IT recruiting a casualty of the recession

Companies have lost some talent-acquisition muscle, and they're going to feel the effects of that loss

In the face of a lousy economy, hiring freezes and expense cuts, many companies have decimated their recruiting teams. But as IT staffs ramp up efforts to fill open positions and compete for key talent, this lack of recruiting resources could hurt them.

"A lot of recruiting staffs just don't exist anymore," says Joel Capperella, senior vice president of client solutions at Yoh, a technology staffing firm. "As the crash in 2008 came on full strength, the first folks to go were often recruiters. If you're not going be hiring anybody, why do you need recruiters?"

Some companies eliminated their internal recruiting teams and shifted to using outsourced services on an as-needed basis. Others kept recruiting in-house, but significantly downsized their departments. In both scenarios, companies have lost some talent-acquisition muscle -- and they're going to feel the effects of that loss, says Paul Rowson, managing director at WorldatWork, a nonprofit organization focused on human resources issues.

"When you start to recruit back, you start to experience all the signs of the hiatus, the laziness and the remission," Rowson says. "Any time you stop using a muscle and you don't exercise it, you can't just spring into action again."

While the job market is by no means booming, there have been signs that have industry watchers cautiously optimistic about the hiring outlook. IT jobs site Dice.com currently lists 81,498 available tech jobs, a gain of 24% compared to 65,959 open tech jobs in August 2010.

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Among 1,400 CIOs surveyed by staffing firm Robert Half Technology, just 7% said they plan to add IT staff in the current quarter. However, 87% of CIOs are confident in their companies' growth prospects in the next three months, and 48% say it's challenging to find skilled professionals today. (See also: "5 surprising IT skills that hiring managers want now")

With talent gaps to fill, recruiters could be hard pressed to find the right people without adequate resources. It's a problem not only for designated recruiters, but also for hiring managers -- in IT and other departments -- who share the staffing burden with HR.

The recession isn't the only reason hiring managers are feeling more pressure to take on recruiting responsibilities, says Eric Winegardner, vice president of client adoption at Monster.com. It's a trend that has been developing for years as managers have taken a more active role in scouting talent and shaping their teams.

Five years ago, most managers would have waited for HR to present them with candidates for an open position. Nowadays, an IT manager is more likely to say, "Hey, here are three or four people I've talked to over the past six months. Let's start with them," Winegardner says.

As shepherd of a team, that's how an IT manager should behave, he says. "A good manager is always scouting for the next team member."

However, just as recruiters are out of practice, so too are managers who have been focused on making do with current staff, not hiring new talent. Companies that aren't in good recruiting shape could wind up making desperate hires, which could include overpaying for talent.

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"As we enter into this tacit economic recovery, companies that don't have a recruiting staff can't be aggressive about getting people in. The danger for these organizations is that if you don't address the problem, it just grows and grows and grows," Capperella says. "The top quartile of companies that care about how they manage and strategically plan their talent will be fine, but that leaves 75% that will inevitably have to compete on wages."

Another danger is choosing the wrong person.

Oftentimes the effects of bad recruiting don't show up for six to 12 months, but they're painful when they do. Dealing with a chronic procrastinator, a bad communicator or a perfectionist can take its toll on the entire department. In addition, a negligent hire can expose a company to financial and reputational risk.

"The greatest risk to a company is hiring the wrong people, and the single greatest control you have over corporate risk is hiring the right people," Rowson says. "You will end up paying much more than the cost of hire for a bad hire."

In the end, the burden of a bad hire will be felt more by the manager, who has to deal with that person on a daily basis, than by the recruiter. For IT managers, it's worth investing more time and energy in recruiting. Here are a few tips to get started:

1. Get more involved in recruiting

If you're a manager, cultivate a strong partnership with HR. You'll need it -- particularly if hiring does suddenly pick up. Pick up the phone, ask a recruiter to lunch, express interest in the recruiting process and offer your expertise, Winegardner says. "Create that relationship with your business partner in recruiting and HR because it will pay dividends."

2. Get your own house in order

In an ideal world, companies should always be in recruiting mode, scouting for new talent not only in the open market but also inside their own organizations.

"A good organization is always making its first priority to understand what talent they already have and how it's deployed. Is it being rewarded properly and competitively?" Rowson says. "If don't have your own house in order, you can't go to market."

In reality, however, a lot of companies solely focus on external recruiting and ignore opportunities to optimize their existing workforce. "I see companies misfire on this all the time, but the great companies don't," Rowson says.

When companies decide it's time to recruit again, the smart ones first make sure they have their current talent deployed in the right positions, Rowson says. "Why waste even one precious dollar going to market, speculatively, to recruit until you've gotten that house in order?"

3. Deal with poor performers

Now is the time for dealing with poor performers, Rowson suggests. Some managers have held onto subpar employees rather than risk losing headcount and not being able to replace it. "It's an opportunity to confront performance issues," he says.

4. Ask for input from existing staff

The most efficient way to go about a talent search is to talk to existing staff members and ask them to weigh in on what's needed for a particular position -- the skills, experience and certifications, for instance.

"The people in these niche areas know the competitive companies and their colleagues better than any recruiter -- especially one who's been out of practice," Rowson says. "Nothing's worse than leaving them sitting on the sidelines, when they could be in the game, helping you recruit."

Follow Ann Bednarz on Twitter: twitter.com/annbednarz

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