How to Hire the Best Talent

It’s no secret that the power industry workforce is aging and managers are struggling to find qualified candidates interested in filling open positions. In my April column, I referenced a Siemens-commissioned study that found 25% of the power workforce could retire in the next five years and up to half of the workforce could retire within the next 10 years. That means recruiting will be even more important in coming years.

In my career, I have personally hired the entire operations and maintenance staff for a brand-new biomass plant—25 workers—and hired many more replacements as employee turnover occurred in subsequent years. I used what I think is a pretty typical hiring process: Advertise positions, collect applications, evaluate candidates’ past experience and performance, test candidates who seemed promising using a variety of skills exams, interview the most-promising individuals, call references for feedback, and offer the job to the person who appeared to be best-suited for the job. I would like to think I did a decent job of hiring, but I could probably have done better with more experience.

Tips from Successful Managers

I recently attended the Combustion Turbine Operations Technical Forum (CTOTF) spring conference in St. Augustine, Florida, which included a session on recruiting. One presentation focused on techniques for selecting the “right” candidates. To begin the conference session, attendees stated their names and years of experience in the power industry. Although there wasn’t a detailed tally recorded, it was posited that the room contained more than 500 years of combined experience, so the group was presumed to have some excellent insight on successful hiring practices.

One of the first suggestions offered was to look within the organization for high-achievers who could be promoted to openings. That’s obviously a good tactic. After all, current employees come with a work history within the company, and managers can leverage that more-intimate knowledge to gauge how these folks will perform in a new role. If a company has multiple facilities, transferring top performers from one plant, which may have less opportunity for job growth, to another facility where the person could assume greater responsibilities, could be beneficial to the company as a whole.

A 20-plus-year human resources professional noted that in his experience about 25% to 30% of hires come from internal referrals, so that can also be a great way to find good candidates. Another manager said his organization has “had a ton of success” with internship programs. In his experience, about 80% of interns were ultimately hired as fulltime employees by the plant. “It’s the biggest bang for a buck that we’ve done in staffing,” he said. While it’s true that getting “new blood” into an organization can be refreshing, it can also cause hard feelings among in-house employees when an outsider is brought in, so be aware of possible side effects and nip potential problems in the bud.

Working directly with local or regional technical schools can also pay dividends. By offering schools input on plant needs, technical programs can be designed to ensure graduates have the skills required to fill power plant jobs. Some specific schools that cater to the power industry include Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho; Williamson College of the Trades in Media, Pennsylvania; and Bismarck State College in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Another suggestion was to use openings as an opportunity to re-evaluate a facility’s staffing structure. The idea was not to simply replace employees like-in-kind, but rather, determine if responsibilities can be combined, duties can be changed, or positions can be eliminated.

The Interview Process

When the topic turned to interviewing candidates, several attendees chimed in. At least one company was said to have specific interview questions that could not be deviated from—the goal presumably being to ensure all candidates were evaluated on the same criteria. Another tactic offered was to revise questions in an effort to identify candidates with the desired “attitude”; the idea being a worker can be trained to do a job, but it is much harder to alter a person’s attitude.

Another manager suggested treating candidates to lunch with the team to see how individuals fit in with others at the plant. However, CTOTF Chairman Jack Borsch cautioned that interview teams will often end up hiring people who are “like them.” That may not be the best long-term strategy, because it doesn’t encourage diversity. “When you’re building your teams, look for someone that will challenge you, but still be a team player,” Borsch said.

In the end, most hiring decisions come down to a gut feeling, and research conducted by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman suggests that human intuitions are frequently wrong. Early in his career, Kahneman worked as a psychological evaluator for the Israeli Army. Kahneman wrote in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow that the army’s original interview process was “almost useless for predicting the future success of recruits.” He modified the process with a few simple statistical rules, which proved to be far superior to intuitive judgments.

Kahneman suggests selecting six traits that are prerequisites for success in a job, such as technical proficiency, engaging personality, reliability, and so on. Then, ask factual questions during an interview to assess each trait individually on a five-point scale. He said managers should resolve to hiring the candidate whose final score is the highest, even if there is another candidate who may be better liked. His research suggests this will lead to the best hiring decision in the end. ■

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor.

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