Scoping Out the Talent

It's a buyer's market, but making smart hires remains far from easy.

David Bronson is ready to pounce. Other companies may be laying off workers by the hundreds or even thousands, sending the U.S. unemployment rate to its highest level in nearly two decades, but at PSS World Medical, a $2 billion medical equipment distributor and services provider, the door is open to new hires — if they can make the grade.

“We see an opportunity in this economic climate to improve our bench and upgrade our talent,” says CFO Bronson. “Not only in finance, but across the board.”

It certainly helps that PSS is growing twice as fast as the markets it serves, but even companies in less-rosy business sectors can take heart from one aspect of the current downturn: it’s a buyer’s market for talent. For the past five years, finance, in particular, has been hard-pressed to find all the qualified people it needs, ever since the Sarbanes-Oxley Act stoked demand for anyone who could lay even modest claim to accounting or auditing expertise. Salaries have risen and job candidates have been firmly in control, with prospective employers wining and dining them as if they were star athletes or Hollywood’s flavor of the month.

Now, with the unemployment rate surpassing 7 percent and expected to rise through the rest of the year, the pendulum has swung hard in the other direction. The dilemma, of course, is that the very economic forces that have made so many job candidates available would seem likely to impede most companies from hiring them.

But even companies conducting their own sizable layoffs should keep an eye out for potential new hires, many experts say. “Sometimes the back door is open for people to enter, even as others are being pushed out the front door,” says Dan Kilgore, a principal at human-resources consulting firm Riviera Advisors.

Or at least, Kilgore says, it should be. “The decade-long war for talent won’t be affected a bit by this momentary economic blip,” he says. While this description of the economy might seem overly — perhaps even wildly — optimistic, Kilgore’s contention that companies should “opportunistically maximize this misfortune” is worth considering. “The term ‘right-sizing’ has been a euphemism for ‘layoffs’ for years,” he says. “But when originally coined in the 1980s it described something useful: a combination of layoffs and hiring that allows you to reshape your workforce to meet current and future conditions.”

J. D. Sherman, CFO of Akamai Technologies, an Internet managed-services provider, agrees that the time is right for executives to reevaluate their talent rosters. Akamai took a $4 million restructuring charge in the fourth quarter of 2008, laying off 110 workers, or about 7 percent of its workforce. But the move was less about hoarding cash simply to survive and more about “determining which areas need to grow and which need to shrink” as the company’s strategy evolves, Sherman says. Last month the company was looking to fill more than 75 positions.

Barry Salzberg, CEO of Deloitte, says his company has no plans to change its recent course, which includes aggressive recruitment and training and an emphasis on “mass career customization,” or allowing employees to shape their careers in ways that match their individual aspirations. “I’ve heard that in the current economy companies are putting the talent agenda on the back burner,” he says, “and I can understand why. But I think it will continue to be difficult to find finance talent.” One factor at work, he says, is an anticipated decline in the number of accounting majors.

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