October 16, 2019

Step Forward, Not Backward: How Staffing Suppliers Can Move Beyond Backfilling

In our September 26 post, we discussed the challenges that managed services providers (MSPs) and staffing suppliers continue to face with onboarding new talent. The research we explored revealed that 85% of workers come to their first day on the job without the proper tools to hit the ground running. Ultimately, this can lead to issues of turnover and attrition. With fierce competition for skilled talent, retention and performance remain two of the biggest concerns for employers. Even in contingent labor programs, it’s imperative that workers remain committed to the mission, see their assignments through, and deliver results. But will continuing to rely on outdated recruitment methods, such as backfilling, satisfy the needs of organizations in a rapidly flowing digital world? We may need to envision alternative approaches.

The Revolving Door of Employment

Retention, even though the industry may not talk about it as much as AI or the latest hiring technology, persists as one of the most important topics in the future of talent. The situation is compounded when companies hold on to underperforming talent. It often seems counterintuitive to overall performance, but rationalizations abound: the workers are loyal, they have niche skills that would be hard to replicate, budgets are tight, recruiting takes too much time, and so forth. In the end, some business leaders settle on the compromise that an occupied desk is better than an empty one.

To a certain extent, it makes sense. As Seth Richtsmeier discussed in TINYpulse, replacing employees becomes a large investment: “A study by Employee Benefits News states that the average cost of losing an employee is a staggering 33% of their annual salary. You haven’t just lost talent or time – you’ve lost valuable funding for your company. When recruitment fees, training, and lost productivity are considered, a high turnover rate can have crippling financial implications for a business.”

Despite the financial setbacks that accompany turnover, the churn must be addressed. “In 2018, workers quit at the highest rates since 2001, and experts predict that the trend will continue into 2019,” wrote Abigail Hess for CNBC. “According to the most recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over 3.5 million Americans quit their jobs every month, about 2.3 percent of the labor force. Analysts pointed to sluggish wage growth and a tight labor market that’s encouraged workers looking for higher salaries to find new opportunities as the driving force behind this trend.”

While staffing suppliers and MSPs can’t always control attrition, particularly when the causes stem from issues internal to the client, they are frequently called upon to fill the voids quickly. That’s where candidate pipelining and backfilling have come into play. But have we fallen into our own trap of thinking of backfilling as a fix when it may be just a bandage?

Backfilling in Staffing

What is backfilling? In employment law, it’s the practice of replacing a departing worker as quickly as possible, regardless of whether the individual quit or moved into another position within the enterprise. The goal is to retain the same headcount while reducing disruptions. In the staffing industry, backfilling is commonly used to replace a regular member of a corporate team during a long absence. In days past, the process was straightforward and relatively easy to accomplish. But shifts in the nature of commerce, production, and service delivery have contributed to new challenges.

Successful backfilling involves identifying positions with no redundancy and establishing sources to replace talent before a dire need arises. Our current economy, however, runs lean and mean. Very few positions offer inherent redundancy. And that creates hurdles.

  • In desperate times, management level resources must step down into the trenches to sustain the momentum of the operation. This tactic causes a leadership deficit during the interval, which can produce new obstacles or adverse impacts.
  • Cross-training and ongoing development programs can prove effective in building an agile workforce populated by talent who become poised to assume new roles if a position suddenly vacates. Yet, workforce development, despite its popularity as a concept, lags behind in actual implementation or practice. Many organizations cite the costs and time involved as impediments.
  • A growing majority of businesses have turned to MSPs and staffing professionals. This is generally an efficient solution. However, complications occur when hiring managers fail to communicate concerns, at-risk positions, or anticipated demands to their MSPs or staffing partners.

Backfilling still has its purpose and its merits. The real problem isn’t the methodology or practice of backfilling, it’s how clients respond to turnover. As we mentioned earlier, business leaders sometimes have a tendency to avoid taking action on mediocre employees or those who exhibit signs of preparing to leave. Then, when the crisis moment arrives, they react. It’s at this stage when companies frantically contact contingent workforce professionals to backfill the positions. Unfortunately, this late-in-the-game effort can sacrifice time, productivity, and revenue. That’s why we need to propose a modern twist on backfilling—a preemptive method of progressive filling.

Progressive Filling Instead of Backfilling

You’ve heard the adages throughout life. “Measure twice, cut once.” Or, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Old as they may be, they still ring true. A proactive strategy toward anticipating and filling vacant positions could be that ounce of prevention. The first step for MSPs and staffing suppliers is to work closely with client hiring managers to help convince them that changes should take place. Consider the example of walking into an office and seeing rows of computers still running an operating system from 10 years ago. They lag. They crash. They’re not compatible with all the latest software. They’re unreliable and incapable of propelling the organization into a future of innovation.

Salvaging the productivity of the company requires an admission of the potential problem and the proactive mindset to purchase new equipment before the old ones fail. The scenario is the same with a tenuous or unstable workforce. Here are three ways to overcome the obstacles.

Actively Look for Defects

Remember that big Six Sigma craze that took hold during the late 1990s? We’re not trying to bring it back, but one of the basic tenets still holds a lot of value. At the core of Six Sigma is a concerted effort to seek out and identify defects in a process. It’s less cheery than pretending that everything in the organization is chugging along perfectly, but it’s a critical step in fine tuning operations. When you proactively search for defects, as Six Sigma folks call them, you can forecast new needs in advance of failures.

Measuring the productivity of the workforce is no different. Employers, staffing providers, and MSPs should continually assess the performance of talent to recognize exemplary professionals and raise the alarm for those who may be considering a change or are no longer invested in the mission of the organization. This allows program stakeholders to begin planning for replacements or staff augmentation prior to an event that could lead to interruptions. If you’re looking for an interesting take on evaluating the output of employees, check out our post on an innovative talent productivity KPI.

Preventative, Proactive Sourcing

Even with no open requisitions, the best staffing professionals always source for talent in the positions they support for clients. They understand the unforeseen peaks and valleys that accompany talent acquisition and build candidate pipelines to ensure accelerated deployment when openings arise. For instance, if a staffing provider supports a software development house, that agency is constantly sourcing for the best and brightest programmers in the field. When needs are identified, these staffing firms are already prepared to offer a superior candidate.

For hiring managers and MSPs, a focused effort to review performance analytics can drive the process. However, to attain optimal results, engage staffing partners in the early stages of this discovery. With all parties on the same page, businesses can get ahead of the curve, select the staffing partners most qualified to recruit for the roles, and begin searching for replacements before the floodgates break loose.

Passive Candidate Outreach

HR and employment experts across the spectrum have recognized that passive job seekers often become the best pools from which to draw stellar employees. On average, staffing providers spend close to 90% of their efforts developing networks and courting passive talent. Corporate teams, conversely, often have time enough only to source active candidates.

Staffing suppliers are adept at creating performance profiles that define and sell the job. They partner with clients and MSPs to gain a comprehensive understanding of the role: how it relates to the work, how it fits the organization’s culture, how it can shape sourcing initiatives, and how it will encourage the right candidates to apply.

They also know how to reach passive candidates by targeting communications to their audience using emails, social media, newsletters, career sites, and other resources. Active seekers on job boards and recruitment platforms represent about 25% of the prospective talent pool, according to LinkedIn. That means 75% of the prospective talent force is not being touched. Shifting strategies to maximize the sourcing of these passive yet receptive job seekers can make a significant impact on progressive filling.

Move Ahead, Not Back

There’s no time machine that allows us to glimpse the future, but vigilance, analytics, and an open-minded willingness to uncover problems can alleviate the pains that necessitate backfilling. With unprecedented speed, change is affecting every industry, company, society, and workforce. The solution is to keep our eyes open, study performance data, actively look for areas of improvement, and then act progressively. Engaging innovative staffing professionals won’t just help you see the forest for the trees, it will allow you to plant the seeds of a stronger field before a drought hits.

Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

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