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Attracting Big Talent to Small Cities

Specialized-talent shortages can be especially challenging to overcome when the positions are with companies in small communities that lack the glamor of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, but experts say it can be done.

Thursday, December 11, 2014
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Suppose you are a recruiter trying to recruit an electrical engineer for a company in Eau Claire, Wis.; or a neurosurgeon in Rochester, Minn., or a software developer in Fairfield, Iowa. While the challenges of finding specialized talent are manifold everywhere, they are often compounded for organizations located in small, remote or non-glamorous locations.

But experts say that need could actually drive creative solutions and opportunities for finding the right matches, but only if companies focus on two key concepts: reality and transparency.

Abhay Padgaonkar, president of Innovative Solutions Consulting in Phoenix, says he struggled with the issue of attracting talent to a small-town environment when he co-owned a medical practice in a small community in Arizona.

"With the nationwide shortage," he says, "recruiting doctors to any location is hard enough, but getting them to come to a small town-with a population of 50,000-in Arizona with the closest airport in Las Vegas, 150 miles away, was a nightmare."

Today, Padgaonkar's consulting firm works with clients to address these and other recruiting challenges.

"You are just not going to be able to compete against the glamor, sports, culture, private schools, cuisine and spousal opportunities that a major city has to offer," says Padgaonkar. "So, you have to avoid going into battle with a sword. Instead, the trick should be to develop an unconventional, slingshot strategy."

The good news, he says, is that large companies in big cities also contain numerous challenges to workers, which, in turn, may make such destinations less appealing to some candidates.

"Larger employers are typically more bureaucratic and inflexible," he says. "The traffic is horrendous, the cost of living can be very high to unaffordable, crime rates can be high and the working hours can be very long, especially with long commutes."

And those very challenges, experts say, present ways that recruiters, HR professionals and hiring managers can successfully position their companies, and their communities, to attract top candidates.

But the most effective way to attract top talent, says Terry Gallagher, president of Battalia Winston, a New York-based executive-recruiting firm, is by taking the time to really get to know the candidates and to understand their unique personal and family needs and desires.

"We call it the 'What's in it for me?' factor," he says. a medical practice co-owner, Padgaonkar also utilized a similar approach, adding that he didn't leave recruitment to others.

"I contacted potential candidates myself, established a peer-to-peer relationship and personally conducted every interaction, including a one- to two-day community visit," he says. "I anticipated every imaginable question or concern they would have and either answered it right away or researched it and got back to them in a timely manner."

That personal connection is critical, experts say, as those connections can often extend beyond the candidate to also include important members of the family, generally a spouse or significant other.

"We try to get inside their heads early," says Gallagher, who says it is critically important because, if the spouse and family are not on board, it can derail the entire recruitment process-sometimes even after the candidate relocates.

For that reason, says Gallagher, the recruitment process cannot simply be about selling the attributes of the company and the location.

"We also talk about the potential downsides up front-you've got to be transparent," he says. 

The recruitment process is almost like a dating game, says Robert J. Edmonds, president and CEO of Kolmar Labs Group, a cosmetics firm in Port Jervis, N.Y., a small community (population 8,668) located on the banks of the Delaware River.

Edmonds was successfully recruited by Gallagher, and he says the personal connections and benefits the location and company offered him and his wife sealed the deal.

Edmonds says he has moved a lot during his career and was tired of constantly relocating. The move from Wisconsin to the East Coast wasn't an easy one, he acknowledges, and it required input and support from his family-a wife and three children, all either attending a university or about to start their own careers.

Experts say that successful recruitment of key candidates to smaller, less-glamorous locales requires a good understanding of the unique benefits the locale has to offer, so it's important to fully understand the allure of larger environments, says Padgaonkar. 

In recruiting for his medical practice, he says, he would personally tour the community with the candidate and a realtor, showing beautiful yet affordable homes within a 10-minute commute from the hospital.

"We would joke that the walk-in closet was probably bigger than their studio apartment in New York," he says.

Other ways to combat the big-city allure, Padgaonkar says, is by finding connections between a candidate's needs and company and community offerings, which include emphasizing the following qualities:

§  Flexibility. "To counter the bureaucratic rigidity often seen in larger cities and employers, I offered flexibility in every imaginable way-number of working days in a month, working hours, time off and compensation model, among others."


§  Prominence. "In larger cities, it is very easy to feel like a small fish in a big pond. I countered that by demonstrating they could feel like a big fish in a small pond. I hosted dinners with top hospital administrators and prominent specialists in the community who extolled the lifestyle, regaled the candidates with stories about how they fled large cities and demonstrated collegiality."


§  Uniqueness. Recruiters, HR professionals and hiring managers shouldn't just play defense, says Padgaonkar; they need to play to their own strengths as well.

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"I took full advantage of the unique location and its strengths-sunny weather, beautiful lake, golf courses, low cost of living, low crime rates, good public schools and drivable distance to large cities like Las Vegas or Phoenix."

Did his approach always work? No. But, he says, "it certainly went a long way in attracting top talent to a small city."

When it comes to attracting C-suite level candidates to smaller locations, a recruiting firm is likely to be involved in the recruitment process, but HR still plays a critical role, says James Wright, a partner with Bridge Technical Talent, an IT staffing firm based in Kingston, R.I.

"This is an issue we face all the time trying to get top tech talent to Providence, Warwick and other small cities in the smallest state," he says. "It's a major challenge." 

Every department needs to be on the same page, he says, must be well-versed in the benefits the company and the community can provide, and prepared to be part of the sales team.

"You have to educate the hiring managers to sell the city as well as the opportunity," he says. "You can't do it alone."

In fact, he says, even in small locations where competition for candidates can be especially tough, it can be helpful for HR professionals to reach out to their HR peers in other organizations.

"HR people talk to other HR people and, without giving away trade secrets or anything, they all face the same problems-they should be talking to other people about what they can do to sell the city," he says.

But sometimes, the challenges organizations based in non-urban areas may be-or seem-insurmountable.

In those situations, HR can play a role in helping the organization think differently about how it might meet its staffing needs, says Ravin Jesuthasan, a managing director at Towers Watson in Chicago, and the co-author of Transformative HR.

As an example, he points to Topcoder, an online community for moonlighting technology professionals.

Jesuthasan says the use of virtual employees has accelerated, with more organizations considering how they can get their work done through employees who are not physically co-located.

"So, a company in a small, rural town potentially can access someone in a big city like Chicago or New York," he says.

HR, he says, should take time to understand the "elemental activities" of a particular job and how the job might be broken down into fragments, some of which might need to be handled in-house, and others which might be done through other means. 

The need to attract specialized talent is not going away anytime soon, says Jesuthasan.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg of a very significant change in how companies are getting work done," he says.

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