May 3, 2008
Offering jobs and a future, recruiters hope to capture the top guns
The Seattle Times
THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES
The future needs workers – lots of them.
And this isn't just an abstraction to major employers like Boeing, Microsoft and the military, which collectively hire about 100,000 new people every year.
They face a startling yet promising reality: The nation is in the midst of a massive population shift as baby boomers reach retirement and members of so-called Generation Y start their careers.
These young, potential employees are ripe for the picking. But their range of choices is perhaps greater than any generation that came before them. And they come with a host of new expectations and conditions.
If your job is to recruit these workers, this represents both a gold mine and a minefield. Day in and day out, on streets all around the Puget Sound region, on college campuses across the country and increasingly online, their mission is to fight for every bright mind they can find.
Getting anyone to commit to a job is hard. Recruiters whose job is to lure the best young talent – be they soldiers who may well be sent to fight the war on terror or aircraft engineers helping Boeing keep its competitive edge against Airbus or techies working to ensure the dominance of the software giant everybody loves to hate – have especially difficult challenges.
In a world full of options, the recruiter's job is to make it seem as if there's really only one choice, just as a young person's whole future is coming to light.
There are two "surges" happening in the U.S. Army right now. One in Iraq, the other on Main Street, USA.
To prevent another lean year like 2005, when the Army missed its annual recruiting goal by the largest margin in a generation, the military branch next month will begin calling up active-duty soldiers for 89-day assignments as recruiters, hoping to meet this year's goal of enlisting 80,000 active-duty personnel.
The policy is officially called an "involuntary recruiting surge."
Who better to give the straight dope on life in today's Army than hardened warriors just back from the front lines?
Recruiters are foot soldiers on an entirely different but no less fraught front line, the campaign to constantly replenish the ranks of a war-weary fighting force that numbered 1,060,372 as of last summer.
Already, recruiters like Sgt. 1st Class Jacqueline Habaluyas and Staff Sgt. Class Briant Sutton are bringing real-world experience and street smarts to the formidable job of persuading young people with the future ahead of them that they can realize their dreams in life, and make a difference, through the Army.
The newest recruits are referred to as "future soldiers." But this job is equally about the future of the soldiers, so promises of great professional jobs, paid college tuition and other financial perks bolster the sales pitch.
The recruiters work out of a small office tucked in a shopping center between Bellevue and Redmond. Some here were assigned to this job, some volunteered. Some were recruited into the Army but many, like Habaluyas, decided to join on their own.
Habaluyas was born in the Philippines and moved to Kent after high school to join her parents, who had already migrated to the States. Six months after arriving, Habaluyas had forsaken a traditional college path to join the Army.
"I wanted to see the world," she says.
She saw the world, indeed, serving in Iraq for a year and half, among other assignments.
This job requires a demanding slew of in-person encounters at schools and shopping centers, on the streets and at organized events. Recruiters here also make about 2,200 phone calls each month to young people they hope will say yes to the Army. Federal laws help the military gain access to student rosters and home phone numbers, which in turn help recruiters tailor their searches.
Often, though, people never return voice messages. Some answer the phone, then hang up right away. Or curse out the recruiter and then hang up.
Charm and patience are the weapons in this battle.
Sutton gets on the phone with a 19-year-old who wants to be an Army Ranger, but he can hear the man's parents in the background trying to persuade him not to make a rash decision. He's scheduled a meeting at the family home near Carnation that day. He will talk to the parents alone. Their son, Matthew, will meet separately the next day.
It's a strange setup, but Sutton, who needs to meet the recruiters' deceptively low goal of winning over at least two candidates a month, is happy to oblige. Habaluyas is backup.
"I hope this goes well," a jittery Sutton says on the way over.
In the military nine years, Sutton is following in the footsteps of uncles and cousins. "I knew college wasn't for me," he says. His Army career helps put food on the table for his wife and son, who is 6. The job also puts his life on the line. Sutton served as an infantryman in Iraq between 2003 and 2004. "Eleven months, 10 days. I missed the potty training and all that stuff."
Now Sutton must walk into the home of complete strangers and try to convince them that the Army is right for their son, too – wars, personal sacrifices and all.
SURPRISINGLY CHEERFUL, Scott and Betty McCommons greet the recruiters at the door and usher them to the dining room table. Sutton takes the folksy route, introducing himself as a Texan and speaking in a Southern accent thick as molasses. It turns out Scott McCommons is also from Texas, so the two reach across the table and warmly shake hands.
"We have 150 jobs in the Army," Sutton starts off as he slides some brochures across the table. But before he can get very far down his list of white-collar-sounding positions, Betty McCommons interjects: "And then, of course, they need soldiers."
While it's clear she has no distaste for the armed services, she insists that her son needs to finish school before entering one of his two choices, the Army or Marines. Then, her tone changes: "I think the military, like everything in life, if you live through it, it's always a good experience. In the middle of all this chaos," she says, referring to Iraq, "there's a lot of good things happening."
She is receptive, after all. But how much?
Sutton pours it on, telling the parents about a new Army financial-aid program that offers recruits thousands of dollars to help buy a home or start a business. But this is a middle-class family and the mom, anyway, isn't all that interested in the incentives.
Scott McCommons points to a frame on the wall. It is filled with war medals that belonged to his father, who fought in the Pacific during World War II. Matthew is very proud of his granddad, McCommons tells the recruiters. "I think that's part of what's hanging in his mind."
The parents know they can't prevent their boy from joining the military; they've already lost that battle.
"If he could pack up his bags and join tomorrow, he would," a resigned Betty McCommons says.
Like business executives not quite ready to close the deal, the parents end the meeting and escort the recruiters to the door. The next day, Sutton will meet with Matthew, who in any case won't be eligible to enlist for another year because of school.
For now, Habaluyas and Sutton soldier on.
BOEING REALLY doesn't need brochures or house calls to sell itself. A tour inside its massive assembly plants can dazzle enough to win some converts. But as impressive as this spectacle is, Boeing doesn't take chances when it comes to recruiting and keeping young workers. As American students move away from science and technology education – a major concern of Microsoft as well – it'll be important to cultivate new talent pools.
That's not the only challenge confronting venerable companies like Boeing.
Company recruiter Tammy Shilipetar has been scouting for seven years and has noticed a shift in the general attitudes of young candidates. Unlike their parents and grandparents, who learned to build skills and accomplishments over years at a single company, young workers want to think they can jump in quickly and make their mark, since they're more likely to switch employers several times.
Many also want to be aligned with a company that's socially conscious and respects the environment through its business practices. "They want to see themselves as part of the solution," Shilipetar says.
Boeing needs good workers, but it's not desperate.
Shilipetar takes mental notes when holding one- or two-minute "elevator conversations" with students, to pinpoint those who have the most potential. It's like speed-dating.
"Do they have the confidence to look at you in the eye and tell you their story, sell their story?" she says. "You can tell the students who are prepared and bring their game to the company."
FOR THE ARMY, it's the recruiter, not the subject, who needs to bring a good game to that first encounter, which can happen at the most random of locations.
Their meeting near Carnation now over, it's time for recruiters Habaluyas and Sutton to do a little P3. Prospecting Level 3, or P3 for short, involves the potentially humiliating act of walking up to a young adult on the street, mentioning the word Army and watching them literally run in the other direction.
Habaluyas, who is 5 foot 3, says one time a 6 foot 3 grown man fled from her in horror when she introduced herself.
"You've got to watch what you say, because some people don't like the military," Sutton says, understating the point. Some people lash out for political or philosophical reasons. Recruiters are sometimes derided as "baby killers."
Habaluyas and Sutton pull into a Redmond Dairy Queen, figuring that high-school students may hang out there after class. Inside, they consider a cashier but quickly rule him out because, Sutton surmises, he'd never cut his long hair. Recruiters wind up making flash judgments about people, too.
After an unsuccessful lunch – meaning no prospects – the recruiters drive to Redmond Town Center and split up to cover more bases. Youth-oriented businesses – game stores, video arcades, skate and surf shops – can yield gold for the Army prospector. That is so long as security doesn't catch on and make a fuss, which happens often.
A jockish young guy wearing flip-flops and baseball cap goes into a jewelry store; Habaluyas follows. To make the situation feel more natural – for her, that is – she will often endear herself to store staff by talking about her own life, interests and shopping needs. Habaluyas is engaged to be married in August, so in the jewelry store she browses for a wedding band for her fiance while keeping one eye on the prospect.
But after a few minutes, she leaves the store without approaching him.
"He won't join," Habaluyas says on the sidewalk outside. "He a pretty boy." He had a Gucci wallet, she adds. That's not the only seemingly harmless thing she caught sight of. "He has a BMW, too," she says, a detail she picked up by spotting the logo on the man's car key.
Habaluyas says that by dressing or acting a certain way, some people are sending a signal that certain lines of work, or life choices, are not for them. To save time, energy and her ego, she screens out many of these prospects without ever introducing herself.
P3 at the town center isn't very successful, but the recruiters' day isn't over. They drive to a Jiffy Lube in Kirkland where Habaluyas has previously made a contact. The kid in question keeps brushing her off, even though the two had agreed to meet. These prearranged meetings are called "hot knocks."
Before Habaluyas even pulls into the Jiffy Lube, the young man spots her car and takes off.
Habaluyas drives in, gets out and walks to the garage, where the kid is hiding in the oil-change pit. He emerges, she tells him something and all of his co-workers start laughing.
"I called him out," she says back in the car. "I told him, 'You're too scared for the Army, so I'll refer you to the Navy.' "
That's what made the guy's friends burst out laughing.
Sometimes a little jeering works, sometimes not. In this case, it allows Habaluyas to walk away dignity intact.
"Either you want it or you don't," she says sternly while driving to the next pit stop.
ALL IT TAKES is a glance around the lobby of Building 19 on Microsoft's sprawling Redmond campus to realize this is not just a far cry from the standard-issue Army recruiting office in nearby Bellevue. This is a realm all its own.
In the fiercely competitive tech sector, Microsoft can't afford to get lucky with its hires. It has to create a whole atmosphere that the cream of potential employees finds hard to turn down. It needs people who know how to stand out at a company that employs some 36,000 people in Washington state alone.
While the Army's main sales pitch is opportunity, Microsoft's is fun. The world's biggest software company wants to come off as a scrappy little firm that appreciates individual effort. Boeing uses a similar selling point. So at Building 19, what you get is something akin to a teenager's play space.
The company's freshest job candidates, those who've already been screened by a recruiter and agreed to visit, can play Rock Band in one corner, work on puzzles or just graze on two huge bowls of candy laid out for them. There's a coffee bar, too. And music's playing all the time. A perky concierge presides over the lobby, dishing out tips on what to do and see during off-hours, since many candidates are out-of-towners.
"We want that candidate experience to be very stimulating from the get-go," says recruiter Betsy Dimalanta, who has worked for Microsoft for four years. That means paid-for dinners at pricey restaurants like El Gaucho in Seattle, gift baskets, vouchers for taxis and car rentals. But it also means Microsoft recruiters, like Army recruiters, need to take their case to candidates long before they walk through the door of Building 19.
Microsoft hired some 7,400 people worldwide last year. Reaching out to a talent pool large enough to satisfy those hiring needs is a huge task.
The company uses quirky Web pages to generate interest and debunk myths associated with its size and workplace climate. On sites like "View My World" and "Hey Genius," curious job-seekers can find out what it's really like working for Microsoft through accounts from actual employees, as well as see the latest job openings.
To take the idea of Microsoft as a place full of youthful vigor where individuals thrive even further, the company, like Boeing, sends recruiters to colleges across the country to scout job candidates, connecting them with alumni, organizing event nights, basically acting as corporate ambassadors. Dimalanta, for instance, shuttles to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh every other week.
"You need to be able to relate to recruits who are excited, young and fresh and have all these great ideas," Dimalanta says. "If I can't place myself in their shoes, then how can I find that perfect fit?"
Today's best young job candidates, she says, come to the table with a lot of knowledge about the company. And they have many advisers – from family to professors – whispering in their ears.
"It's like a full-time job for some of these students," Dimalanta says, "exploring what all their options are."
WEDNESDAYS ARE special for Army recruiters because that's when prospects come in for orientation sessions and exercise drills, which give them a strenuous preview of boot-camp life.
Habaluyas will often personally chauffeur new recruits to the Bellevue office for these sessions.
She heads back to Kirkland to pick up Blaine Schwab, a Lake Washington High School senior. Schwab is vigorously jumping rope on his quiet cul-de-sac as Habaluyas pulls up.
In the car, he slips Habaluyas a hip-hop workout CD he made for her, then asks her to give him some Army stickers so his dad can put them on the family car.
Schwab says he plans to start basic training in July, after graduation. He'll take college courses while in the Army. He is set on being a Ranger. A bundle of blond buzz-cut energy, this prospect is an easy sell.
Back at the recruiting office, about a dozen young men have arrived for orientation, which includes a video where a speaker steals the show with this line: "There are two types of men in the world: men of action – and all the others."
The young men are led out back where Habaluyas instructs – no, yells at – them to get into a double-line formation.
Suddenly, she seems 6 foot 3, her sweet voice now full of bite. A couple of recruits fail to stand fully at attention when ordered, so Habaluyas orders them to give her a couple dozen push-ups on the spot. They instantly drop and do as told.
They march and chant in two parallel columns – Left! Left! Left, right, left! – to a parking lot, and Habaluyas gives everyone two minutes to do 100 push-ups on the hard, cold asphalt.
Groaning like sick children at first, the recruits manage to set aside their pain and complete their drill without gripes.
They know they'll have to get used to it.
They're (almost) in the Army now.
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