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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, October/November 2006

Pre-Employment Screening: Same Methods, Different Marketplace

by Kristra Ashbrook

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, had great impact on the food industry, but not necessarily in the way one would think. One might assume that terror threats drastically altered the processes staffing firms have used for pre-employment screening with an eye toward food safety. However, the reality is quite the contrary. The food industry has long relied on the stringent processes used by top staffing firms to pre-screen food scientists, microbiologists, etc. for research and development and manufacturing practices. Those firms using a thorough and disciplined process prior to 9/11 have found that their processes are still applicable today. However, the focus and drivers behind the screening have changed with the demands of the marketplace.

A Client-Driven Market

The recession following the terrorist attacks brought a spending shift in the food industry. Businesses stopped spending money on personnel and instead invested in safety precautions like bulletproof glass, property fencing enclosures and entrance key cards to monitor when, where and how long employees and visitors were at their facilities. As a result, salaries for food scientists dropped and the market became more client-focused.

Hiring managers placed great value on pre-employment screening, albeit not necessarily with an eye toward safety, but with the more immediate goal of ensuring they used the limited monetary resources available for personnel to hire the “right” person. Given the higher costs involved in having to fire the “wrong” person if hired directly, food companies opted to invest in the services of staffing firms with a disciplined pre-employment screening process.

Using a staffing firm to place temporary-to-permanent candidates also offered “try before you buy” protection. If a candidate did not work out, the company could simply end the assignment, whereas the dismissal of a permanent employee required a well-documented case, possibly preceded by a course of corrective action.

Candidate-Driven Market

In 2003, as consumer confidence increased and the nation began to emerge from the recession, the scientific food industry shifted from a client-driven to a candidate-driven marketplace.

Companies began hiring again and adding more positions to their staff. Overtaxed employees, who had done the job of two for the past several years, now had their choice of employers.

With this shift came a change in the focus of pre-employment screening. Previously, screening was driven by clients looking to ensure the right match. Now the candidate – who could choose from many available jobs – must be “sold” on a particular company. Staffing firms began to play a consultative role, advising client companies of those factors beyond salary and location that might influence a candidate’s job selection. Client companies came to rely on staffing firms to ensure they employed a long-term candidate, one who sought a job with those extra benefits that their company offered.

This paradigm shift in employer attitudes toward compensation prompted investments in benefits like sales-driven bonuses, enticing travel, team-building lunches and birthday holidays to recruit and retain top talent.

A New Position is Born

The anthrax threat probably had the biggest impact on the food industry, bringing to light the vulnerabilities in our nation’s food and water supply.

The threat of bioterrorism has led to the creation of a new, hybrid position in food science: Food safety personnel. This professional must not only have a manufacturing background, but also an understanding of contamination. This career path requires a micro-based degree, although no specific coursework in food safety is offered at the university level. The skills and experience of food safety personnel are niche-focused, specific to meat, milk or the canned foods industries, for example, and thus it is very expensive and difficult for companies to find qualified food safety staff.

Those with experience in this highly-skilled job are unlikely to post resumes on Monster.com and other job sites. Instead, staffing firms are tasked to find these individuals and determine through pre-employment screening those factors that have prompted them to leave their current position, and which benefits will entice them to take a new position. In addition, client companies are investing a great deal of money in training and food safety education to develop existing staff in other positions into food safety personnel.

Making the Staffing Relationship Work for You

With such emphasis placed on finding the “right” employee, it is important that companies choose the right staffing partner that follows a proven disciplined process for pre-employment screening.

It is imperative that the staffing firm have experience specifically in the food and beverage industry and those recruiters have a scientific background. A scientific background is not only helpful in discussing the skill sets required of the new employee with the client company, but also when interviewing a candidate. This will ensure that the recruiter can ask complex questions pertaining to the candidate’s work history to check the validity of the resume.

Some staffing firms may even train recruiters in behavior analysis to ensure candidates are a good match for a company’s culture. If a lab’s atmosphere is social for example, where employees are friends outside the office, introducing an introverted person could change the whole dynamic of the lab and even prompt the resignation of senior permanent employees.

Unless requested by the client company, staffing firms are not allowed to perform background checks on new hires during pre-employment screening because it is viewed as discriminatory. Instead, social security and criminal checks with the county are performed. Staffing firms generally do not sponsor workers from other countries, only employing those foreign workers who already have work visas.

Although the events of September 11th have not necessitated a change in the methods or number of staffing firms using pre-employment screening, they have only enhanced their value to hiring managers.

Krista Ashbrook is market director for Kforce Scientific Staffing (Dallas, Texas), a division of Kforce Inc. Reach her at kashbrook@kforce.com.

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