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The Location Game

Small-town companies employ big-time strategies to attract skilled workers.

Thursday, June 2, 2005
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Back in 2003, Steven Hector needed to fill 45 engineering and upper-management positions for his employer, Hi-Lex Controls Inc., a manufacturer of car-window regulators. Under normal circumstances in most HR departments, this task wouldn't be a major undertaking.

But this manufacturer, which has 1,075 employees, is located in Litchfield, Mich., a rural area that's home to approximately 1,500 people. Its closest cities -- Battle Creek and Jackson -- are almost one hour away, each with populations of 53,000 and 36,000, respectively.

"Some people think we're a very small, backwoods-type company," says Hector, Hi-Lex's director of HR. "That's not true. We're a tier-one automotive supplier. I demand the same type of skills as a company that's located in the Detroit area."

Companies such as Hi-Lex often have big challenges when it comes to recruiting top talent in small towns. Refusing to compromise on job skills or experience, they're doing what they can to establish creative recruiting channels and help new employees adjust to small-town life.

Besides traditional methods, such as online recruiting, Hector has discovered one avenue that produces a steady stream of applicants: foreign students who are earning a second college degree.

He says some have 10 years of work experience in their native countries and are eager to find U.S. employers to sponsor them so they can obtain an H-1B immigration status -- which allows them to stay in the U.S. for three years -- and then apply for a green card or permanent residency.

Approximately 20 percent of the company's workers are from foreign countries such as India, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, he says, adding that the company's turnover rate is extremely low -- 1.2 percent for hourly staff and .7 percent for salaried employees.

A key reason for the company's low attrition is its selection process. During interviews, Hector says he carefully listens to candidates' backgrounds, searching for clues that demonstrate an ability to live in a small town. For example, if their spouses grew up in small towns or if they find certain small-town recreational activities -- such as hunting or skiing -- appealing, they may like it there. Questions about their families can also tell a lot: whether a spouse will be able to find work there, for instance, or if their children are in any gifted or special school programs that may not exist in Litchfield.

"You have to sell what you have," says Hector, emphasizing that small towns offer cheap housing, low taxes and minimal crime, and are havens for outdoor enthusiasts.

Tweaking the Jobs

In 2002, Suzanne Clifton had a difficult time recruiting candidates for a data-entry clerk position in Clinton, N.C., a small town with 8,600 residents. Clifton is president and owner of Castleton Group Inc., a national firm based in Raleigh, N.C., whose 2,800 employees provide HR outsourcing services.

She believes almost every job can be repositioned to become more value-added. In the case of the data-entry clerk, the position now includes marketing responsibilities since the job initially required the clerk to contact clients for basic information, she says. With more responsibilities, the clerk receives training in marketing and a 10-percent-higher salary than the old job. It didn't take long for the company to hire a person who ended up relocating from Raleigh to Clinton.

"We try to position a company's mind-set to see how everyone can be a profit center for a company," she says.

Other times, her company will mail job notices to professional service firms in the area such as attorneys or accountants who service multiple clients, then offer a flat-rate finder's fee ranging from between $100 and $500. She says over half respond with names of potential candidates.

Despite the need for focused efforts in more rural recruiting, staffing in small towns has not been as difficult since 9/11. "A lot of [people] now are looking for good, clean environments like small cities, where they can raise their families."

Some staffing firms have conducted research on best advertising practices to use when recruiting people in small or large cities. Print media and radio in large cities, for example, are becoming less effective as recruiting vehicles but are still very effective in small markets, says Christine Hoebermann, regional vice president for the middle market north region at Kelly Services Inc., based in Troy, Mich.

"In small towns, people still depend on their local newspaper to keep them informed about what's going on in their community," she says, adding that people in large cities are often inundated with multiple media sources.

By contrast, online recruiting in larger metropolitan markets is more effective than in small towns.

Getting Creative

Regardless of market size, Kelly's No. 1 source of candidates continues to be referrals. Almost 47 percent of its applicant base comes from employee referrals compared to the national average of 30 percent.

Still, when recruiting for clients in small towns, Kelly customizes a plan that always includes different recruiting sources. In one small city, for example, a pizza restaurant attached Kelly's job fliers to pizza boxes that were delivered to people's homes. On occasion, the staffing company will also extend its office hours to include nights and weekends so people who are employed can explore other job opportunities.

"We really have to focus on people who are currently underemployed or unhappily employed," she says. "People make decisions to change jobs all the time."

Kenexa has also had luck with strategically placed billboards at major highway intersections that lead to the small town where an employer is located, says George Vollmer, managing principal at the global HR consulting firm based in Wayne, Pa.

The firm also partners with other companies within a several-hundred-mile radius that may have recently downsized or are about to lay off staff. He says he works directly with their HR departments to send mailers to affected workers.

Another effective strategy includes purchasing alumni lists from universities in the same state as the small town and sending former graduates job announcements. Some of the company's employees even monitor marriage announcements published in newspapers from surrounding towns and contact newlyweds about job opportunities.

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But luring potential candidates through a company's door is only half the battle. "We recommend that [employers] do a personality profile because it takes a special type of person to be happy in a small-town environment," says Ernie Lebel, vice president of HR Services at Drake Inglesi Milardo Inc., an HR consulting firm in Portland, Maine.

Like Hector, Lebel says he uses family circumstances and interests as key barometers, stressing that people who prefer hiking to attending the theater or a social event may be better suited to live in a small city. Sometimes, he adds, employers also neglect to ask about the family's interests, specifically the spouse's. Even if employees enjoy their jobs, the work relationships could still be doomed if their spouses or families are unhappy living there.

Lebel recalls how one married man in Birmingham, Ala., had been laid off and applied for a position in a small town in Maine.

During the interview, it was clear that his spouse -- who had never seen a snowflake or experienced 10-degree temperatures, and was very close to her parents, who also lived in Birmingham -- wasn't going to be happy. Although the man was technically capable, he still wasn't a good fit because of his family situation.

"The first and only mistake employers make is that they hire for skills -- somebody who had a similar job anywhere in the country -- and don't consider their personal profile or issues," says Lebel.

Education Hook

Staff development can be a challenge for employers in small towns due to distances between locations and, therefore, opportunity constraints for employees. Like companies in big cities, some bring in outside training consultants while others send employees to workshops.

Seton Healthcare Network based in Austin, Texas, had other ideas. With two of its eight hospitals in rural communities -- each employing about 200 workers -- it developed cross-site teams that focused on anything from developing drug-safety protocols to administering a pain-management program, says Marcia Silverberg, Seton's vice president of human resources and organizational development.

"People from rural hospitals got to participate in [the] teams, where they gained expertise and enriched their jobs," she says, explaining that many team meetings are conducted via teleconferencing so people in rural areas don't have to drive to Austin.

Texas Tech University also opened a satellite facility -- offering nursing-education courses -- in Marble Falls, Texas, minutes from Seton's rural hospital in Burnet.

"It's rare you get that kind of an opportunity in a rural area," she says. "We're looking at doing that with other parts of our network. It will help us retain and recruit people."

Alcoa Pleasure Systems International had a similar idea in mind for its manufacturing plant in Crawfordsville, Ind., which employs an estimated 350 people.

In the 1990s, the city's 22 manufacturing plants joined forces, pitching in money to rent a local facility for much-needed skills training in areas such as welding or electrical schematics, then partnered with a local junior college to provide trainers.

"Employees don't want to go out into the city or be away for a few days to go to training," says Ginger Davis, HR manager at the plant. "It really solves a lot of issues. As a result, we continue to grow the skills of our workforce."

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