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Finance chiefs are learning that job cuts and growth are, at some point, incompatible.

Finance chiefs, too, offer mixed views on the employment situation. More than half of CFOs report their workforces are smaller today than in mid-2008, and many are still unsure when they will be able to improve on those numbers.

One controller at a small biotechnology firm says management thought the business would come out of the recession relatively unscathed, but the company had an unexpectedly disappointing 2010. While there were no layoffs during the recession, management had to delay some planned hiring during the past year. “We didn’t experience the growth we thought we would,” says the controller. “We expected to increase our R&D budget last year and we just didn’t.”

The company’s clients, which include research labs and hospitals, faced budget constraints of their own last year and cut back on the testing supplies they buy. Now, “we are being conservative in our forecasts.” Still, the company will probably hire “a couple” of full-time employees this year, the controller says.

At Gibraltar Construction Group, a real estate development firm in Clearwater, Florida, CFO Kathleen Wolf describes the business as “still in survival mode.” She does not expect to hire this year, and is focusing instead on cross-training existing employees to keep them busy, fill any staffing holes, and help retain her best people.

As one example, the company expanded an estimator’s job duties from merely calculating the cost of future projects to a more comprehensive budgeting-and-planning role. Wolf has also charged some of the marketing staff with rethinking stalled projects and developing plans for alternative uses for the land or buildings in question. In one case, the company built a hotel in downtown Tampa on a parcel that was originally slated for condominiums.

Wolf says Gibraltar needs a number of projects to move forward before she can begin to think about hiring. In that regard she is far from alone: 66% of her peers say increasing revenue will play the greatest role in determining whether and when their companies will add workers.

But she also says her perspective on hiring has changed permanently since the financial crisis and recession. “What you look for in somebody is definitely different,” she says. “And the amount of automation and virtualization we are using has decreased the need for human capital.”

In other words, companies have figured out how to do more with less — forever, in some cases.

Still, despite their hard-won increases in efficiency, as finance chiefs and their fellow executives once again point their companies toward growth, many are acknowledging that they have finally reached the limit of what they can do with existing staff.

Kate O’Sullivan is a deputy editor at CFO.

A large % of CFOs will add staff in 2011; and they are restoring some compensation and benefits.

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