Help Wanted (Please!): Chattanooga recruiters have to get creative to find top talent in a tight labor market

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Malcolm Harris, director of culture and brand experience at Steam Logistics speaks with Recruitment Coordinator Madison MacDermaid in Steam's Market Street offices.

Malcolm Harris is always on the lookout for new colleagues. When he's eating in a restaurant, he'll talk up servers who have a way with customers, encouraging them to apply for a role at Steam Logistics, Harris says.

"ABR: Always Be Recruiting," he says with a laugh. "I'm always handing out cards. In fact, I recently ran out of cards. I need three or four more stacks."

Harris, the director of culture and brand experience at Steam Logistics, has a big job leading recruitment for a company that plans to nearly double its headcount to more than 800 employees as it manages explosive growth and prepares for a move to a new headquarters in downtown Chattanooga.

Recruiting talent has always been a demanding game, but the hyper-competitive labor market has created next-level challenges for people in the business of bringing companies and candidates together, says Hudson Brock, who recently launched AlloHire, a firm that finds tech talent for Chattanooga firms.

"It used to be, 'Why should we hire you? Why do you want to work here?' Now it's, 'Hey, can I have two minutes to tell you why I would love for you to work here?'" Brock says. "If we're going to get someone hired, it's going to be from us chasing them down."

Employers in the Chattanooga area added nearly 4,300 jobs over the past year, but fewer workers were in the labor market during October than were working or looking for a job a year earlier. The combination of more jobs and fewer workers cut the jobless rate to 2.9% in Chattanooga - tying the lowest rate since March 2001.

Across the country, demand for employees has boosted wages, though inflation has eroded some of the impact of higher earnings. In November, the Conference Board Salary Increase Budget Survey predicted a 3.9% jump in wage costs for companies in 2022, compared to 3% predicted in April.

Expansions and new investments in and around Chattanooga this year will add about 1,700 jobs at a variety of businesses, including 300 jobs at a new NOVONIX/Pure Graphic factory on the site of the former Alstom Power factory, and 240 jobs at a new Sese Industrial Services plant in the Enterprise South Industrial Park.

The largest announced job-creator project, though, comes from Steam Logistics. Revenues at the third-party logistics firm have grown 1,000% since 2019, and the company plans to create 400 new jobs in a nearly $7 million expansion into the historic John Ross Building downtown. That's on top of already rapid recent growth, Harris points out.

"This time last year we had 92 employees," Harris says. "As of next week, we'll have 448."

Ghost Emoji

The number of people voluntarily leaving their jobs hit a historic high in the U.S. in September, when 4.4 million people called it quits, many of them leaving their employers to take better offers.

As hiring has ramped up across industries and the supply of qualified candidates has tightened up, the balance of power has shifted dramatically, Brock says.

"Good candidates have several good offers, and now that all this press has come out about the Great Resignation, counter-offers from current employers are going through the roof," he says. "I've had three candidates get 40%-plus raises to stay."

Ghosting has become commonplace, as well, and Brock has learned to take it in stride when a candidate who seemed interested just vanishes from a process, he says.

"I just send the ghost emoji if they don't respond," he says. "Then you just refresh their LinkedIn for a couple of months and see what turns up."

But the intense hiring market is also rich with opportunity, says Denzel Martin, who recently started TRS Recruiting, a firm focused on recruiting for the logistics industry.

He is working with more than a dozen carriers, and the business is growing so fast that he's hiring someone to help him, Martin says.

"I'm surprising myself," he says. "If anything, this is the golden age for recruiting."

The upside, he says, is that everyone is hiring, and just about every employee is willing to consider making a move.

"The grass is green on both sides of the fence," he says.

The challenge, though, is getting and keeping the attention of job-hunters, and getting the right talent through the hiring process, he says.

"When everybody is hiring and looking to work, there's a lack of commitment," Martin says. "They can flake on me easily. I would say out of 120 candidates I talk to, I may get three interviews lined up, and there's a good chance two of them may drop off."

Even when a deal is sealed, the job may not be done, Martin says.

'They may interview, the person may accept the job, they may even get there, and two weeks later they get another job," he says. "The market is so competitive right now that if you're looking for a job, you can find one."

The best advice he can give hiring managers is to move quickly if they meet a candidate they like, Martin says.

"If you wait too long, that person will be gone," he says. "If you wait, it will cost you."

Here or there?

As the world has adjusted to remote work, candidates are also demanding it nearly across the board, Brock says.

"This has been the first question: 'Is it fully remote? If not, I'm not even going to have a conversation,'" Brock says. "Even the hybrid roles - people don't want them."

Chattanooga-based StratusGrid has a headquarters here where local employees are invited to work on a voluntary basis, but the company is fully remote and operates internationally, says Christian Pulido, the company's people manager.

"Candidates take it for granted that the job is fully remote," Pulido says.

The web services company has grown from three people in January 2020 to about 40 now, and has positions open in several countries, he says.

"Right now, we are recruiting around eight positions in Colombia, the U.S. and Spain," Pulido says. "We're planning to grow a lot. We need more software engineers."

Pulido works from Madrid, and landed the job with StratusGrid in July 2021 in part because of his experience working across international borders.

"One thing I've noticed is that, before the pandemic, remote work was seen as a benefit, something super cool, and some companies only provided one or two days of remote work and there was a hybrid work policy," he says. "Nowadays, I think companies realize that the work can be done remotely."

For Harris, though, selling the upsides of an in-person environment is part of the deal.

"I've done this job from home, and it's not easy staying connected and doing sales from your kitchen table," says Harris, who spent a year in sales at Steam before he shifted to recruiting. "It's tough to stay motivated when you're not around people pushing you to be the best you can be."

The company is all in on in-person work, and that elevates the importance of creating an irresistible culture, he says.

"We do things a little differently," he says. "There's music, there's laughing. We are very serious about what we do, but we know at the end of the day we're all going to look out for one another. That culture sells itself."

The in-person vibes drive energy and connection in a business that requires a lot of communication and real-time decision-making across client management teams, he says. And there's plenty of room to flex, he adds.

"We treat people like adults," he says. "If you need to go to the doctor, shoot me a text and go. We figured out the people puzzle extremely early in the process when it comes to Steam."

He is finding about 70% of prospective employees in Chattanooga, and the rest are coming largely from bigger cities including Nashville, Atlanta and Memphis. Harris is an Atlanta native, and he says the quality of life and affordability of the city make it an easy sell.

"The secret is about to be out about how great a place Chattanooga is," Harris says.

Keeping an open mind is an important part of recruiting in a tight market, Harris adds.

"It's tough because there's only a certain amount of people in this industry," he says. "I'll take a chance on people from other industries. For every miss I have I have three hits."

Another key to making connections between the right people and the business is a focus on changing the face of the industry, Harris says.

"You're not going to see people who look like me in the position I'm in, and that puts me in a great position to have that conversation with people who are underrepresented," Harris says. "You're going to look up in a few years and see a leadership team that looks like no other in this city or this industry."

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