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HR Teams Are Stretched Thin

As they struggle to fill job vacancies at their organizations, HR teams are experiencing talent shortages, too.

Early in the pandemic, when companies were furloughing or laying off employees, HR professionals, especially recruiters, were among the first to be let go. Companies that weren’t hiring didn’t need them.

“The talent acquisition profession lost a lot of talent,” recalls Tom Darrow, SHRM-SCP, founder and principal of Talent Connections LLC in Atlanta.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2021, when COVID-19 began to show signs of retreat, at least temporarily, and many businesses were looking to add workers quickly. 

“Companies needed talent acquisition people immediately, and the supply was not there,” Darrow says. Many recruiters had gone into other fields, such as real estate and sales, or had started their own businesses. 

With demand greater than supply, Economics 101 kicked in and businesses adjusted their compensation accordingly.

“Salaries have gone way up,” Darrow says. “We’re talking people with one year of recruiting experience getting $100,000 if they’re talented.” 

Employers are also using signing bonuses to attract qualified recruiters, he notes, though he doesn’t see that as a long-term solution. “We’ve been doing HR searches for 23 years and have never seen anything like this,” Darrow says.

Recruiters aren’t the only HR professionals in high demand these days. HR-related job postings on jumped 119 percent between February 2020 and December 2021, according to the jobs site. Similarly, recruitment software company iCIMS found HR specialist job openings were up 89 percent in December 2021 compared to the beginning of the year. Hires for HR specialist positions were up 88 percent over that time, even as applications were down 13 percent.

In December 2021, the average number of applicants per job opening for HR specialist roles was 28, compared to 59 in January of that year, according to iCIMS. It took 46 days, on average, to fill an open HR specialist role.

Getting Creative

Hiring HR professionals is harder than it has been, but not necessarily because of a shortage of suitable prospects, according to HR recruiter Laura Mazzullo, owner of East Side Staffing in New York City. “It’s more complicated than that,” she says. 

stretched thin graphic.pngMazzullo urges her clients to think creatively about who might be a good fit for an open HR position. For example, she says, there’s no reason why an HR professional who has worked at a technology firm can’t work at a finance company or a nonprofit, or vice versa. Being open to candidates who may have transferrable industry experience and skill sets will benefit recruiters, she says, because “most candidates don’t want to move to the exact same job with a competitor anyway.”

Mazzullo believes an unflinching self-awareness is a necessary attribute in a recruiter because ego inevitably informs hiring decisions. She says it’s time to recognize that career trajectories have changed and to stop judging candidates based on norms that were in place a generation ago. 

“If you’ve had a very linear career that checked all the boxes, it might be hard for you to think creatively about hiring,” she says. 

But a good approach now, she advises, is to strive for a fair, structured and discerning process that evaluates candidates against competencies. 

Reconfiguring The Team

As HR professionals work hard to deliver for their organizations, HR leaders have had to carve out time to alleviate pressure on their teams. 

Mark Berry, SHRM-SCP, oversees an 85-person HR department made up of 25 exempt and 60 hourly employees in his role as vice president of human resources at Indiana Packers Corp., a food wholesaler headquartered in Delphi, Ind. Conducting mass testing, arranging vaccination clinics and dealing with attrition have all taken a toll. 

“I’m surprised we haven’t lost many HR people, because I know they’re tired,” Berry says. “They’ve gone from the throes of the pandemic to the heating up of the economy.” However, the company has “been forced to leave some positions vacant because we couldn’t get the level of person we wanted,” he notes.

Indiana Packers is adding several HR positions this year—including some that have been created in response to transformative changes occurring in the workplace.

“I just wrote a position description for an immigration specialist,” Berry says. “This is, for us, a new-to-the-world position.

“We’re looking at further developing alternative labor sources and will be building a recruiting team specifically focused on these opportunities,” he adds. “We are also focusing on improving the employee experience. This will require onboarding HR talent focused on improving the end-to-end experience—recruiting, onboarding, training and leadership—of our team members at every stage in the employment life cycle.”

Finding Temporary Help

Some organizations are looking for ways to ease what they expect will be a temporary burden on their overworked human resource teams.

Mosaic, which provides care services to seniors and people with disabilities in 13 states, has 65 full-time employees in its HR department. It has added nine temporary workers to pitch in as it deals with heightened turnover and increased activity in the job market, says Parker McKenna, SHRM-SCP, senior vice president of HR at the Omaha, Neb.-based organization.

By bringing in the temporary HR staffers, McKenna says, he hopes his team can ensure that candidates for jobs across the organization are engaged as quickly as possible because in a red-hot job market, it’s easy to lose them. In addition to calling in relief forces, Mosaic strives to provide support and development opportunities to employees in HR and elsewhere because “it’s a difficult time to be in HR and health care.” Efforts include offering leadership development to help team leaders increase their resilience, maintain a growth mindset and manage performance in a changed environment.

As a faith-based organization that depends heavily on Medicaid payments for revenue, Mosaic doesn’t have the luxury of increasing HR salaries by much, so “we lean heavily on our mission,” McKenna says. “We remind HR people that at times like this, when the world is in a really difficult spot, our services are needed the most.”

New Strategies

M1 Finance, a digital financial services company based in Chicago, expanded aggressively across the board last year, increasing its workforce from 75 to 300 employees. That meant quickly finding HR talent, including individuals with a knack for recruiting technical employees. 

“It has been particularly hard hiring recruiters. It takes forever, and we feel we can’t hire enough,” says Maria Selvaggio, vice president of people.

Over the last year, the HR department went from being just Selvaggio to having seven recruiters, three people devoted to learning and development, and three staffers charged with employee experience and other HR functions. In other words, about half of the expanded HR team works in recruiting. The others are involved in making the company a desirable place to work and keeping everyone’s skills current, in accordance with the organization’s core values.

M1 has also extended the reach of its HR team by forming partnerships to get the M1 employer brand out in front of candidates. For example, HR staffers have visited several engineering campuses to recruit students. 

As HR professionals wrestle with worker shortages in their own departments, they must be careful not to let their standards slip. 

“Talent acquisition is a very sophisticated profession and process,” Darrow says. “You can’t just hire anybody and plug them in. If you hire someone because you need the body, that will come back and bite you later.”  

Debra Cope is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Image by Malerapaso/iStock.

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