Recruiting has been a volatile occupation since the pandemic began, and while there has been some steadying over the last several months, labor market uncertainty seems to be the new normal.
Challenges include low unemployment, talent scarcity for certain roles and more open jobs than available workers, but the situation is slowly becoming more favorable for employers, according to recruiters.
In Employ Inc.’s annual Recruiter Nation Survey, talent acquisition professionals said that applicant volume in 2023 was up from the previous year, and recruiting—while still stressful—was not as fraught as the year before. Slightly over half (53 percent) of recruiters said their job was more stressful in 2023 than in the previous year, but that number had been as high as 65 percent in 2022.
Employ Inc. is a talent acquisition software and services company in Boston and the parent company of JazzHR, Lever, Jobvite and NXTThing RPO. The Recruiter Nation Survey report is based on an analysis of recruiting data from over 21,000 Employ customers and a survey of 1,200 recruiters conducted by Zogby Analytics in September 2023.
“Recruiters and talent teams have been faced with volatility from an uncertain economy, shrinking workforce and slowing job market in 2023, compared to previous years, but overall, talent professionals are still optimistic about the future of talent acquisition,” said Pete Lamson, CEO of Employ. “Data shows that applications per job are up over the last year across companies of all sizes, and more than half of recruiters expect their teams to grow in the next year, with nearly two-thirds expecting their recruiting budgets to increase.”
Whether companies are growing or slowing down, talent acquisition teams are being asked to do more with less based on the current economic uncertainty, said George LaRocque, founder and principal analyst at WorkTech, an analyst and advisory services firm in the New York City area.
“Yet, while the economy may have been cooling, in the labor market the available talent and required skills remain more complicated to find than ever,” he said. “Today’s recruiting challenges are the same as those previously associated with competition during times of strong economic growth.”
Here are some of the Employ report’s key findings as recruiters look ahead to what is expected to be another year of volatility in 2024.
Top Recruiting Challenges
Recruiters who indicated a high level of stress in 2023 said it was mainly due to a lack of qualified candidates, competition from other employers and more open roles to fill. Other top challenges employers are facing include not being able to compete with salary requirements, attracting too many candidates for open positions, having a hiring process that takes too long and not being able to offer remote or hybrid work.
But notably, the situation improved in 2023 across all metrics when compared with 2022. Everything from higher candidate interest and employee retention to decreased burnout and more resources to support hiring got better last year for a growing number of recruiters.
“The job of a recruiter is inherently stressful, but prior to the second half of 2022, it was extremely difficult for any employer to hire, in any industry,” Lamson said. “Now, except for certain areas like health care, there has been a loosening of candidate flow, perhaps driven by the decrease in overall job openings.”
But while candidate flow is improving, candidate quality can be a tougher nut to crack. “There may be more candidate flow than there was previously, but having the right volume of candidate quality remains mission critical for recruiters,” Lamson said.
Tim Sackett, SHRM-SCP, an industry veteran and author of The Talent Fix (SHRM, 2018), pointed out that the Recruiter Nation data must be considered in the context of who makes up a significant share of Employ’s customer base—organizations in the white-collar professions and the tech industry.
“Candidate flow improved, while the unemployment rate stayed about the same? Where are all the people coming from?” Sackett asked. “Probably from the tech industry, after its waves of layoffs. Recruiting got easier for some because there were more candidates and more applications. At the end of the day, the hardest thing for a recruiter is having an opening and no one to fill it.”
Not all industries had a surge of candidates, though. “Hospitality recruiting did not get easier in 2023. Not at all,” said Jim D’Amico, director of talent acquisition at cruise operator Holland America Group, based in Seattle. “The market remains incredibly tight for us. Hiring is growing, but just being able to source and attract in our space is a constant challenge.”
D’Amico said another big challenge in 2023 was keeping up with technology. “My team feels overwhelmed with what AI means to recruiting,” he said. “Understanding what it can do, what it should do, what it shouldn’t do, there’s so much noise in the market. There’s also the fear that AI technology will take away their job.”
Meeting candidate expectations continues to be a challenge for employers. “Candidates have an expectation for lots of communication, streamlined experiences and quick decisions,” said Shannon Taylor, SHRM-CP, director of talent acquisition at JCPenney in Plano, Texas. “When we came out of the pandemic and talent was short, leaders made quick decisions because candidates had other options. That pendulum has shifted. Hiring managers feel that they have a little more time to see additional candidates or have another conversation with a candidate. We’re trying to provide an expedited hiring process while allowing those managers to feel that they made the best decision in the right amount of time.”
Taylor said that adopting more automated tools has given recruiters more time to engage with candidates and have strategic conversations with hiring managers to create a more efficient process.
Top Recruiting Priorities
Improving candidate quality remains essential for recruiters, with half indicating it is their top priority for 2024. Additional top priorities include getting more candidates for each open role, improving the speed of the hiring process, having a more diverse talent pipeline and improving onboarding.
“We’re going to continue our shift into more marketing-driven recruiting,” D’Amico said. “Not just focusing on attraction, but also building relationships with candidates. It’s a longer process, but we think targeting the right folks with the right messaging at the right time will pay off.”
Taylor said his team also intends to elevate recruitment marketing and employer branding capabilities this year. There are plans to build professional development as well.
“I want to make sure my team has the tools, training and experiences to engage candidates in the most effective way possible,” he said. “That means development training for my leaders, technology training for my recruiters and conferences for my team, to take them to that next level.”
Generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) and automation technology stand out as investments in 2024. “From an investment perspective, there has been a large interest in AI-driven technologies and what AI can do for talent acquisition,” Lamson said. “That can mean a lot of things to different people. But recruiting teams say they are looking to invest in AI for improving candidate flow and quality and to reduce friction in the hiring process. When you connect the areas of AI that are desirable to recruiters with the problems they are trying to solve, it demystifies the mystery behind it.”
Talent acquisition leaders are thinking about how AI tools can increase their hiring capacity, Sackett said. “Some of what we’ve been seeing with GenAI, like personalized candidate outreach, is low-hanging fruit. Ways for recruiters to start delivering a higher level of engagement through AI assistants and leveraging the data of large language models are going to be the major upgrades to look forward to in the next couple of years,” he said.
Holland America will continue to invest in traditional tech, such as recruitment automation, but will also start to dabble in GenAI, D’Amico said. “We’re looking to transcribe and summarize interviews with AI to save recruiters having to do that manually,” he said.
At JCPenney, “we’re having conversations about GenAI,” Taylor said. “My plan is to start incorporating some of those tools to drive efficiency and create more effective candidate communications, to save my recruiters time.”
The Recruiter Nation Survey includes a section on recruiting benchmarks for the year, which talent acquisition teams can use to compare to and improve on their own performance.
Metrics that stand out include the average number of applicants increasing across all company sizes in 2023; job boards being ranked as the most valuable sourcing channel; and the average time to fill open roles increasing to 47.5 days, with media, manufacturing, education and hospitality among the areas reporting much longer times.
“We track time-to-fill, but it’s more an indicator and not a driving metric,” Taylor said. “I’m more interested in time-in-process, to understand how quickly someone moves through the hiring stages and the time it takes to get through each stage. I want to understand if my team is operating at the highest efficiency, and if they are not, finding out where the bottlenecks are.”
D’Amico said his team focuses on hiring velocity—the number of open positions versus the number of positions filled within a rolling time frame—and measuring candidate experience.
“We look at pass-throughs at each stage of the hiring process and work backwards,” he said. “Most of our metrics have started to focus more on quality than quantity.”
Recruiters ranked quality of hire as the most valuable metric to track, according to the survey.
“That makes sense, but most employers are still not measuring quality of hire,” Sackett said. “Employers should ask about quality of applicant, or how many applicants are considered quality applicants by the hiring manager. Another good one would be source of hire by cost. If you’re getting 50 percent of hires from Indeed and 20 percent from LinkedIn, but paying more for LinkedIn, why wouldn’t you want to dig into that?”