When the Covid-19 crisis erupted, it was like nothing before. The staffing industry — like others — is bracing itself for the toll the pandemic is having on the economy.
“I don’t think anybody knew how quickly the onslaught of this would come,” says Jim Nichiporuk, VP of enterprise sales strategy and delivery at staffing provider Acara Solutions, a division of Aleron based in Buffalo, New York.
Everybody had to come together quickly, especially when things started happening at the start of March. But it hit fast. At one point, things were changing by the hour.
Staffing firms responded by ramping up communications, setting people up to work from home, helping on-site workers get protective gear and adjusting to a totally new environment. All of this was happening amid a massive economic slowdown as states and local areas issued stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which causes Covid-19.
Demand for some healthcare workers went up, but it fell for many others. US jobless claims surged.
Staffing firms had to respond to clients, external workers and internal workers. And they continue to engage with these stakeholders as the battle against Covid-19 continues.
Communicating Well — and Often
Always imperative, communication became all the more so.
“One thing that it all came down to is communication is key and, really, the frequency of communication,” Nichiporuk says.
Acara Solutions moved people to work from home, where possible, and communicated with clients about how that works — all part of creating a virtual office culture. Acara Solutions began holding weekly online forums to share with workers any new information on how to safeguard themselves, how to come to work and the mechanics of getting paid, among other things.
The company also holds online events to boost morale, such as family fun Fridays and after-hours trivia nights. These help workers socialize and are open to both internal workers and contractors, enabling them to get to know about each other, including about their children and pets.
An Early Start
Brian T. Anderson says his company’s chief information security officer began educating him about Covid-19 at the end of February. Anderson is president of The Judge Group, a staffing, consulting and training firm based in Philadelphia.
Early March was dedicated to Covid-19 planning and how to be prepared in the event their offices were closed, with the only option being a remote workforce. Anderson sent an official letter to clients, contractors and employees on March 10th letting them know about how the company was prepared for Covid-19.
As part of its strategy, the company purchased hundreds of laptops in case consultants needed to work from home — and they did. Some clients, while interested in having workers continue working, didn’t have the equipment. Efforts have since shifted to securing personal protective equipment.
The Judge Group also began holding virtual town hall meetings with their teams to train them to reach out to consultants and clients. Everyone was encouraged to lead with empathy and focus on addressing individual customer’s needs. They also spoke to vendor partners, addressing concerns such as what happens to people on H-1B visas if they lose their work.
Meanwhile, Anderson was fielding questions from clients about business resiliency. For example, “What happens if 70% of your business goes away tomorrow? Can you continue to support us?” Conversely, what if the client company had to ramp up by 30% and the staffing firm’s team was hit by Covid-19; could they still support them?
The Judge Group provides staffing in several verticals, which has helped the company pivot workers to support clients with mission-critical requirements. While focusing on innovation and safety, the company retrained 35 of its several hundred IT recruiters to work in healthcare recruiting.
And in terms of communication during the pandemic, video conferencing and other technology has helped by enabling people meet face-to-face, if not in person.
Communications, preparedness plans, quarantine protocols and prevention were key. “I’ve come closer to my employees and my customers and my business partners more than ever before,” Anderson says.
Artificial intelligence-powered chatbots, which are relatively new, are getting a workout during the Covid-19 crisis.
“We really broke all our records in the last couple of weeks,” says Eyal Grayevsky, CEO and co-founder at Mya Systems, maker of an AI-powered recruitment chatbot. In one 24-hour period, the company reported more than 100,000 conversations.
About half of Mya’s customers are staffing companies.
Grayevsky says many staffing firms are seeing parts of their business pause while other parts surge. In a short period of time, the chatbot is able to reach out to workers, see if they are interested in a job, qualify them and then schedule interviews.
The chatbot can also work with employees to keep them updated even when business is paused.
Mya Systems had just announced an $18.75 million series C funding round in March. Grayevsky says the company is working to support customers and is using the money from the funding round to invest in product and partnerships, including with other HR tech firms.
Workers are being furloughed and laid off. And while some areas are still active, many are not. The times are very difficult for many segments of the industry.
“I think search and place is shut down pretty firmly,” said Art Papas, founder and CEO of staffing software firm Bullhorn Inc. The leisure and hospitality industry is also being hit hard.
Looking at his company’s data, job orders are down about 30% from their February peak and new placements are about 30% of what they previously were, Papas says.
But while a good part of the country is shut down, business continues in some spots. For example, there is still a lot of critical manufacturing and industrial work going on. And job orders continue to come in.
Looking at just manufacturing facilities, warehouses and hospitals, 70% of hours are still being logged, he says.
However, when things do turn around, staffing firms will be well-positioned to benefit because hiring companies will be concerned about a second wave of Covid-19, Papas says. Rather than staffing up with full-time employees, they will likely turn to contract labor until there’s a vaccine and a stable long-term outlook.
In the meantime, though, staffing firms are working through the present situation as well as preparing for the future.
Right now, that means serving essential businesses that remain open during the stay-at-home orders, says Jeff Burnett, president and CEO of Labor Finders, an industrial staffing provider based in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Labor Finders is focusing on clients that are continuing to operate and looking at other new opportunities where the company wasn’t entrenched prior to the crisis — for example, the grocery business. It is also working to recruit workers for needed business, although one side effect of the increased unemployment benefits offered during the Covid-19 crisis is they may encourage some people not to work.
The company, however, continues to move forward.
“I’m pretty proud of our team and how they’ve responded to this,” Burnett says.
Like others, he is also keeping an eye on the future and for when stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, allowing people to get back to work.
For now, many people in the country seems to be in a holding pattern, anxious for the restart. However, Burnett says restarting the economy won’t be as simple as turning on a switch.
The hope is “ we’ll rebuild nicely and the economy will come back, but it’s going to take a little bit of time,” he says.
By Craig Johnson|April 21st, 2020