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Anyone who’s had an opening or two recently has probably seen hundreds of resumes.  More than a few from folks who have enough experience to run the place.  And we certainly can’t complain about salary needs: recruits are demanding much less than they were several years ago.

So what’s the problem?

There’s a funny thing about our 10%+ unemployment economy:  it hasn’t gotten that much easier to find great employees.

If you’ve been in business for a while, you know that hiring now is tricky for two reasons.  First, most of the overqualified applicants aren’t going to stick around when the job market turns this year or next.  And second, the true cost of labor includes 1) the training that goes into replacing them and 2) the lost productivity that comes from having unfilled positions and/or a less-than-perfect fit.  When you consider these costs, our current ability to pick through the low-hanging fruit isn’t as compelling as it seems.

Your Next Great Employee Is A Passive Job Seeker

The employee that you want to hire in a down economy should be the same one you’d look for in better times. Someone who will love the work and your work environment.  Someone who has the skill and experience to contribute quickly.  Someone you can reasonably expect to stay with you, and grow as you grow.

The problem is this person already has a job.  For starters, this person was much less likely than the rest to get laid off in the first place.  And even if he or she did get pink-slipped, a great employee tends to make it back into the workforce quicker than most.  So the person that we’d all love to hire is probably at work this very minute.

This person is what HR professionals call the “passive job seeker” (PJS).  PJS’s are typically under-employed – people who are not achieving as much, earning as much, or growing as much as they could.  PJS’s are often perfectly happy in their current job, but would move to a new company if they felt that there was higher growth potential or greater potential satisfaction from the work itself.

PJS’s are notoriously hard to recruit through employment web sites and newspaper/print ads.  It isn’t just the fact that the PJS’s don’t seek and use these sites, it’s that in the odd chance that they do, they’re much less likely to act when they see something interesting.  They’re also less likely to post blind resumes online (having run a national employment website, I know this first-hand).  In the end, the job application process is simply an unpleasant experience for everyone involved.  It takes some serious motivation or persuasion - an inside tip, some encouragement or reinforcement, or else a really compelling reward, to get the PJS to take the next step.

How To Reach Passive Job Seekers

This is why most HR pros encourage their employees to recruit for them via word of mouth.  It’s why firms pay referral fees to meet the next great employee.  It’s the first strategy that smart businesses should use to meet an important hiring need.

But referrals have their limits – even in the era of Facebook and LinkedIn — particularly when the position requires specific skills and there’s no relocation package involved.

There’s another alternative that most HR managers or business owners should consider:  advertising.  And on this topic I speak with recent experience.

After losing a great employee to a marriage & cross-country move, I spent most of the last three months trying find a mid-level web designer with a rare combination of classic graphic arts training, experience with user interface design, and a proven ability to work with CSS, Flash & video.  I used Craig’s, the larger (and quite expensive job boards), design school sites, and a couple of specialty sites for creatives.  I received over a hundred cv’s and portfolios, and met a lot of great candidates. But most of them were too senior and I knew they wouldn’t stick around for long.  Others lacked at least one of my specific requirements.  Three months wasted!

So I advertised.  Last week I purchased a modest radio schedule on the local alternative rock station.  My ads described the employee that I was looking for, the environment that they’d work in, the specific things that they’d be working on. Knowing the station’s audience, their production department gave the spot some attitude and I have to say it was a very persuasive message (listen).  It made my position sound inspiring.

It Worked!

As I sit here today, I have 8 great candidates to interview (and I didn’t get flooded with a lot of random and unqualified applicants like I had posting online).  The right skills, the right experience, and the right comp expectations.  In one week! They’re all currently employed.  They were Passive Job Seekers.  My ad persuaded them to take the leap. There’s no doubt in my mind that one of these eight will be enhancing this site sometime soon.

You may not be hiring today, but you probably will sometime in the near future.   If you can’t get what you need through referrals, try something that your peers and competitors haven’t; advertise to get your next great employee.