Virtual recruiting, real work: Hiring utility employees in the COVID-19 era

Unlike other parts of the economy, the electric utility sector wasn’t shut down by the pandemic, and hiring activities didn’t take a dive. Jennifer Rockwood, managing director at the human resources consultancy Russell Reynolds, said her book of business is up 15% year over year.

What changed, according to utility recruiters, is how interviews, technical assessments, and recruiting happen.

Changing up interviewing

Imagine hiring someone you’ve never met in person. “If I proposed that to clients a year ago, they’d probably have thought I was crazy,” Rockwood said. But, as head of her firm’s power and utilities practice, she’s now seeing her clients hire people they’ve never met face to face. Many other companies are doing the same. It’s the virtual reality of recruiting and hiring in the COVID-19 age. 

“Face-to-face interviews are increasingly being replaced with virtual interviews,” said Carl Mycoff, founder and managing director of Mycoff Frey Partners, a firm that supplies recruiting services and temporary personnel to the power sector.

He reported that his team recently completed two executive searches where candidates had no in-person interviews at all. Rockwood has seen the same. In other instances, initial interviews might be conducted online through a video platform like Microsoft Teams or Zoom, and then utilities employ some creative ways to enable face-to-face interaction.

“We have one executive search happening in a somewhat rural area, and one board member is hosting interviews at his farm,” Mycoff said. “We’re doing the interviews outside so we can use social distancing and conduct meetings without masks.” This particular search is for a chief executive, and Mycoff noted that “the interaction between the board and the CEO was vital to the decision-making. There’s a certain chemistry that happens or doesn’t happen in an interview that can drive a decision.”

For similar reasons, Rockwood said some of her candidates have had interviews that included walks in a park or meetings at an outdoor café — tactics now employed as a way to shed masks and see the whole candidate live. As Mycoff said, “Masks make interviewing difficult in two ways. It’s more difficult to hear questions and answers, and you can’t see facial expressions. It’s difficult to read people.”

Hiring professionals are well aware of the shortcomings virtual interviews present.

Among those drawbacks are the uninvited “guest appearances,” said Rockwood. Kids, cats, dogs, delivery people, “power going out. All sorts of things happen,” she explained. She also said that people are getting used to the disruptions and generally shrug them off with a smile.

Here’s something that doesn’t make interviewers smile: bad dressing. On Zoom, no one can tell if you’re wearing trousers, but they can see if you’re wearing a sweatshirt, as one candidate did in an interview for an executive position. “I get it: They’re working from home, but it’s still a job interview,” she said, reminding that appropriate attire is still necessary.

There are some positives to virtual interviews. Ease is one plus, and three out of the four experts in this story mentioned that it’s now easier to get interviews coordinated. “It’s easier to schedule people,” said Tammie Krumm, director of human resources at Missouri River Energy Services. Rockwood agreed, particularly concerning the C-level and upper-management people she places. “If you’re flying someone in for the interview, you’re going to try and arrange multiple meetings for the day to make good use of the candidate’s time while traveling,” she said. “The fact that we can do these interviews virtually and not require traveling … I honestly could see that being more of a norm going forward.”

New challenges

Other aspects of online recruiting and interviewing present more concerning issues and challenges. One is the lack of one-on-one interaction, said Krumm. “You don’t get the handshake. You miss some of the nonverbal cues and body language,” she explained.

Another downside: Virtual interviews take away a utility’s ability to see how job candidates fit into the environment in which they’ll work. “We have outside line workers, we have plant operations, we have schedulers,” said Krumm, and many of these positions require the ability to work with specific technology. “It’s important to be able to bring somebody in and walk them through the area to get their take and see their comfort level with what’s going on,” she added.

Tracy Reimbold, vice president of human resources and administrative services for American Municipal Power, Inc., agrees, but her organization has chosen not to bring technical people in before hiring them. “Sometimes the résumés and the experience speak for themselves. We haven’t had anything detrimental happen because of virtual interviews,” she said.

However, Reimbold does see one problem with online video conferencing tools, particularly when hiring for craft positions. She said sometimes a little extra coaching might be needed because, often, people who run power plants have less experience using something like Microsoft Teams than someone who uses it for meetings day-to-day. “Our recruiter will get online with someone 20 minutes early and work through any technology issues they may have. He’ll help people get set up and comfortable for the virtual interview,” she explained.

Virtual interviews also eliminate the candidate’s ability to evaluate the potential work environment and, in some cases, even a different town where that candidate might need to live. That was a problem for two midlevel managers Mycoff saw recruited, interviewed and hired virtually. “Because of the difficulty with relocation during the pandemic, these people were working from home after getting hired,” he recalled. “When it came time to physically relocate, the people quit. Our clients had them on payroll working from home for three months and then lost them.”

Less paper, more efficiencies

One nice surprise for some human resources professionals was the process improvements born from pandemic workarounds.

Both AMP and MRES closed corporate offices but kept people working nonstop. Both organizations still have many employees working remotely.

“When you’re in the office, you can make a copy or grab a file,” Krumm said. “Many processes now need to be converted so you don’t need to scan 85 sheets of paper” for a personnel file or new employee orientation.

AMP was already in the process of making that conversion, said Reimbold. The organization had started streamlining new-hire paperwork and found it relatively easy to accelerate the process.

“We put in place DocuSign, and we’re using electronic signatures,” she said. “We’re having a better response on getting the paperwork back in a timely manner because people don’t need to sit down and fill out paper, then scan it and send it back to us. We’re getting real-time acknowledgements on things.”

AMP had also started scanning personnel files in an effort to convert them to digital assets, and people hired in the past few months no longer have a physical personnel file. “We are storing those files electronically, and it’s much more efficient. If we’re working virtually from another location, we can access information more readily,” Reimbold said.

“You’re not creating all of this paper, making copies and putting binders together,” said Krumm. This applies to both personnel files and electronic training or onboarding, which MRES has put in place. “Across the board, there are process improvements.”

Expanded options

Even the process of attracting applicants has seen some changes that have worked surprisingly well. “Our recruiter has explored hiring options,” said Reimbold, who referenced as one recently added way the organization looks for talent. “He now has the ability to do more headhunting though electronic platforms.”

In addition, AMP has found virtual job fairs at colleges to be a new talent-scouting venue. “We try to have a strong presence at those job fairs because of our location in Columbus, Ohio,” she said, adding that both nearby Ohio State and the University of Cincinnati have strong engineering programs. Reimbold said that both schools recently held virtual job fairs.

At these fairs, students could sign up for 10-minute interviews with representatives from the attending organizations. AMP brought two representatives — an engineer and an environmental expert — along with their recruiter. All three kept busy. “They each received about 75 résumés,” Reimbold said. AMP generally finds its interns and entry-level workers through college job fairs. “To be able to make this shift and still generate such a high level of interest, that’s great,” she added.

Although virtual processes have some drawbacks, they also have surprising advantages. Clearly, recruiters, students and other job candidates have quickly gotten comfortable with the switch to virtual options, something Rockwood called unexpected. It’s also, she said, “a testament to human flexibility.”