Tech Companies Face a Fresh Crisis: Hiring

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Main News Photo

(New York Times)

On some of her very long days, and most of her workdays of late are very long, Tiffany Dyba, a 39-year-old recruiter in New York, recalls with a little nostalgia a hiring job she once held at a luxury-fashion designer.

Back then, people were so eager to get her their résumés that a young woman once looked up Dyba’s photo on LinkedIn and then waited outside her office on Madison Avenue to intercept her on her way into work. On another occasion, Dyba, making conversation with a possible hire, mentioned that she had a fondness for toffee — and the next day, toffee, beautifully wrapped, appeared in her office. Back then, the people she was hiring were hungry, they were eager. There were flowers. Carefully crafted thank-you notes. Those were things a recruiter might not expect but might occasionally enjoy. A recruiter felt wanted.

But Dyba eventually struck out to work for herself, and then the world changed. A virus flourished, and office buildings emptied, with their tenants uploading their systems to the ether; the cloud filled and then it filled some more, and with that massive digital shift, Dyba found herself, a person who majored in psychology, who could be intimidated briefly by the “merge calls” function on her iPhone, working in a field so hot that it is sucking more and more people like her into its ever-expanding vortex: technology recruiting.

Recruiters working in technology these days do not receive candy, flowers or thank-yous. The recruiter is lucky if she can get someone on the phone — if she receives so much as an email in response. Technology workers need court no one: Along with microchips, toilet paper and Covid tests, tech workers will be recalled as one of the great, pressing shortages of this pandemic. Estimates of the unemployment rates for tech workers are about 1.7 percent, compared with roughly 4 percent in the general economy; for those with expertise in cybersecurity, it’s more like 0.2 percent. Tech employees today tire of the attention from recruiters, the friendly hellos on LinkedIn, the cold calls (which Dyba does not make). “They think we’re like used-car salesmen,” Dyba said of her quarry. To be a recruiter in tech is to be an in-demand commodity for those companies doing the hiring but to feel like something of a nuisance — like an essential gear that emits a loud, irritating noise.

In late January, Dyba, working on contract with a tech company on the West Coast, sent out a mass blast on LinkedIn, tailored to reach data analysts, which is to say free of the kind of friendly, conversational fillips she might otherwise include (“Your LinkedIn profile looks amazing” and “I hope this finds you well!”). Data analysts — really, they just want the data. “Hi [name],” Dyba wrote in the message. “We’re looking for a talented Data Analyst to analyze huge data sets, build predictive models, and help us drive growth. I thought you could be a great fit.” The job she posted listed its selling points — the business had 400 percent growth a year, the backing of a legendary venture capitalist, no limit to personal vacation days, full coverage of employee health-care premiums and the option to work remote or locally.

Dyba estimates that she sent the listing to about 75 prospective hires and received back maybe five responses, three of which were either a brief “no thanks” or the simple declination of her InMail message. A declination — that’s LinkedIn language for “Please, stop throwing all these jobs at me with employer-paid health-insurance premiums and unlimited vacation time.”

Recruiters are in such demand that they, too, are scarce, which means their fees have never been higher. In-house tech-recruiter salaries are up about 30 percent, estimates Daniel Wert, who works at a boutique executive-search firm in the design community. Organizations looking for help in cloud and cybersecurity positions have increased fees they are offering to recruiting services to as high as 45 percent of the first year’s salary, says Ryan Sutton, a district president in charge of technology recruiting for the staffing firm Robert Half. Dyba says she has more work than she has had since she started freelance-recruiting in 2018.

Dyba’s challenges — most tech recruiters’ challenges — go beyond simply finding humans. As the people talking to potential hires, recruiters have a big-picture view of just how quickly the market is currently moving, something they need to translate to hiring managers without giving the impression they’re doing a hard sell. Dyba recently wrote to an executive who was hesitating to make an offer on a hire who was slipping away, texting a kind of recruiter haiku:

we need to move
if we are gonna move
just thought I would tell you

Recruiters are often in the position of breaking the bad news that a desired candidate has flat-out rejected an offer, often to executives used to having the upper hand in the market or to founders convinced their business is more innovative than Apple and with better snacks than Facebook.

Jana Rich, founder and chief executive of Rich Talent Group, a firm that primarily recruits executives to companies in the tech and consumer industries, says that even at the highest levels of hiring, she has never seen a market like this in 30 years. It falls on her, sometimes, to have what she calls “the truth talk” with a chief executive or board member: to break the news that qualified candidates have multiple — or sometimes preferable — opportunities. Now, she gently explains, an employer might have to think about taking a leap of faith on someone very talented but slightly less experienced. It doesn’t always go well. Following a recent truth talk, she said, the company put the search on pause, making it clear that “basically, ‘We, the company, don’t necessarily believe you,’” she said. “Like, ‘We think we can do better.’”

Pent-up demand after those early pandemic months when no one was hiring is part of the problem, Rich says. And a general feeling of pandemic malaise can help explain the shortage of potential hires — every so often, she reaches out to someone with a top-level job, only to hear, as she put it, “I don’t know if I have the energy in the tank.”

Highly skilled tech workers, for the most part, are not leaving the workplace — the money right now is simply too good (salaries have risen in some cities by as much as 10 percent). They are, however, leaving the workspace, in droves, to work remotely, which is another aspect of the new world of work that recruiters need to communicate to founders and chief executives, some of whom are intent on getting the office back to what it once was.

“If you are not going to offer remote work, if you’re not going to offer at least hybrid, we can’t help you,” Sutton says he tells clients trying to hire software designers. Tatiana Becker, the founder of NIAH Recruiting, was called in to help another recruiter from a different firm, who had already contacted every local potential candidate to fill a chief-of-staff position at an online retailer that hoped to have its employees in the office full time. After Becker told her colleague that the employer was going to have to drop one of the three requirements to fill the position — ideally, the one that called for regular on-site work in New York — the client wrote her a snippy email making it clear that Becker’s help was no longer wanted: “Unfortunately the recommendation you made to drop one or two of our requirements,” the client wrote, “was frankly completely inappropriate.”

When working with one employer in a city that is not known as a tech hub, Dyba felt that she had to chip away, carefully, at the company’s insistence for on-site workers; one position had been open for six months. Dyba started showing the hiring manager the credentials for someone she’d found, but omitted a crucial detail. If the employer was interested, then and only then did she reveal that the talent was based in Florida or Boston. “I had to kind of say, ‘Listen, it’s costing more money right now for us to keep this job open than it would be for you to send someone a laptop and coach your leadership team differently about how to manage remotely,’” she said. She believes the hiring manager raised the issue with the chief executive; slowly, someone with decision-making power came around, and Dyba was able to start filling positions. When the pandemic ebbs and local workers are back in that office, 15 to 20 percent of its work force will be remote. The market rather than Dyba changed the company’s workplace culture — a market of empowered technology workers who could pick and choose their employers, who could take or leave any job they wanted and were forcing a shift.

Dyba hit a low back in October, when after working for months to land a signed offer for a qualified candidate for one company, she then lost that hire when the candidate’s current employer swooped in with a generous, last-minute retention bonus. She had a signed offer! That had never happened to her before. Now she counts on nothing: “I don’t stop interviewing until I have a butt in the seat — like I am aggressively still looking for candidates even after we have a signed offer.”

Category: Technology, Workforce Development, Remote Work