Stop complaining about lack of talent. Start co-oping.

What if we choose to aggressively build instead of buy top performance?

I know all about the talent shortage. It’s pervasive in the world of IT staffing, where we’ve seen demand for recruiting cyber security and hiring data analytics professionals rise by more than 120% year over year. But looking beyond the tech arena, my peers in corporate operations also have a bad habit of complaining there are “no good candidates” to fill in-house jobs. They’re wrong. 

Let’s call it the fallacy of experience. We’re conditioned to associate work experience with capability. But what if we recruit for potential over tenure? What if we choose to aggressively build instead of buy top performance? It’s not easy, but that’s the path we’ve chosen at S.i. Systems. I’d love to share some lessons learned from our co-op and internship program. 

Was your first job terrible? 

Mine wasn’t. There were things that were handled very well; three weeks of training, clear expectations on KPIs, and a buddy system for peer-to-peer mentorship. Then the wheels came off and I fell into a cycle of feeling “lesser than,” relative to more experienced members of my team. Re-working old searches, working on low net value accounts with less opportunity for commission, in essence, more grunt work. It took a lot of perseverance from me, and I couldn’t help feeling the company had set me up to fail. Great start, poor follow through.  

All too often, companies offer internships that are poorly structured afterthoughts, or even worse, comprised completely of grunt work. Need someone to clean up addresses in your client database? Get an intern! Need to reformat spreadsheets for field reporting? Give it to the co-op! It doesn’t have to be this way. 

We launched our co-op program with some “what if” challenges: 

  • What if we could give participants meaningful, real-life job experiences, not just a filler entry for their CV?  
  • What if we could hold our co-ops and interns to the same standards of production as staff who’d been here a few years?
  • What if we could get new recruiters making 10 placements in days or weeks, not months? 

The payoff from these efforts have been nothing short of amazing. Last month at our co-op award ceremony, we celebrated the success stories of our most recent cohort of 17 participants. Some of the outcomes continue to shock me: 

  • Most placements in a month: 8 
  • Most client interviews in their term (4 months): 72 
  • There are even some fun categories like “The Squirrel Award,” for who has the best stash of goodies and snacks at their desk. 

Financial rewards plus freedom to explore.

I love hearing directly from participants about how rewarding their experience is. Rachel, who came to us from Queens University shared, “With every new opportunity, I feel more assured in my own skills and ability to take on more complex work.” In the first six months of work, we provide more than 83 hours of hands-on training. What’s more, our program is well-paid. Many of our recent cohort earned over $7,000 a month!

But even better, I love seeing participants go on to successful careers, here at S.i. Systems and elsewhere. We hire 61% of our co-ops into full-time jobs. It’s the first step into a career pathing program in which 77% of our account executives are hired from within. 

Primarily—but not exclusively—for University students. 

The numbers are on our side. Canada’s population is aging, but there are more than 1.4 million students in our university system, according to the Universities Canada association. That’s an enormous pool of motivated, ambitious, and fun talent right there. More than half (56%) incorporate some sort of experiential learning like co-ops or internships into their education. That should be higher.  

But co-ops shouldn’t be just for students. S.i. Systems has used our program as an engine to new graduates and other talent as well. By following the same principles and structure, we ensure that everyone is launched with meaningful work, an opportunity to learn and grow, and the ability to make some moula while they are at it. 

What about the cost? Aren’t you afraid trainees will walk out the door? 

We’re not naïve. We have made a huge investment in the success of this program. It starts with the schools. You need to have someone on your team committed to fostering those relationships; which events are upcoming, sponsoring events, hackathons, etc. You can’t do that off the side of a desk; in our case it took a Campus Team Lead. A good relationship with the schools is the start of your employer brand for co-ops. It also takes consistency and time. Many of our managers would need to take time after hours to go to hiring fairs, hold down a booth, and sell the S.i. dream. And of course, none of this happens if this isn’t sponsored from the CEO down. 

One program pairs co-ops and new hires with top performers. Realistically, we know this can impact productivity. You might expect some complaints—both from those assigned mentors and from our executive team—but we’ve experienced the opposite. 

By building the knowledge-sharing into our culture, we’ve elevated it from an obligation to an honor. Our producers are future managers, and this gives them the opportunity to test their chops. Plus, it’s incredibly rewarding to share expertise with someone who’s eager to learn. 

If you love train somebody, set them free…

And yes, co-ops leave before they ‘pay back’ the investment we’ve made in their career. But with some estimates of turnover in the staffing industry coming in around 25% (I think it’s much higher), that’s a risk we’re willing to take. A ClearlyRated article claims that “Staffing firms suffer 6 months of partial or full employee productivity loss from a single turnover event.” But we’ve gained more company performers and leaders than we’ve lost. 

And we’ve given our program participants an incredible experience, rather than a soul-crushing one. We’ve also prepared them to earn more—and give back more—in their future careers. That’s good for some job orders and referrals down the road, certainly. 

Stop complaining, start co-oping. 

It probably goes without saying, but if your executive team doesn’t fully buy in to the idea of a co-op as the primary pipeline for internal staff, the program likely won’t get off the ground. But it’s not enough to just whine about the lack of candidates when you absolutely can do something about it. 

I’m passionate about this subject and would love to hear your ideas for introducing and developing successful programs. What’s worked for you? What questions do you have? When you commit to meaningful work for entry-level talent as we have at S.i. Systems, I’m confident you’ll reap the rewards.

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