Few business activities are as dependent on human interaction as hiring and recruiting. Automation enables accounting, project design, estimating, bidding, and the like, but no one has yet written computer code promising to find that needle in the haystack. Yet technology’s advance is starting to dictate changes to how employers navigate the employment market. Specifically, our collective infatuation with digital social media and ready embrace of its biggest enabler — the mobile device — is forcing more companies to adapt their human resources activities to that environment.

As more job seekers tap their social networks for job leads and cut the cord to landline phones and PCs in favor of smartphones and tablet computers, employers must contend with a different type of job hunter —  savvier, more impatient, and better connected, albeit more on their own terms. As a result, the standard markers of the hiring and recruitment dance are falling by the wayside (i.e., phone calls, help-wanted ads, snail-mailed resumes, and e-mail), replaced with icons like Internet job boards, text messaging, Facebook “shares,” “Tweets,” and job-hunting apps for mobile devices. Businesses playing by the old rules and conventions of hiring — and failing to respond to how competitors and prospective employees are operating — may find themselves at a disadvantage.

That’s striking a chord with more companies in the electrical contracting and engineering space as a mending economy creates new jobs, and a war for talent takes shape. Those convinced that the battle is about to be joined are arming themselves with more powerful and accurate weapons.

Applying made easier

Worried that potential hires who are heavy mobile users might be slipping through the cracks, Interstates Companies, an electrical contractor in Sioux Center, Iowa, has come up with a mobile-optimized employment application form. Linked with the company’s recently upgraded applicant tracking system (ATS) software, the mobile-optimized form fields employment inquiries initiated from a mobile device. Interstates human resources generalist, Lori Walstra, says the mobile-optimized form  jump-starts the application process.

“They can provide their name, e-mail address, and even upload their resume, but they’ll have to go into our full website to complete the application,” she says. “The ATS then contacts them up to three times, reminding them they need to return to finish applying.”

A federal government contractor, Interstates must conform to federal hiring guidelines, which include administering a standard application, but it’s one that’s cumbersome to complete from a small mobile device screen.

“We may end up having to adapt to the reality of more people wanting the ability to engage in an application process as they sit in traffic or on subways with their mobile devices,” Walstra says.

Getting there would require upgraded ATS software, something more companies looking to modernize hiring paperwork might demand. HR executives at two other electrical industry companies characterize the need now as “relatively low-level,” but still “on their radar” scope. Stephanie Guin, executive vice president of human resources for Faith Technologies, Menasha, Wis., says the electrical contractor will explore the feature ahead of next year’s expiration of its ATS vendor’s contract. And Kristine Graber, manager of human resources for Sparling, an electrical engineering firm in Lynnwood, Wash., says that’s just on her “nice-to-have” list.

“The AEC world is still pretty old-school,” Graber says. “I still get e-mailed resumes and even snail-mailed ones.”

Mobile-friendly outreach

Ultimately, though, ingrained methods employers use to post job openings, cast for talent, and market themselves as attractive places to work may prove vulnerable. Here, too, the rise of the mobile device could be felt. More front-end recruiting and search processes stand to be evaluated and possibly redesigned for users of small, portable devices.

One casualty might be company websites not optimized for mobile device screens. Mobile device users landing at pages difficult to view and navigate may quickly move on. Companies concerned with how to hire and recruit in the mobile sphere may ignore that at their own peril. As mobile becomes more entrenched, more companies may respond by retooling their own websites and using Internet jobs sites designed for mobile users.

Sensing the shift, Power Design, Inc., a St. Petersburg, Fla., electrical contractor, has looked for ways to get situated in the mobile space. The company recently joined the Web-based Career Builder Talent Network, where it has a landing page geared to educating visitors about Power Design careers. The site offers company news and events information, and a social media component inviting users to join the Power Design social network and even begin the application process.

“Traditional online job posting boards seem to be going away and more seem to be utilizing a lot of mobile search and optimization features that help employers cast a wider recruiting net,” says Power Design HR Director Marlene Velez.

Even companies that still use face-to-face events like job fairs to drum up interest are factoring in the rise of the mobile device. Interstates, for instance, now text messages students it engages at college career fairs.

“We used to send out massive e-mails at the end of these events, but now we’re texting instead,” Walstra says, noting that demographic’s passion for both texting and mobile. “We’re a lot more confident now that we’re actually reaching them.”

The social media environment

For companies craving more certainty they’re in front of these potential hires, social media is transfixing. As more people communicate within online groups that share common social or professional bonds, employers are looking for ways to reach them. But the social media space can be a challenge to crack, especially when the mobile device form factor is in play. But increasingly, social networks/social media means mobile — where operative words are speed, brevity, eye-catching, compelling, and personal. The challenge for employers in that environment is clear: make “jobs” banter fit that model.

High-profile social media platforms, where employers can begin to gain visibility in the mobile space, are now almost obligatory. The Facebooks, LinkedIns, and Twitters of cyberspace count ever more electrical industry employers as users, and are helping companies large and small communicate career- and jobs-related information, cultivate images, and attract followers and “likes.”

In addition to tapping the viral sharing power of such platforms, Faith Technologies is exploring expansion into the video realm. Guin says the company is considering using the YouTube video site to communicate video information about specific job openings and the company culture.

Applicants for cell tower construction jobs, for instance, might be able to access a link to a YouTube video, she says. It would give a stark visual sense of what that specialized work entails. With mobile device users especially hungry for video, that might represent both a practical application as well as a bid to be “hip.” It’s one part of a strategy of seeing what works in social media.

“We’re trying to come up with ways to get people in the door faster, but we especially want to be able to get the people that really want the types of jobs we offer,” she says. “We need to keep finding ways to fuel the fire for our continued growth.”

Viral job marketing

Gaining entry to the social networks of individuals may be the biggest prize for employers looking to leverage social media. Playing off the tried-and-true concept of personal referrals, companies can leverage existing employees’ social and professional networks for broadcasting job opportunities.

Sparling’s HR department has begun educating principals and hiring managers on why and how to reach out to contacts they’ve cultivated. Engineers might not be among the most active participants in online social networks, nor the heaviest users of mobile devices, but they’re potentially approachable using the tactic. As a group, they’ve proven difficult to pry away from competitors, so bringing another element of “the personal” into play makes sense, Graber says.

“It seems to be producing some results as our internal referral rate has gone up a lot recently,” she says.

Social media-based referrals have also yielded results for Interstates. HR and marketing jointly decided that hiring and recruiting should be the focal point of the company’s social media strategy, Walstra says. It employs multiple outreach efforts, including lead generation from employee social networks and premium services like LinkedIn Talent Finder that let employers expand their search across a wider segment of the LinkedIn community.

Examples of new hires initiated through social media outlets at Interstates include an instrumentation maintenance manager who had worked for a competitor and learned of the opening through an employee’s LinkedIn network; the other a project manager who responded to a hiring manager’s Facebook posting about the opening, Walstra says.

“With so many passive candidates out there who may not be actively looking for a job, you have to be innovative,” she suggests.

The mobile chase

Social media and mobile are also starting to attract the eye of employment recruiters. Though often reliant on proprietary methods, market knowledge, and personal contacts, recruiters are looking to incorporate the platforms into their work.

For Daniel Whiteley, an executive recruiter in the electrical construction and engineering space, the job of tracking down and staying in touch with prospects for clients demands smarter and more efficient engagement techniques.

“Many of these guys are not at a desk; they’re at construction sites where it’s easier for them to use mobile apps and mobile devices to communicate,” says Whiteley, who operates as A.L. Merryman Co., Vancouver, Wash.

In turn, Whiteley is using more prospecting tools that fit the model. He’s now paying to use LinkedIn Recruiter, a premium service offered by the careers networking site. With it, he’s handed the names of 50 carefully selected prospects a month outside his network that he can e-mail with information about job opportunities with clients.

“I get a 20% response to any messages I send out,” he says. “It has become far and away the most valuable tool for sourcing and getting in touch with talent.”

But another industry recruiter, Ted Konnerth, CEO of Chicago-based Egret Consulting, has yet to see any compelling evidence his fortunes ride on deeper involvement in social media or mobile.

“It’s important for us to be in touch with new ways of communicating, but it’s not our secret sauce,” he explains. “At the end of the day, we need to talk to people face-to-face and on the phone, and identify whether or not they know how to sell, say, a transformer and who buys them. You won’t get that information on LinkedIn.”

Weighing the benefits

The same largely holds true for employers doing their own hiring, Konnerth maintains. When employers fling open the doors to applicants by, say, making it simple and effortless to apply online or, more pointedly, from a mobile device, they might have to brace for a torrent of applicants — qualified and unqualified — he says.

“The best people don’t apply for jobs online,” he says. “The easier you make it for people to apply, the more false responses you get. It’s not a good way to recruit for talent.”

But turning the tables a bit, the wisdom becomes clearer. If more prospective employees are effectively recruiting employers in that space, then employers may just need to be there.

“Statistics show that 60% to 70% of job candidates are searching or in some way applying for positions with mobile devices of some sort,” says the staffing manager for Power Design, Tyson Conrad. “Social media, by its nature, is mobile optimized, so we think it’s critical for us as an employer to try to capture some of that market.”

Walstra says it comes down to a matter of choosing where to be active in the hunt for workers.

“People have their phones with them all the time now, and in order to reach both passive and active candidates, Interstates has to offer that convenience in some way,” Walstra says, adding that the simple pressure to be in that space also plays a part. “When we’re selling Interstates to applicants and telling them all the innovative things we’re doing from an engineering standpoint — and then we’re maybe using an old-school application process — there’s a chance for a disconnect there. We need to progress and be as innovative as much as our engineers and programmers. Why should the HR function be any different?”          

Zind is a freelance writer based in Lee’s Summit, Mo. He can be reached at tomzind@att.net.