How to Hire in Rural America: Get Creative

Entrepreneur

Finding just the right hires in metropolitan areas, where talent is attracted like moths to a flame, typically means combing through resumes of qualified candidates who are found through recruiters, LinkedIn and job boards. But filling those same jobs in rural America presents a far greater challenge. Chances are there are few, if any, people who have the exact skills you're looking for. If there is that magical candidate in your town, it's likely they're already working for someone else.

When there is no "Mr. Right," entrepreneurs need to take a more creative approach and look beyond education, experience and core business knowledge when hiring in their communities. Those three qualities should not be ignored, but when you're building a business in rural America, you're going to find "Mr. Right Now." The challenge is to know exactly what abilities you need, then go out and recruit your "Mr. Right Now" the old-fashioned way, by identifying them before they even know there's a job prospect on the horizon.

Find the right people in all the 'wrong' places.
Small towns might not have big office buildings, but they do have an abundance of churches, medical offices, schools and shopping centers. Start there and look for standout employees who appear to have the potential you seek inside your organization. That means shopping with a purpose other than grabbing a gallon of milk; chatting with the nurses in your doctor's office to find out more about their lives; and finding the person in your church who is running all the committees single-handedly. Schools have scores of employees, too, and are worth scouring.

At my children's clothing company, Lolly Wolly Doodle, we have had great luck with nurses and other medical professionals. Our creative director was the head of the obstetrics floor at our local hospital, for example.

Related: Your Secret to Hiring a Kick-Ass Team

Interview unconventionally.
When no one in your town has the exact experience you seek, it's better to recruit people whose DNA matches that of your company and then try to find a place for them. Personality goes a long way, and, for many startups, so do persistence, flexibility and a willingness to dig in and do what is needed to get the job done. You need to find a way to uncover what makes that candidate tick during the interview(s), and will likely devote more time than you initially think necessary to really get to know them.

When hiring for senior positions, don't forgo asking for a short-term plan, checking references and having your board members meet them. But your business will be well-served to factor in surprise questions that reveal who they are. For us, these are: "Do you iron?" (everyone here has to, every so often); and, "Do you dance?" Dancing is in our company spirit and it's interesting to learn how candidates react to that question.

Avoid pigeon-holing.
Once you find someone you think might be a right fit, test his skills in various departments. The merits you admired at the check-out counter might suit your customer-service department, or that candidate might be a better fit in an operations position. You are going to have to dedicate additional time to training, too, because your new employee has never done what you do before. Follow this route and you may, like us, wind up with a high school math teacher designing your enterprise resource planning.

There are enormous benefits to creative hiring. Gems are everywhere, and in rural America, they're just waiting to be uncovered. But every entrepreneur knows that hires don't always work out. In a small town, firing is particularly painful because job opportunities are so slim. Make sure you do your homework upfront and give the hiring process the time it needs for you to find the right fit. Your cashier-turned-customer relations manager will go the extra mile for you, since because you were on the lookout for them before they even knew a job at your company existed.

Related: Time to Hire? Where Small Businesses Are Adding Jobs (Infographic)

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