How small businesses can compete in a hectic job market

Businesses of all sizes struggle to find workers these days – but the search can be especially difficult for small businesses, which must find ways to stand out from the larger competitors.

Some young players have found clever tactics to help them succeed in this challenging environment. They attract and retain talent by taking advantage of advantages that large companies do not have, and offer attractive temptations that large companies cannot necessarily match. Here is a look at some of these strategies.

Use searchable job titles

In many small businesses, employees wear a lot of hats, so they often have more flexibility when it comes to creating addresses. But what you call a role – at least external – can affect your ability to attract candidates.

When Company Folders Inc. wanted , a commercial printing operation in Pontiac, Michigan, attracted more interest on Indeed.com, the job search site advised the company to modify titles in its job listings. For example, the company has begun to use the easy-to-understand title “sales manager” instead of “account manager,” which is the company’s internal name for this role. Likewise, the company has adopted a “customer service representative” and has dropped a “printing project manager,” says Vladimir Gendelman, the company’s founder and CEO.

Another tactic Used by Company Folders is to create multiple posts for the same job, with each description tailored to a specific target audience. For example, when hiring for a customer service position that combines sales, graphic design, and print production, the company publishes three job descriptions, one for each aspect of the job. That way, the company can attract a larger group of people — who can see themselves in one of those areas but not necessarily all of them, says Mr. Gendelman.

Emphasize the culture

Small businesses often find it difficult to compete for salary. But they may have other ways to get into candidates’ radar screens and keep them happy.

One way is to emphasize the company’s culture during the hiring process. Small companies often have an advantage over larger companies in the field: thanks to their size, they are much easier to foster a unified and welcoming culture that larger competitors can find difficult to match.

Says Carissa Reiniger, CEO and founder of Silver Lining Ltd. Small business consulting firm.

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For example, small businesses have to remain competitive on salary and benefits, but they don’t necessarily have to offer the highest bids to attract talent, says Mr. Gendelman. When job seekers are sold on the company, job, and potential, they are often willing to accept slightly lower salaries, he says. “You’re not going to get $50,000 instead of $100,000, but you’ll take $85,000 instead of $100,000 for the right job, especially if you think there’s a high in movement,” he says.

In December of 2020, Mobile Outfitters, a Philadelphia-based manufacturer of custom phone accessories, found that competition for workers was particularly fierce. Dennis O’Donnell, co-founder of the company, says the company raised the pay it was offering by about 20%, but that didn’t increase the number of applicants. Even when Mobile Outfitters finally found employees, the employees left within three to six months. All of them left to work in higher paying jobs.

The lesson Mr. O’Donnell learned was to make working at Mobile Outfitters more about the company’s culture – a supportive and challenging work environment. For example, a company employs workers in several different states, countries, and time zones, and they are allowed to perform their jobs remotely. The company also requires its workers to set their own 90-day goals and not get into the details to ensure those goals are met, Mr. O’Donnell says.

The company still lists salary in its job description, but the opening line of each post mentions that company culture is the number one reason people choose Mobile Outfitters.

“If someone chooses between us and another company and says, ‘I really liked your culture, but the other company offers 10% more,’ our answer is simple: ‘Go with the other company,'” he says. That aspect, we can really differentiate ourselves, deliver on our promises, and end up with really happy employees—and happy employees never leave.”

Refine the interview process

Small businesses can also be smarter than big competitors at interviewing candidates – because they usually don’t have the established routines and techniques to handle the task.

Mobile Outfitters, for example, has reorganized the interview process to make it more welcoming to candidates. During the initial phone screen, the company started by explicitly telling the candidates what the process would be like and what topics would be discussed. Company representatives also tried to make interviews a more collaborative process — candidates had space to ask questions about the job — and offered potential employees flexibility in scheduling talks in evenings or weekends.

It’s a big change from what they used to do. Back in 2019, when the company was accepting hundreds of applicants, it had candidates jump through many hoops on the same application, culminating in an interview process lasting 6 hours or more for candidates who made it this far, Mr. O’Donnell says. He says the company lost out on many good candidates because a welcoming culture was not present in the interview process.

Once the hiring crunch began in 2021, the same job posting got nearly zero applicants, so the company changed its approach to make it friendlier. Now the number of applicants is about a quarter or a sixth of what it was originally, Mr. O’Donnell says – but candidates in general are of higher quality.

“We still reject 95% of applicants, but the difference is that 95% are satisfied with the process, and 5% who want to join liked the interview process, so they trust our culture will be equally welcome,” he says.

Move quickly

When small businesses have an applicant they love, it is critical for them to take advantage of their ability to make quick decisions. Therefore, companies should reduce the steps involved in moving people from candidate to employee — because the slow process creates space for other companies to snap up that person, says Andrew Whitford, co-founder of Removify, an Australian company that provides reputation monitoring and management services.

A critical component of expedited hiring is communicating the company’s interest to a candidate early. “Keeping them in the dark means they may take something safer that was offered earlier, while they may be more willing to wait if they realize your interest is strong,” says Mr Whitford.

Don’t be shy, he advises – tell the candidate directly that the level of interest is high; Ask questions about possible start dates and reconfirm the candidate’s level of interest in the job. The trick is to make an offer quickly without sacrificing a thorough screening process or making the candidate feel like things are rushing. One way the company manages expectations is by telling each candidate early on that they like to move quickly on everything, including hiring.

Likewise, it is important to clearly communicate the schedule. For example, “We will contact you again next week to discuss next steps” is too vague and creates uncertainty; While the phrase “we will bid for this role on Tuesday” is much clearer and allows candidates to know all of their options and their timing, says Mr Whitford.

Consider more recruitment for beginners

Given how difficult it can be to find candidates, small businesses may want to consider shifting their focus, considering interns and entry-level candidates who can grow into different roles.

AOA DX Inc. , a women’s health biotech startup, has five paid interns per semester, which is more than the company’s full-time employees, says CEO and co-founder Oriana Babin-Zogby. The company is looking for interns who are flexible and open to supporting all different areas of work.

Young interns, of course, often require more hands-on management initially, since they learn on the job and often get their first experience working in the industry, she said. AOA often recruits interns who seem to learn fast, based on the interview process and their resumes.

“We spend a little more time training up front and getting them familiar with the pace, but for the most part, they are working independently in a few weeks, and the time invested in training them is worth the quality of their work,” he says.

Ms. Winokur Monk is a staff writer in West Orange, NJ and can be contacted at report@wsj.com.

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