Case Study: Paul’s Attempt to Find the Scarce

Sep 18, 2008

It was the beginning of autumn in New England, and the leaves were turning orange, yellow, and red. It was a glorious afternoon, but Paul scarcely noticed. He was stuck.

His company, ABC, needed some very specialized people and he couldn’t find them. For over two years, Paul had tried to fill some very specialized and always open positions by using Internet search and revamping the career site. He had even put his reputation on the line a few months back when he insisted that a central sourcing team would solve the perpetual lack of qualified candidates.

He had just finished a tough meeting with his sourcing team trying to figure out why there were no candidates in their talent pool. He had been certain that there would be several potential people from that pool; when the hiring managers had told him about their openings, he had assured them it wouldn’t take very long.

After all, the team had known about the competencies these positions required for months. Now it looked bleak.

What had gone wrong?

When he took his current position, he was aware that finding the highly specialized robotic engineers and technicians the firm needed was his number-one challenge.

Even though the organization was located in the heart of the academic world, with major research schools and labs everywhere, these robotics people remained a scare commodity and the few that he did find were happier remaining in academia.

He had worked with compensation to sweeten the incentives and he had spent time with a big-name advertising agency honing the recruiting messages and redoing the career site. They had won awards and been written about in ERE and in recruiting blogs. Paul had been given several awards. But he was failing.

The company was quite unique. It developed robots that mimicked the human hand. These mechanical hands were incredible. They could pick up an egg without breaking it and yet they could slice through a piece of steel like scissors through paper. They could manipulate, sew, pick up tiny parts, and insert them into circuit boards and they could perform some types of surgery, with assistance from a human doctor.

The demand was growing rapidly, yet the supply of people to design, improve, and manufacture them remained small. Not many schools turned out robotics engineers and not many students choose that as a career.

The engineering team had also placed tight competency requirements on candidates. Every candidate had to have degrees in at least two related disciplines, such as mechanical and electrical engineering, or computer science and mechanical engineering. Or, they had to have 5 or more years of experience and a single degree.

Hiring managers wanted prior experience in robotics, if possible, or experience in manufacturing or designing miniature components or nanotechnology. They wanted engineers capable of demonstrating these products to a global customer base. And each robot had to be installed and “tuned” for each customer, which frequently required foreign travel for a long period of time.

Even though Paul had pushed back on these tough requirements, he had not been able to change their opinions. And his sourcing team couldn’t find the right people.

So here he sat on a lovely afternoon, befuddled and at a loss. Should he quit? Did he admit defeat? Was there a way out? What strategies or tactics could he apply to this situation that might rescue him, and the organization?

I am hoping you can help Paul. What are your ideas and suggestions? I will summarize them and add my thoughts in a future column.

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