UCAR > Communications > Staff Notes > November 1999 Search

November 1999

Where are the applicants? Our new strategy for bringing them in

It's the early nineties. The Denver economy is slowly recovering from an oil bust, but jobs remain scarce. UCAR and NCAR are expanding, though--and they're inundated with job seekers. Many positions are sought by 200 or more people.

Fast forward to the summer of 1998. Finance and Administration opens a challenging and well-paying position in software engineering. After two searches, F&A makes an offer. The candidate accepts--then changes his mind after a house-hunting trip to Boulder. "We went back to the drawing board around Christmas," recalls Steve Hinson, who chaired the search as head of F&A's Applications and Development group. It was only this past September that the final choice came on board--more than a year after the job was first posted.

What's going on here? One job does not a trend make, but "what we know, both anecdotally and statistically, is that there have been big changes in the employment picture at UCAR," says Terry Woods (Human Resources). In short, fewer applicants are approaching us, and positions are taking longer to fill. Aaron Andersen, who manages infrastructure support for SCD, agrees. "Positions that would get 20 applicants even a year ago, I'm now getting 5 or 6."

What's different?

Those who follow our job listings will notice these developments:

  • Each application remains active for three months. Once a candidate has been chosen, remaining applicants be included in the pool for all other positions in the three-month window.

  • Supervisors have more flexibility in deciding how long a job will be posted.

  • HR has launched a new Web page. It will include the weekly job listings that are now part of This Week at UCAR, along with daily changes and additions to the job queue.

  • Job advertisements are getting shorter, a trend that began last year. Nancy writes the descriptions for these ads in tandem with hiring supervisors. Her goal is to "capture the essence of the duties and a few required skills," rather than listing chapter and verse and perhaps scaring off potential applicants.

  • Salary ranges will no longer be posted in external ads. "It's proprietary data," says Terry. "We're just giving away information to the competition." Per UCAR policy, salaries for posted positions will continue to be available to current staff through an internal-only link on the Web page.

  • It's not as if jobs are going begging. Usually, there are many eager people to choose from. In some categories, the raw number of applicants hasn't changed dramatically in the past two years. But the superheated economy, especially the white-hot information technology (IT) sector, is gradually siphoning off talent. The fear is that more and more of the top-notch candidates we're accustomed to getting are going elsewhere (down U.S. 36, for instance). "The competitive nature of the workplace is anteing up," says Steve. "I don't believe our overall prestige has diminished. It's just diluted in a more successful economy and a more competitive environment for IT."

    This month, HR is launching an effort to streamline the employment process and reach out to potential applicants in new ways. HR is basing the effort on the premise--backed up by comparisons with similar institutions--that UCAR is still a very desirable place to work. We can't offer stock options, but our basic benefits remain competitive. In some areas, such as retirement, UCAR is clearly ahead of the pack.

    Stock options vs. satisfaction

    Terry has been working with HR's Nancy Norris and Jenny Maggert on our new recruitment strategy. Part of it is to advertise the perks of life at UCAR that aren't tied to money. For instance, a new campaign (see photos) that began in local newspapers on 17 October emphasizes the excitement of working with weather and climate. It's the first time UCAR has run ads not tied to a specific position but intended to stir up more general interest in working here.

    "For many high-tech workers, it's not just about the job you're doing. It's about the excitement and the growth," says Terry. Nancy adds, "I've heard the comment from people who apply for support positions that they want to work with intelligent people who are learning and growing."

    Advertising now goes well beyond a notice on our Web site and a classified ad or two. HR's advertising budget runs about $155,000 per year. That figure has held steady in recent years, as job descriptions have been condensed (see below) and advertising venues are chosen more specifically for each job. "We are targeting our audience much more carefully," says Terry.

    Local newspaper ads are still important in filling many jobs where there's no budget for bringing in out-of-towners. Increasingly, though, HR is turning to Web advertising to increase the bang-to-buck ratio for high-tech positions. UCAR has recently sought software engineers using Monster.com and hpc.wire. Such ads are placed through Webhire, an agency that also tracks which online ad brought a particular candidate to UCAR.

    Top jobs

    Below are the job categories that employ the greatest numbers at UCAR/NCAR/UOP. (Data courtesy HR.)

    Software engineer 164
    Administrative assistant 103
    Associate scientist 103
    Visitor 82
    Scientist 77
    Postdoctoral fellows 54
    Project scientist 53
    Student assistant 47
    Divison/program administrator 42
    Systems administrator 38

    Keeping the pool fresh

    Until this year, applicants for any UCAR job had to separately reapply (on paper or through e-mail) for another position. Now people can apply through the HR Web site, and all applications are kept in an electronic queue for three months. "The system of applying for one job, then reapplying, is not the industry standard and not the way people are used to applying these days," says Terry. She adds, "We're working hard to have a pool of qualified applicants on hand, especially for those jobs where there's a lot of movement in the market"--mainly software engineers, systems administrators, administrative assistants, and student assistants.

    With the sheer number of student assistants employed at UCAR (see table), the hiring process can eat up big chunks of time. Getting an assistant to stay more than a semester or two can make the difference between frustration and satisfaction for both parties.

    HR goes to almost a dozen job fairs each year, largely at universities. These have proven to be fruitful sources of students. The fairs also give HR a chance to explain in person that our specialized work calls for students who can stick with us for more than a few months. "We now have a really good pool of about 85 student-assistant applicants," says Nancy. Having such a pool is "a lot easier for us and more responsive for them. We don't have to go fishing, and the students don't have to keep reapplying." More than half of the current student pool are computing majors.

    "We're having to do a lot more legwork," says Aaron. He and Lana Soller accompanied HR to recruit students at a recent CU job fair. "You can't just throw an ad out there and wait for the résumés to come in."

    Nancy Norris, Jenny Maggert, and Terry Woods of HR. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

    More jobs, fewer applicants

    According to statistics recently compiled by Money magazine, the unemployment rate in the Boulder area is running around 2.6%, compared to 4.04% nationwide.

    Big-money competition

    HR is also working to make the hiring process easier for supervisors. Training sessions in October helped acquaint them with the new procedures. One example: there are fewer deadline-driven activities. For instance, Request for Staff forms may now be submitted to HR at any point, rather than on the former deadline of noon Monday, and HR can now post jobs on any day of the week. Another example: Some jobs may be posted on the Web site for as short a time as five business days instead of the standard two weeks.

    HR is well aware that we face stiff competition these days, especially for bright college graduates. At a recent job fair, Nancy learned about a former NCAR student assistant from CU who wrote a piece of software and approached a company based in Washington, D.C. The firm offered to hire the student sight unseen for a six-figure salary. In SCD, Aaron recently experienced a modest version of bidding for talent to fill a recent student assistant opening. "We made what I thought was a significant offer to one of my top candidates. He took another job that paid almost four dollars an hour more. These are some of the things we're facing."

    Terry doesn't see any magic formula we can use to compete with such tactics. "We'll just have to evaluate things and see what works. We all want the best and the brightest. If we're not aggressive, they'll go somewhere else."

    Bob Henson

    Inside the high-tech crunch

    Scott Swerdlin (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

    Software engineer Scott Swerdlin has been involved in a number of hiring decisions in the Research Applications Program over the past several years. Below are his thoughts on the recruiting challenges NCAR faces.

    Only a few years ago the norm at NCAR was to have a large pile of résumés representing highly qualified candidates who were more than willing to take a medium-to-large pay cut to work in a challenging scientific environment. As a software professional at NCAR, you probably have more latitude in making design and implementation decisions than you would in a commercial or aerospace environment. In the commercial world you are often faced with high-pressure deadlines and imminent layoff in the event that the product doesn't sell or the $100 million contract is awarded to another company.

    When I worked at Martin Marietta in the early nineties, I saw the workforce in the main plant drop from 16,000 to 9,000 in three years. This was in contrast to the early eighties, when merely graduating with an engineering degree guaranteed you a high-paying job. In some respects, we have returned to the eighties market. Telecommunications is now pushing the demand rather than the military, but the effect is similar: the demand for computer expertise is on the rise.

    Industry is willing to offer large rewards to their employees in exchange for an edge in the race for bandwidth and software market share. Beyond what NCAR can offer, these companies offer stock options, company cars, and high salaries. In an attempt to remain somewhat competitive, we are very quick to point out our quality-of-life benefits to prospective employees: the flexible and casual work environment and the opportunity to participate in exciting projects that can lead to life-saving technologies. And, of course, we do offer a superior retirement plan.

    Over the past 6 to 12 months, I have noticed a distinct shift in the attitudes of our interviewees, clearly reflecting a job-seeker's market. They often bring fewer credentials and less experience to the table and ask for large salaries without hesitation or embarrassment. The net effect is that we are forced to bring in new employees at a higher salary than originally intended. This creates a compression effect, where someone with 2 years of experience in industry may start working at NCAR at a salary that is within 15% of what a 15-year veteran programmer makes. This can naturally have an unsettling effect on the core staff.

    Many people in RAP are now experiencing demands and pressures not unlike what exists in the "outside world," perhaps as a result of greater competition for more limited government science funding. I don't know what the answer is, but I think we have to pay attention to this and try to imagine some creative solutions to make NCAR more attractive to the more talented individuals out there. •Scott Swerdlin

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    Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
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