nonfarm businesses are located outside of metropolitan areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Manufacturing, forestry and mining dominate the rural landscape, and engineering, telecommunication and high-tech firms are on the rise.

Companies that require a skilled, educated workforce are facing, in some cases, severe labor shortages. The most difficult spots to fill are in information technology (IT), engineering and health care, according to recruitment experts. In fact, the Rural Manufacturing Study conducted in 1996 by the Economic Research Service (ERS) at the USDA, found that almost 75 percent of rural businesses characterized the quality of available labor as a problem.

The two main causes are the lack of an educated local workforce and the loss of population in these already sparsely settled areas.

Companies looking for technically skilled workers and other professionals must import talent—not always an easy task. Nearly 48 percent of the rural businesses surveyed by the ERS/USDA report one of the biggest problems they face is “attracting managers and other professionals to the area.”

Some rural areas have it tougher than others. “There’s remote and then there’s really remote,” says Ken Penrod, owner of FHS, a medical recruitment firm that matches physicians with rural facilities, based in Butte, Mont. “There’s a big difference between placing someone in the mountains of Montana, a highly desirable place, and [on] the border of North Dakota and Canada.”

Small cities also face recruiting challenges. Take Bloomington, Ind., where Teletron, a 200-person telecommunications firm, is located. “We’re competing for employees with companies in places like Atlanta and Dallas,” says Jane Grose, PHR, vice president of human resources. “It can be difficult for us to find experienced people willing to move here.”

“Rural recruiters should develop a recruitment strategy the way they would a marketing strategy,” recommends Susan Jordan, president of the Jordan Group Inc., a human resources consulting firm located in Placitas, N.M.

Accentuate the Positive

The first step of that strategy is to find out what attracted current employees to the company.

“Do extensive employee surveys to find out what appeals to them about working there,” suggests Wayne Vicknair, president of Creative Compensation Solutions Inc., an HR consulting firm in Metairie, La. “What they like, others will like.”

Identify your strengths and weaknesses. For example, salaries at CTA Architects Engineers, a design firm based in Billings, Mont., with seven offices in Montana and Idaho, aren’t the highest in the industry, a clear disadvantage. “It’s getting harder and harder to compete with companies on the West Coast,” says Sandra J. Bradford, PHR, CTA’s human resource manager. “We offer competitive salaries, but we can’t compete with big-dollar firms.”

However, there are other things that make CTA stand out, such as the company’s flexible work schedules. “As long as you fulfill your obligation to the company, you can pretty much come and go as you please,” Bradford says.

The company also boasts a generous profit-sharing program, which gives 50 percent of the CTA’s net gains back to employees.

Engineered Machine Products (EMP), a developer of high-tech products for the gas and diesel industry, is located in Escanaba, Mich. The town endures one of the longest winters in the United States, something seen by many as a negative. However, the company culture is free of hierarchical structures, something that makes the company appealing to many engineers. “There aren’t buf-fers between them and the clients. Engineers play a major role here,” explains Paul Harvey, director of business development at EMP.

Finding the Right People

Getting the word out to the right candidates can be a difficult—and costly—undertaking. Small-town recruiters recommend mapping a strategy to target and attract applicants.

For instance, southern companies traditionally have trouble attracting employees from the north, Vicknair says. When he worked as a recruiter for First Commerce Corp., an $8 billion holding company based in New Orleans, he traveled to New England in hope of recruiting Ivy Leaguers. “We met with limited success, very limited,” he laughs. “The few people we did recruit came for the wrong reasons—to party in New Orleans.” The company had far better luck recruiting from area schools such as Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama.

“If someone is from New York City and enjoys fine dining and the opera, no matter what you offer, you aren’t going to get them to go to rural Iowa,” Penrod says.

Big-city physicians often find the thought of small-town life inhibitive, he says. In a town of 2,000 people, everyone is going to know what you do in your off time. On the other hand, a small town lets a doctor be a big fish in a small pond, as opposed to a city like Los Angeles where you’re just one among many medical professionals. “Some doctors want to feel special and a small town feeds their egos,” Penrod notes.

Among the best bets for rural employers are former residents. Because they know the benefits of the area and often are eager to return home, they can be easier to attract. (For more information on recruiting former residents, see “Reeling in the Talent,” in the July 1999 issue of HR Magazine.)

Robin McDaniel, media coordinator at the Center for Rural Development in Somerset, Ky., is typical of many rural employees. After 14 years living in Atlanta and working as a producer for CNN, she set her sights to returning. “I was ready for an opportunity to come home and be with my family,” she says.

Harvey, who worked in Los Angeles, St. Louis and most recently Philadelphia, returned to rural Michigan to work at EMP. He grew up in the area and jumped at the chance to give his children the kind of childhood he had.

In Billings, CTA recently snagged a former resident who had moved to Houston to work as a chemical engineer and was ready to return. “We get a lot of people who went away to make their fortunes, but 10 years later want to come back for the quality of life Montana offers,” Bradford explains.

Sometimes candidates find you. “A lot of young tech grads come here looking for jobs. They pile in their cars and drive here, banging on our door,” Harvey says.

Companies can reach out to this population. CTA has found these employees by attending campus job fairs, running ads in local papers and posting jobs at local schools. “You never know who will talk to whom about an opportunity,” Bradford says.

Location, Location, Location

Assess the benefits of your location so you can sell it to job candidates. “It isn’t all about money anymore. People care a great deal about quality of life,” Jordan says. That’s good news for rural employers. Locations off the beaten track can be highly desirable.

“There’s a mystique about Montana,” says Bradford. “We certainly capitalize on that when recruiting people.”

At EMP, Harvey highlights the pluses of the remote locale to potential employees. Escanaba is tucked away in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a sparsely populated area with more than 300,000 residents spread over 15 counties.

“There’s fishing, hiking, biking, water skiing, snow mobiling and hunting up here. It appeals to people who want to enjoy an outdoor lifestyle,” he explains.

Attractive Packaging

Once you have identified who you’re looking for and how to best sell the company and locale, Vicknair suggests using that information to design a package of things that blend the best of what you have to offer.

“First, dispel the money myth about rural jobs, that they don’t pay as well as those in cities,” Vicknair says. “That’s just not always true.”

EMP always emphasizes its competitive salaries to engineering candidates. “Our salaries are in the top quarter in the U.S.,” notes Harvey.

In other cases, Vicknair says, “Rural companies may pay less, but when you factor in cost of living, professional jobs in rural areas tend to pay as well if not better.”

Teletron communicates this fact to candidates. “We can’t compete if you look at salary alone,” says Grose. “But when you factor in cost of living, it’s a lot less expensive to live in Bloomington than other places. We direct candidates to web sites that calculate that kind of thing so they can see for themselves.”

Another common myth is that rural areas are devoid of culture. Highlight whatever culture you do have—be it a movie theater that occasionally gets foreign films, a community college theater that brings in ballet or an art club that meets monthly.

For McDaniel, the fact that Somerset has a 760-seat theater helped in her decision to leave Atlanta. “I had to take a substantial pay cut, about $20,000,” she explains. “The theater was a really important feature for me because I saw that I wouldn’t have to give up culture entirely.”

Capitalize on Perceptions

People generally think of rural areas as being safer and friendlier, offering a less stressful lifestyle and having good public schools. If this is true for your community, shine light on it.

“When I get to talk with candidates, I sell them on the beauty, the great public schools, the natural resources, the bike trails above the city and the fact that the longest commute in Billings is 20 minutes,” notes Bradford.

Tenure tends to be higher in rural companies. “If you can tell someone that your average tenure is 25 years you’ll get their attention,” Vicknair says. “Job security is really important because nobody wants to go to a podunk town and get laid off.”

Pushing the Perks

Rural-based companies often sweeten the pot by offering innovative perks not found in big cities. Teletron offers several things that help the company stand out: a basketball court out back, anniversary and birthday presents, and monthly awards for top performers, including the use of the company BMW. Plus, the company gives employees with five years’ tenure an all-expenses-paid vacation for four people to Florida.

CTA, which has doubled the size of its staff in the past five years, has charged Bradford with developing a recruitment plan with a package of benefits that will attract prospective candidates. CTA has dropped the one-year waiting period for 401(k) participation and has upped company contributions to match dollar for dollar up to 6 percent of employee salaries. Bradford is hoping to soon raise the amount given for continuing education and tuition assistance.

“Rural medical facilities have to offer more to be competitive,” Penrod says. One of the ways they commonly do this is by offering more vacation time, say six weeks, as opposed to the three or four given by their urban counterparts.

The generous paid-time-off policy at the Center for Rural Development factored into McDaniel’s decision to take the job there. “I get three weeks’ vacation right away and 12 sick days,” she says. “That was important to me because I really value my time off.”

Personalize the Pitch

The most successful recruiters are those who gear the pitch to candidates’ needs, concerns and interests. The trick is gauging your audience. What lures one candidate may not appeal to another. “I try and figure out what would be important to that person and then sell the features they’d be interested in,” Bradford says.

From the moment candidates express interest, Teletron looks for what it will take to land them. “We court them,” Grose says. When a candidate from Atlanta indicated that he was interested in wine, Grose greeted him at the airport with a basket from a local winery. In another case, an applicant wanted to learn about gifted schools for his daughter; Grose did research and presented her findings.

As a medical recruiter, Penrod finds that personalizing perks is the key to attracting the right physicians to the area—people who will come and stay. “If a doctor says he wants to move to be near hunting, the hospital should be sure he’s given time off during hunting season,” he says.

At CTA, the company works to develop personal relationships with potential employees. If someone makes contact with the company, Bradford puts them on a list and periodically communicates with them. “When people reach out to us, we stay in touch. We tell them about opportunities so they’re ready when the right one comes along,” she says.

That Special Someone

When it comes to recruiting, there is no one solution that will appeal to all applicants. However, rural recruiters bolster chances of attracting candidates when they have a package that sells the totality of the job and the place. That package should include competitive salaries and benefits, appealing perks, a well-communicated company culture and features of the area.

But even when a company has been conscientious in developing a recruiting strategy, targeting a receptive population and arranging an appealing package, the final determining factor will be something HR can do nothing about—the intangible rightness of fit among the company, the place and the individual.

The Center for Rural Development has been looking for a planning and policy director for about a year. “We’re looking for a seasoned person,” McDaniel explains. “We don’t want to hire someone who is going to use the job as a stepping stone, so we just have to wait until we find that person.”

Waiting also has become a fact of life at EMP, where an engineering position has been open for a year. “We’re not going to hire just anybody,” Harvey says. “We don’t want to compromise, so we’re willing to wait for the right fit.”

Andrea C. Poe is a freelance writer based in Easton, Md., who specializes in human resource and management issues.

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