7 Tips for Small Businesses Competing with Large Employers for Talent


Posted In: Workforce Insight, Workforce Research

Jun • 28 • 2017


When it comes to recruiting, small businesses have to compete with large, well-known companies to secure in-demand talent. Big companies have instant name recognition and money to spend on marketing their brand to prospective employees, but small businesses must find other ways to catch and keep the attention of job seekers.


The challenge is a formidable one. The labor market is tightening. The skills gap seems to be widening. Changing minimum wage and health benefit requirements put new demands on employers, and the ever-evolving technology landscape complicates the situation even further.


In this competitive environment, small business owners need to get creative to find qualified talent for their teams. To do so, they must leverage local networks and use the internet to reach beyond their geographical location. They can also encourage lateral movements and upward mobility by offering continuing education, training, and clear career paths.

1. Network and seek referrals


Small businesses can increase their reach by identifying partners — such as co-ops, chambers of commerce, and networking groups — who will help increase brand exposure. Membership in these groups often means inclusion in marketing and group directories, which will make more people aware of your company. In addition, building personal relationships with other businesspeople may result in word-of-mouth referrals.


Also, take the time to build relationships with nearby colleges and universities. It’s a step that most large companies aren’t equipped to take, and it can make a big difference to new college graduates who might soon be looking for work. According to the Jobvite 2016 Job Seeker Nation Study, 36 percent of job seekers said that conversations with others and company reputation had the biggest impact on their perception of a job. Building positive relationships with colleges and professors increases the chance that the first mention of your company will be a positive one.

2. Mine your team for contacts


Consider hiring from within first, to show your team you value them and want them to develop new skills. But if you need talent that doesn’t already exist within the organization, ask your team to help you find some. New research from Bersin by Deloitte found that employee referrals is the number one way organizations find high-quality candidates. Fifty-one percent of organizations surveyed named employee referrals among their top three most effective sourcing channels.


Let employees know when you have open positions to fill, and encourage them to share the job posting with friends and family. Some businesses have found success by incentivizing employees with small bonuses when someone they recommend is hired.

3. Use social media


Having a strong social media presence allows you to reach beyond your geographical limits. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 79 percent of Americans who were looking for work used the internet to view job listings, learn about companies, and apply for jobs. Of those, 34 percent say online resources were their most important tool.   


LinkedIn profiles are free, and give you great exposure. Having a well-developed profile puts small businesses in front of job seekers who otherwise might never have known they existed. LinkedIn also serves as a free résumé database. You can search through hundreds of candidates to find and reach out to those who have the skills you’re looking for.

4. Job fairs


Local job fairs are a great way to find talent. While big-name brands may draw job seekers into the fair, small businesses have a personal touch that those organizations can’t replicate. The crowded booth of a large company isn’t conducive to a personal conversation, and many of those businesses are wary of offering candidates too much — so they come off as cold or impersonal.


In the 2016 Jobvite Job Seeker Nation Study, 39 percent of job seekers rated initial contact with the company as making the biggest impact on their impression of its jobs. Capitalize on this opportunity by presenting a friendly but professional face at job fairs. Follow up by sending personalized emails or even calling candidates, something a large organization is unlikely to do. Let them know you remember who they are and would value their contribution to your business.

5. Sell your culture


Catching the attention of in-demand talent is only half the battle. You also need to keep it by offering the benefits that employees most value. The good news for small businesses is that competitive wages aren’t the only thing that can attract employees. Younger workers, in particular, consider overall culture to be a major contributor to job satisfaction, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey.


Consider the intangible benefits of working for a small business. These can include greater flexibility, more diversity in daily work, and roles that can be tailored to meet the needs of individual employees. Small businesses also tend to have a less bureaucratic structure, which allows for closer relationships across the organization.


Make sure that you communicate these advantages to potential employees.

6. Offer continuing education opportunities


Younger employees also value job-specific training, career development, and career advancement opportunities more than their older coworkers. According to the SHRM report, about 88 percent of millennials say an organization’s commitment to professional development contributes to their job satisfaction, compared to 76 percent of baby boomers and 89 percent of Generation X. As the baby boomers retire, businesses of all sizes will be faced with more employees who expect career development as part of their benefits package.


Consider a co-op relationship that allows small businesses to offer low-cost associate’s and bachelor’s degrees to their employees. Even without a tuition assistance program, affordable degrees are available. To make sure both the business and the employees get the most out of the arrangement, look for project-focused, competency-based learning models. Flexible, online schedules ensure that employees can keep working regular hours while getting a degree on their own time.

7. Map out a clear career path


A continuing education program should be part of any employee’s greater career path. While career paths will vary based on the individual, prospective employees should be able to see opportunities for advancement. Make it clear that employees are expected to grow and advance within the organization. Help them to explore new opportunities, whether that means seeking a promotion or making a lateral move to a position with different challenges.


Implementing all or even most of these strategies may require a shift in focus, but they are well within the reach of even the smallest business.

. . .

Emma Gallimore is a freelance writer with a degree in journalism from the University of Maine. She reports on trends affecting the education, business, health, and technology sectors.