Creative Recruitment

George Haines
Director of Operations
Peregrine Leadership Institute
Gillette, Wyoming
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

In April 2006, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership entitled "The Baker's Menu." This was the second series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's current series—entitled "The Baker's Potluck"—touches on a variety of leadership and management topics, many of which have been suggested by members. Included in this issue is the thirteenth in the series recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or

This final installment of our Baker's Potluck series is a two-part article written by two members of the APWA Leadership and Management Committee, George Haines and Sue Hann. Read on for some innovative ideas on recruiting the best talent for your organization!

"When in doubt, don't hire—keep looking." - Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't

That may be one of the most valuable lessons I've learned over the years. One bad hire will wake you up. There is always the temptation to fill a position quickly; however, we shouldn't be in the business of hiring "warm bodies." At a recent conference, I asked that question and almost everyone indicated they had done that before. Let's hope those days are over. Creative recruitment is not just about innovative ways to get out your message and attract people you otherwise might not reach. It's also about making sure that once you generate interest, you take the proper steps to hire the right people. When you hire the right people, not only do you solve your short-term issue of filling a position, you are creating the foundation for developing and retaining the future of your organization.

When I first began working for local government, we had lots of applicants for our open positions. All that our human resources (HR) people had to do was post the job announcement and wait for the flood of candidates to roll in. At some point that all changed. In my case, it started around the year 2000. I would advertise for a position and it resulted in far fewer applicants and fewer high-quality candidates. In some cases, I'd have to re-advertise just to make sure I had enough candidates from which to select. How I advertised job openings also changed. The local newspaper and city/county website wasn't enough anymore. I started advertising for some positions on nationwide websites and magazines, like APWA and This resulted in lengthening the recruitment process as I needed to allow enough time for these ads to be published and then give candidates sufficient time to apply. I also learned how to write advertisements to make the position sound more attractive to possible applicants. Everything I've described so far is still just advertising. It is not recruiting.

What is the difference between advertising and recruiting? Advertising is a passive process. It is the "build it and they will come" philosophy. Recruiting is an active process. You go to the source of possible candidates and sell your organization. This can be accomplished by going to job fairs, attending conferences and setting up a booth, or partnering with other organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce or Economic Development. As an example, the city I worked for and local businesses working with the Economic Development Corporation made trips to Michigan to recruit workers. Why? Layoffs in the auto industry meant there was a source of available labor and the available skills were a good match for the energy industry in this part of Wyoming. The message here is that recruiting is not just for HR anymore. Public works has different needs than other departments in your local government organization. If you don't look out for your needs, no one else will. Also remember that the private sector has known how to recruit for a long time. Government is just now learning and has to catch up. One other point I want to make about recruiting and finding the best people—in Jim Collins's monograph called Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't, he says:

"First Who...Then What. Those who build great organizations make sure they have the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the key seats before they figure out where to drive the bus. They always think first about 'who' and then think about what."

I modified a table that was provided in Good to Great about the way we look at recruiting and hiring. The "New Way" of thinking is that we find the right people and then figure out how to utilize them. The traditional way is to start with what you want to accomplish and through detailed job descriptions and rigid qualification standards, find people to do those jobs. Using the traditional way, you may have screened out a potentially great employee because they didn't have enough years of experience or the wrong college degree. Have you ever heard the expression "Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills"? You can't write a job description that will give you a person with a good attitude, but this I know: You can train someone in the skills needed for a job. You can't train someone to have a good attitude.

Sue Hann, P.E., AICP
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

George makes a great point—emphasizing recruitment as an active process rather than a passive process. A successful organization has a clear strategic direction and must have the right team in place to accomplish the mission.

From my perspective a leading agency must think holistically about its recruitment. This not only includes today's vacancies, but also includes succession planning for the future. Many of today's high-performance agencies are also focusing on training from within to prepare employees for the future of the organization. George has written a great article about succession planning that was published in the APWA Reporter in September 2006 entitled "Succession Planning for Our Next Generation Leaders." Another APWA Reporter article on innovative succession planning was written by Jennifer Adams and published in May 2006 (entitled "Succession Planning in Tempe"). Both of these articles are available from the APWA website (

Finding the right employee can be analogous to a marketing competition. You need to sell yourself, your organization, your projects and your programs to prospective employees. In the past, the employer was the "buyer"—choosing between competing candidates. Now, if you want to recruit the top talent, you will need to attract the candidates and convince them that your organization best fits their vision for a happy and successful career and life in your community. This is an entirely different mindset and requires a change in recruiting techniques.

So, start by asking yourself some basic questions. What is it about my community, job, work environment that makes this an attractive place to work? Ask some of your current talent why they came to your organization and why they stay. Make a list of the common themes. Make sure the list is as specific as possible. "We are a progressive organization" just doesn't say enough. "We are currently implementing a $500 million bond issue that was approved by a 2:1 margin by the voters for multi-modal transportation projects" or "we are writing the template for 'green' community development standards in our area" are more descriptive and will appeal to the talent you want to recruit for these interesting tasks.

The same logic applies to your community and your organization. Capture the quality of life and quality of work-life assets to market your position. This thought process can be used regardless of what positions need to be filled. If you need truck drivers, talk to your current truck drivers and make a list of what they like about the job/community/organization. Discover what is enticing about your community/organization for a particular position and make it work for your recruiting process.

Another aspect of marketing is to find the market! A one-size-fits-all marketing strategy will not get you the top talent. Ask the truck drivers to help you find the truck-driving talent you need—perhaps even offering a recruiting bonus if they introduce a successful candidate into your organization. Find out where you should advertise to get the most productive exposure. Talk to the workforce development agency in your area.

You should also consider different types of advertising and marketing. For example—advertise for dump truck drivers on your dump trucks. We post signs in the median that say "Now hiring X, Y, Z." We go to conferences with buttons that say "Ask me about a job." We develop continuing relationships with the local college so they think of us when some of their talented students need a job. We talk to the local ASCE student chapter intermittently—not necessarily in a recruiting mode, but in a networking environment. We are highly involved in professional organizations. This gives many of our current staff opportunities to assess talent in other agencies and also to market any vacancies we might have. Doing something different in recruiting, whether subtle or overt, gets you and your organization noticed in the marketplace. For example, our city sent four staff members to the APWA Congress. Although we weren't actively recruiting, we did send the message that our organization strongly supports professional development. Most of our professional staff will take any opportunity to talk about the highlights of our organization—you never know when a prospective recruit might be inspired to contact you.

If you are having difficulties recruiting the best talent because of rules, policies and practices elsewhere in your organization, take the initiative to talk to those involved to make changes. Determine how these policies are negatively impacting recruiting and propose doable changes to human resources or your management team. Don't settle for mediocre talent because of organizational bureaucracy. Your City Manager will likely thank you for your change initiative if it results in a more talented team.

Both George and I have a very simple theme in our message to you—and that is Be Proactive! Take charge of your recruiting and try some techniques that will get you and your organization noticed as a leader of the pack. The next time you go to an APWA branch meeting, wear your bright orange T-shirt that says "I only hire the best" on the front and "Talk to me if you're the best" on the back. At the very least, it will be a conversation starter!

George Haines can be reached at (307) 685-1555 or; Sue Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3413 or

The Baker's Potluck Topics

  • Oral Presentation Skills
  • Coexisting with the Unions
  • Interviewing for the Right Skills
  • Performance Evaluations
  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • A Leader's Legacy
  • Identifying the Skills Needed for Crew Leaders and First-Time Supervisors
  • Mentoring for the Future
  • Leading through Change
  • Determining Your Level of Service
  • Connecting with Your Community
  • Creative Problem Solving
  • Creative Recruitment