Attention companies: this post's for you. In September, The Conference Board predicted that salary increases for 2010 would only be 3% (lowest in 25 years). In Canada, increases are projected to be only 2.8%. Unemployment hit an all-time high in October. But manufacturers and retailers are predicting turnarounds in 2010, and that means jobs won't be far behind. What does that mean for talent? It means it's time to strategize and time to connect. It's not just social networking, it's a conversation. Your candidates want to talk. I did a survey recently of job seekers to see how their habits have changed over the past year.  Now the recession certainly has been going longer than that, but 12 months of change will tell you a great deal about the habits of job seekers. I had planned to cull a list of top trends for companies to pay attention to in preparing their talent strategies for 2010, but there's truly only one thing to keep in mind about your job seekers: They're online. And they're looking for you. Not your company, but you.

When it comes to talent and recruiting, being reactive is the worst possible strategy. After all, when the economy does turn, all of the great talent in the market will diminish quickly, and unprepared companies will be left scrambling. In order to be proactive, it is important to see what's changed since the economy turned. And for 2010, it's all about the connections.

In the past ten years since job boards have grown to be a job search staple, job seekers are increasingly using online strategies more and more in their searches. What's different though, is how they're using their online time--to connect. And as we begin to close out 2009, the increase in connections, means companies must rethink they way they interact with their job seekers.

In the down economy, job seekers were inundated with advice to network: "tell everyone you know you're looking for a job." Dozens of career experts included networking and the use of social media in their tips.  Business Week even started a Recession Job Search online information exchange.  Job seekers are increasingly going one-on-one to get what they need--from career advice to open positions.

In my survey, when asked where they're getting their advice, online experts is overwhelmingly the top answer. But when the same respondents were asked what they wanted online experts to do better (open ended question), the common response centered on individuality. It's not that job seekers are high-maintenance and need alot of attention. But web 2.0 means that more online users have the ability to learn from each other. And knowing it's possible means that they want it. From career experts and from companies.

"I want more personalized help. Following general advice is one thing, but when that advice doesn't work - what next?," said one respondent.  Simply put, another replied "candor." Others wanted help on talking to companies directly, complaining they never hear back from employers, and that they can't find one person to talk to.

The emerging trend is direct contact. When career experts are telling job seekers to seek out connections through expanding networks and social media, job seekers are taking that advice seriously. They're finding out names of recruiters and calling and emailing them in record numbers.  Several recruiters I spoke to indicate that job seekers are no longer just waiting to hear. They want to talk, they want to know. Now.

But companies haven't yet been able to fully answer that trend. While there are more than 50 companies recruiting on Twitter, and dozens more with freshly minted Facebook pages, job seekers continue to get frustrated that these efforts are more information sharing, than they are networking.

"I wish people who list themselves on job sites/social networking sites would also list their phone number so I could just call them and ask them directly if they are hiring or their company is hiring" says one job seeker.  And it's a common sentiment.  In the almost two years since the recession started, job seekers have become increasingly aware that sending their resume into a black hole is highly unlikely to result in a job.

In fact, when asked what advice they need most, survey respondents consistently asked for help in making direct connections. They can find the people. But they just can't get to them.

"Most people I email don't ever respond at all for any reason or when they do, it's weeks later and there isn't a job opening at their company. It's nice to find people's names and job titles but what good is that information if you can't [reach] them [directly]?"

Seems fair, especially when 44% of job-seeking respondents say the primary reason they use social media is to connect with people they wouldn't find otherwise. It isn't that easy of course. The economy means that companies haven't had as many recruiting resources, or resources to put into social networking or other sourcing strategies to more personally connect with candidates. But we're looking forward, toward 2010. And companies that want to be able to compete when the economy turns better have resources in place to connect.

How can companies plan to address this trend as the economy rebounds? Prepare to connect.

Start with online connection strategies. If you're going to use social networking, then you have to actually network and talk to the people who want to talk to you. If you're only posting jobs on Twitter, then it's not much of a network, is it? Use social networking to actually network.

  • Join the conversation on your company's Facebook wall. Don't overmanage, but join.
  • Put names behind those company logos online. Make sure people know who they're talking to.
  • Reply to your "@ replies" on Twitter. Engage candidates!
  • Host chats to easily answer candidate questions.
  • If you don't have the resources to engage effectively on social networks, then don't tout them.

And for those busy recruiters who can't answer email and phone? Or those candidates who aren't online?

  • Customize voicemail messages so candidates expectations are set.
  • Use out of office tools daily to manage expectations on email as to when candidates will hear back (if at all)
  • Be clear in job postings and on your careers site, how and when candidates will hear back and where they should go to find the answers they need.
  • Use employees outside of recruiting and HR to answer questions. Post their names on your Careers site and rotate them.
  • When a current employee refers an candidate, have an automatic email reply go to that current employee with an FAQ so the employee can answer the candidates' questions.

And then think about strategies for the future:

  • Are you prepared to directly connect with candidates?
  • How will your Careers site evolve to allow for networking?
  • What's the messaging you want to convey to candidates?
  • How does networking fit in with your Employer Brand? More networking means more people representing company messaging. Have you prepared them to network?
  • What other company tools can you re-purpose for networking? For example, if you're company sells products online and you have a customer service center, why can't you have a candidate service center (phone, online messaging capability etc.)

The key thing to remember is that connecting isn't just about social networking or being online. It's really the candidate experience. It's finding the best way to make the process as personal as possible while also being realistic. No one wants to feel like a number--whether you're returning a scarf or applying for a job. You want to be able to get answers, help, and information when you need it and feel like it was tailor-made for you. That's the direction job seekers are headed.  Companies, are you?

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