Recruiting Top Talent to Unglamorous Places

I continually get complaints from managers in “bad weather” areas in the northern U.S. and Canada who claim that it is impossible to recruit top talent because these regions just don’t have the drawing power of other areas. I find it startling that such beautiful cities as Minneapolis, Seattle and Vancouver are among the most frequent complainers. Small-sized firms as well as organizations located in other rural areas often share the same “hard to recruit” complaint. Is it possible to recruit top people to these isolated or “bad feature” areas? Can you overcome perceptions of winter blizzards or constant fog? The answer is yes, but it takes a special strategy to pull it off. Just as the less popular kid in school must take a different approach to get a date to the prom, recruiters in unglamorous places cannot use traditional tools and expect to achieve success. This article highlights the advice that I give to those managers in “nowhereland” on how they can overcome their perceived disadvantages and become a magnet company. Four Elements of Successful Recruiting in Unglamorous Areas If you’re trying to recruit people to difficult areas or to “no name” companies, there are four basic elements to a successful strategy:

    1. Find those with an established connection to the area. Recruit people that already know your area because they used to live, attend school, or vacation there, or because they have a family connection to the geographic area.


  1. Use reverse marketing. Find people that “like” the features in your region. Seek out individuals that rate the features that your region actually has near the top of their personal “where I’d like to live/work” lists.
  2. Become an employer of choice. Build the company’s brand and reputation to the point that individuals are so enamored with your company’s reputation that they would be attracted regardless of location. Have the best management practices, so that anyone that expects to make it to the top in your industry must at some time “go through” (work at) your firm.
  3. Build a personal relationship. Once you identify potential candidates you must take your time closing the sale. Building a personal relationship with your target candidates over time will build your credibility and provide you more opportunities to show off the features of your region and firm.

The rest of this article will highlight each of the four elements of this “unglamorous area” recruiting strategy. Find People With an Established Connection to the AreaHaving established connections means that you have something that “pulls” you to a region. Individuals with established ties are often already pre-sold on an area, while people that have never visited a geographic area tend to stereotype and exaggerate the features of the area. Unfortunately for recruiters in “nowhereland,” most people tend to positively exaggerate the features of great cities like San Francisco and New York while simultaneously over-exaggerating the “negative features” they perceive to exist in bad weather areas. This means if you are recruiting to a bad weather area you must overcome some serious and long-lived stereotypes. I recommend against that; it’s a hard sell with a low success rate. Instead focus on people with an established connection with the region. In my experience I have often found that people that have previously lived in or visited an area tend to forget the bad and remember the good, which makes convincing them to return to the area an easier sell. Thus if you want to dramatically increase your recruiting success, forget trying to change negative perceptions. Instead, target individuals who already have positive memories, who used to live, have family, go to school, or vacation in your geographic area. Some additional “connections” to an area might include:

  • Their parents or close relatives still live there
  • Their high school or college buddies live there
  • They attended college there and still have fond memories of their university experience
  • In the past, they had a great job at a famous firm in the area

Identifying People Who Have An Existing “Connection” Start by searching resumes. Obviously if you already have their resume, you can often tell from it whether they have a connection to your area by looking at their previous jobs, where they attended school, and maybe even their hobbies or the location of your references are located. On the Internet it is easy to do a Boolean search to find the resumes of people with an established connection. There some other “finding” approaches that you might also find effective. They include:

  • Referrals. Start with a referral program. Use current and former employees as a primary recruiting mechanism. They are likely to know other people with connections to your region and they are more convincing than any brochure could be. Provide them with a small bonus for all referrals that are hired. Ask every new hire who relocated from outside the region who else they know that might have a connection and be interested in working at your firm. Consider asking your diverse employees to recruit relatives (a strong connection), but also encourage and reward diversity referrals from all sources.
  • Former employees.Seek out your boomerangs (top performers that have left your firm). Build a relationship with them and eventually ask them to return. You will find that many regret leaving and welcome an opportunity to return.
  • High school reunions. These can be great recruiting functions. You can either attend these events or utilize a mailing lists and the related demographic information that was collected (this often includes current job and company).
  • University alumni lists and events. These can also be effective. Homecoming and university sporting events can be great recruiting venues. Those leaving work to return to grad school can also be good recruiting targets for part-time or even full-time work (if you offer flexible work hours and subsidized advanced degrees). Sponsor orientation coffees or student groups to identify them.
  • Trade shows. Hold business card drawings at trade shows and seminars and offer a prize to people that used to live in your region. Ask them to write their connection on the back. Use their business cards to develop a mailing list and then build a relationship with them over time.
  • Best cities sites. Advertising on websites that highlight “the best cities to live in” can be effective. The people that buy those books and visit those websites are obviously looking to move to better area. If you’re lucky and your area is highlighted as a “best place,” you can target the people that click on your region or city at the site.
  • Retirees. You might identify people wishing to retire back to their university town by working with the alumni association, local realtors, or the Chamber of Commerce. Occasionally these retirees can be talked into staying in the workforce, or at the very least working part-time. Encourage your own retirees to refer friends and relatives that live outside the geographic area (people that would not normally see your recruitment advertisements or know about your firm). Also consider adverting in AARP magazine. In the ads ask parents to encourage their sons and daughters to relocate.
  • Subscription lists. If your city or region has a “city magazine,” identify all out of the region subscribers on their mailing list and target them as potential recruits. You might also try advertisements in the magazine that encourage parents and relatives to suggest to others that they should apply for jobs at your firm. You might also offer product discounts or prizes for successful referrals.
  • Welcome wagon. Work with local “welcome wagon” services, banks, and realtors to build recruiting relationships with individuals that have recently moved or have expressed an interest in moving into the area.
  • Tourism. Work with the tourism and visitors bureau to capture people that inquire about visiting the area. Also work with vacation, campgrounds, and recreational resort owners to identify individuals that return year after year. Work with realtors to identify individuals who live outside the region and year after year rent vacation property. Also look at vacation property owners who return on a regular basis.
  • Billboards. If people frequently pass through your airport, place prominent signs highlighting your firm’s strengths and encouraging people to apply. If people frequently drive through your region during the summer on vacation, place billboards near vacation spots. If they visit to ski or fish, place signs in ski and fishing lodges.
  • Don’t forget to recruit in warm areas. Reverse the approach of many firms and recruit in warmer regions during “your” most attractive seasons (when the leaves turn, ski season, football season, Thanksgiving and Christmas). These are the times when individuals are likely to “long for” the excitement and the family traditions of that season.

The Next Step: Build a Relationship Gradually Once you identify individuals that have established ties to your region, you need to build relationships with them. Many might at first be surprised by your initial contact, so use a conservative “selling” approach. Mention that your firm is always looking for great talent and that their name came up as someone who might someday in the future want to return to the region on a permanent basis, and, that if they do, you would hope they would consider your firm first. A second part of the message should also encourage them to refer others they know who might have a similar interest in returning to the region. Next week, in Part 2, we’ll cover “reverse marketing”: finding people that like “what you’ve got.”

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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