Handling the deluge: If your small business is ready to start hiring again (or will be soon), here's how you can avoid being overwhelmed by job seeker overload

by Reed Richardson

Much like the topsy-turvy real estate market, today's labor market represents a sea change from pre-recession days. Whereas many employers once had to scramble to find job candidates and sometimes engage in bidding wars to fill positions, they now face hiring challenges of an opposite sort. And, if your small business took a time out from hiring during the past few years--like many companies did--it may not be prepared for this new reality, leaving it unable to handle the overwhelming response that your first post-recession job postings or want ads may produce.

Just how much of a hirer's market is it right now? As of March, there were 5.6 job seekers for every job opening, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This official figure represents a noticeable drop from its record level of 6.2 last November, but, to put it in some historical perspective, just three years ago there were only 1.5 job seekers per opening. Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute notes that even if the recovering economy continues its currently robust pace of job creation through the remainder of the year, this significant labor imbalance is likely to remain. "There is a large backlog of ‘missing workers,' that is workers who dropped out of (or never entered) the labor force during the downturn and they are now starting to return to the labor force in search of jobs," she explains.

This ongoing glut of job seekers would seem to offer any small business willing to hire right now an obvious advantage-they can choose from among a large field of candidates to find exactly the right fit without worrying too much about competing offers from other companies. But when a job posting that might have prompted a dozen responses three years ago now triggers an avalanche of several hundred, a small business owner can quickly go from overjoyed to overwhelmed.


More job applications is not always better
The pent up job demand that accumulated during the past few years has also left a great many unemployed workers out of work for long stretches of time, prompting them to greatly expand their job search criteria and cast about for almost any type of job. As a result of this phenomenon, the pool of qualified candidates responding to a job posting now may be highly diluted, making it harder to sort out the proverbial wheat from the chaff. Maria Luisa Whittingham, who owns two women's clothing boutiques in Nyack, N.Y., says she went through just such an experience when she hired a new store sales manager last month.

"I was getting a large amount of responses, however, they were not necessarily good ones," Whittingham says. Of the dozens of applications she received over the course of three weeks, she says only two came close to fulfilling her requirements. "My stores are not a national brand, so I'm looking for people who are more intuitive and engaging and willing to be the face of my company with my customers. So, when I see someone applying and their past experience is something like managing a cell phone store, I know that those skills are very different to what my business needs are."

Whittingham, who has been in business for more than two decades, says that thanks to her years of experience it was fairly easy to hone in on the person she eventually hired. But sorting through all those unqualified job applicants still exacts a toll, explains Susan Hesse, Senior Program Consultant of the entrepreneurship program at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. "When you're running a small business," Hesse notes, "you just don't have enough time in your day to take care of all the normal HR processes, let alone read through a bunch of resumés."


Saving time, money on searches
So, to save your small business both time and money, it's important to look at all the new tools available that can streamline your search process. And when it comes to the first step--placing your small business's job posting--there are more alternatives today than ever before.

Of course, many employers still prefer "old-reliable" platforms like local want ads or postings on big online job boards like craiglist.com, monster.com and careerbuilder.com, but in the past few years, a whole new array of online job placement sites has arrived. First and foremost is your own company's website, of course. But you should also strongly consider posting on social networking spots like LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter as well as sites like realmatch.com, quietagent.com, and jobcrank.com, which promise a more online-dating-type approach to job placement. Instead of just passively accepting resumés and job ads, sites like LinkedIn and RealMatch let employers more narrowly focus who sees their postings using search optimization terms and profile-matching. Some sites even rank matches between job seeker and hirer according to compatibility.

"Sites like Craigslist tend to bring in everything in terms of job applications," explains Whittingham, who used it as well as local periodicals in her search for a store sales manager. "I'll still use it in the future, but I'm trying to better define my search method as I search for my next hire." To find that next hire--a sales manager for her second store, which she only recently opened up--Whittingham says she is pushing her job ad out to professional connections and making use of Facebook for the first time.

This more refined online job search approach--rifle shots rather than shotgun blasts--may pay dividends in both time and money. In one small comparison last December, the cost to find each qualified job applicant using LinkedIn--$18.33--was considerably less than with CareerBuilder--$175.50, even though they both generated roughly the same number of overall responses--39 for the former versus 45 for the latter. (For more on this test, go here: http://www.ere.net/2009/12/02/just-one-look-at-cost-per-resume/.) Online dating sites QuietAgent and RealMatch also can be a more affordable alternative, as the costs nothing for either party--job seekers or employers--to post and get anonymous search results. There is a fee, however, if an employer finds a good match and wants to find a mutually interested candidate's contact information. Still, a basic plan offered by RealMatch--unlimited profile views of one job posting for $195--compares favorably to one posting on CareerBuilder is $419.

New, old ways to interview better
Once your job search has begun to yield responses, you'll want to start winnowing them down. But screening the "maybes" and interviewing strong candidates can often be the most laborious and nerve-wracking part of the process. Fortunately, there are some new and old twists on the process that can both save time and find your small business a better fit in the long run.

An often-overlooked method that still works well in manufacturing or fulfillment center settings is an old-fashioned open house, explains the Kaufmann Foundation's Susan Hesse. When she owned her printing business in the 1990s, Hesse estimates that she used an open house hiring process 75 % of the time when filling entry and mid-level positions. "It enabled us to meet and sort through a lot more people in a very efficient manner," she explains. "But one of the unintended benefits of this process is that I found we ended up hiring great candidates that we would not have normally taken the time to bring in for an interview."

Though Hesse acknowledges that many job candidates were initially skeptical about participating and might be even more so today, she says that it paid greater dividends for both the candidates and the company in the long run. "By introducing the job candidates to our company's values this way and letting them meet so many of our leaders, they got a better sense of the job. And I think we got a better fit in terms of employees in the end," she says, looking back. (For more on how to set up a hiring open house, check out Hesse's guide to the process here: http://www.entrepreneurship.org/open-house-hiring.html.)

Still, a hiring cattle-call won't work for everybody. So, for small business owners seeking a more individualized way to find that employee needle in the haystack but still save time, there are a number of new, tech-based solutions. One increasingly popular method involves the use of automated screening interview tools. A phone-based version of this, called VoiceScreener (voicescreener.com), lets an employer pre-record a few interview questions that job applicants can later answer on their own via phone. The candidates' recorded responses are saved and can then be reviewed by the employer at a time convenient to them. For a more dynamic, multimedia version of this screening platform, small business owners should look into products like InterActive Applicant (interactiveapplicant.com) and HireVue (hirevue.com). (InterActive's website also includes a helpful return-on-investment estimator tool here: https://www.interactiveapplicant.com/Employer/CostSavingsEmployer.aspx.)

Having reached the final interview stage, a small business owner may want to perform his or her due diligence without spending hours making phone calls to check references or overseeing skill and aptitude tests. Fortunately, many companies now specialize in these back office functions as well. HireRight (hireright.com), for example, will provide a detailed background check on a job candidate in less than three days for anywhere from $29 to $59. Other platforms, like Kenexa's ProveIt! website (http://www.proveit.com/) offer thousands of skills tests to verify your job candidates purported technical or sales acumen.

Tony Castle, owner of the Wall-Street-based customer resource and consulting firm Castle CRM, says his company has used online skills testing for the past five years. Adding the skills test at the end of the second stage of his company's three-pronged hiring process has been very helpful, Castle says, and he plans to use it again as he begins to ramp up for new hiring in June. "We've weeded out a couple of people we thought were home runs," he explains. "They were talking the talk, but they couldn't walk the walk."