Recruitment is challenging—and for companies based in rural areas where the talent pool is smaller, it can be doubly so.
We asked Danielle Bragge, VP and co-founder of The Headhunters Recruitment Inc., a company with extensive experience in rural recruitment, for her advice on successfully bringing top candidates to smaller markets.
“People who grow up in rural communities tend to make their way to bigger cities to look for bigger and better opportunities,” Bragge explains. “So you almost have a talent drain.”
The trend, though, is not immutable. With a bit more legwork and strategy, says Bragge, “there should never be a compromise.”
Refusing to compromise on a hire doesn’t mean you won’t still need to be adaptive, though; keeping your standards high may require more sophisticated thinking about exactly what you need. It may require more time. And it may require outside help.
Here are six ways to recruit in rural areas.
Look further…and deeper
For rural companies, recruiting for top talent means searching further afield.
“Many organizations know that if they want the best talent, they have to look to the larger cities,” Bragge says. That’s especially true if they’re planning a major growth strategy. Of course, recruiting from further afield may mean you’ll be expected to help a candidate relocate, which can impact your hiring budget.
Cultivate long-term relationships within your community, too—trade and business organizations or institutes of higher learning can serve as talent pipelines closer to home.
Revise your wishlist
There’s more to being flexible than simply casting a wider net, though. It can also mean more involved headhunting: actively seeking out individuals and targeting them for recruitment. In this, Bragge advises, it pays to look beyond a candidate’s past—i.e., their skills and experience—and to their future potential to grow into a role. Offering candidates the ability to grow is a win-win strategy: it broadens your possible candidate pool while also offering them a crucial incentive.
But emphasizing potential over experience can mean re-prioritizing the qualities you’re looking for in a candidate. “When we headhunt for a rural position, versus when we’re headhunting for a position in a big city, we’re looking at experience—but we’re not focusing as much on experience as we are on understanding if the candidate’s DNA matches that of the organization we’re partnering with,” says Bragge.
Know what the candidate is looking for
A move to a smaller, more entrepreneurial company gives up-and-comers a chance to play a more important role, which can be very appealing to someone looking to make major changes in their career or their life.
“A lot of people think of their careers now as jungle gyms, not as a ladder, the way it used to be,” says Bragge. “And those are the individuals we’re after.”
People with young children are often drawn to jobs that offer better hours, for instance, or to more family-friendly communities. On the other hand, some very qualified hires find rural employers appealing for the opposite reason.
“We see candidates who have had a very successful career, and view moving to a rural company as the first step towards retirement. They’re not there yet; they’ve got another five or 10 years to go, but they’re looking at moving to a small community where they will be able to retire and enjoy a slower pace.”
Whether you prioritize ambition or experience, one thing remains the same: the search does not begin and end with a skill set. Fit is paramount.
“It demands a different interview style,” Bragge says. She recommends using any analytical tool at your disposal. “It’s important to draw down a lot deeper—and not to fall in love with a candidate up front.”
Understanding your candidate becomes crucial when it comes time to offer incentives. If you can’t offer salaries to compete with a multinational, focus on what you can offer, such as a more laid-back and close-knit community.
Bragge advises blowing out the interview into a more social affair. “Our clients will invite a finalist to come visit, with their family or their partner, and spend the day with them. Take them to the local hangouts, talk to them about what life in the community looks like. They offer as much information as the candidate can handle.”
This openness is important not only to enticing a candidate with a better work/life balance, but also to preventing drop-off. “The most successful relocations I’ve done have been the ones where the clients have spent a couple days with a particular hire—not talking about the business, but talking about what life will look like: this is what you can expect, this is where people hang out on a Saturday night. Don’t be afraid to show the lumps and warts.”
Be supportive—and flexible
Whatever advantages you offer, it pays to understand how to make them work as hard for you as possible.
The importance of introducing a candidate to their community doesn’t end once the contract is signed, for example. If you’re selling the advantages of rural living, you’ll also need to help your hire build a life in their new home.
“Onboarding is absolutely critical,” Bragge says. “There has got to be an investment, and a plan laid out as to what your expectations are—otherwise, you’ll lose them to the big city.”
Depending on the candidate, non-monetary benefits can outweigh the pull of a higher salary. Does the position allow telecommuting? Can you offer flexible hours? More vacation? “We’re seeing more employers that are willing to add vacation,” Bragge says. “The number one thing candidates are asking for today is flexibility.”
Most importantly—especially for candidates that can afford to be choosy—flexibility means letting a candidate define their own role and dictate the parameters of their work. In other words, not just when they do it, but also how they do it. “These are the things that will keep them motivated,” Bragge says, “and keep them excited about getting up and coming back to work every day.”
Always be looking
Whether they’re easing into retirement or looking for a stepping stone for their career, candidates who relocate to rural areas may be passing through. “They’re looking for something very specific. A lot of them will go to a smaller community for five or six years—which in today’s market is pretty good—and then look back to the big city.”
So even a perfect hire may not be a long-term solution to your staffing needs.
Bragge stresses the importance of sustaining communication with candidates who aren’t the right hire today, but may be tomorrow. She has developed a database of people who are open to relocation, so when a position opens up, she already has leads. For a rural recruiter, this is a priceless resource, but one that demands a level of investment that puts it beyond the reach of many rural companies. For them, a recruitment process outsourcing firm (RPO) can be a great ally.
When you really can’t find the talent,” Bragge says, “and you’ve exhausted every avenue that you possibly can, that’s when it’s time to reach out to an agency.”