January 1, 2013

How to Recruit the Best

Finding and keeping talent in the metals industry

It’s not just about the money.

It’s about “selling the opportunity,” says Robert Knopik, founder and president of the Leadership Search Group, an executive recruiting firm for the metals industry based in Chicago, Illinois.           

Opportunity, of course, means very different things, depending on the job opening. For a senior-level executive, it can include a range of perks such as relocation, reimbursement or loans for everything from school tuition to a home purchase. For shop foremen or welders, opportunity might include regular salary reviews, advanced training and a chance to move up in the company. 

“People are afraid,” Knopik says. And, although the manufacturing industry continues to show signs of growth, the housing market and economy remain tenuous. “It might be a great opportunity, but what if it blows up? What if the company decides it doesn’t actually need you?” he asks. “You can be the last one in and the first one out.”

First, Define the Job

Any search must begin with a specific list of requirements and expectations. “Companies that know how to hire start out with a list of attributes they’re looking for,” Knopik says. “Say you want a top sales manager. How do you define that? What do you mean?” For some sales jobs, for example, a proven sales record in another industry may compensate for a candidate’s lack of knowledge of your specific product lines.

For welders and forklift operators, the requirements and questions would be quite different—hiring managers should be testing for basic skills and aptitudes, says Edward Youdell, president and CEO of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International in Rockford, Illinois. For instance, does the candidate have a forklift certification? Is a metalworker candidate familiar with the machinery in your plant?

“In standard metal fabrication, you’re using technology like a laser cutting machine, and that’s a half-million-dollar investment,” he says. “You need to look for that person’s aptitude and level of skill to program equipment properly and run it at peak efficiency.” At any level in the operation, clarity and specificity in job requirements are essential.

The company also must define its metrics for assessing candidates. The perfect candidate—the one with the right degree, skill set, salary requirements and location—is a mythical creature. Prioritizing desired attributes helps to ensure that when someone is ultimately hired, the company and the candidate know what they are getting.

Hiring managers should also decide whether they must have someone from within the industry, or whether they would just prefer it. In the metals industry, Knopik says, the prevailing preference is to hire employees with specialized experience. But, with a good training program, depending on the job, hiring from outside may offer more, and ultimately better, candidates.

Knopik recalls a scenario when he was filling a vice president of operations role in 2011 for a roller chain company. The best candidate ultimately came from the aerospace industry. “He didn’t have experience in chain manufacturing, but he came from a lean manufacturing, six-sigma environment,” he says. That flexibility can open up more options for industries that are challenged by an aging work force and the scarcity of young recruits.

“A lateral hire who’s been out of school for 20 years, they know the game and what they want to do,” says Mark Smith, assistant vice chancellor and director of the career center at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Young and inexperienced candidates, however, can be very confused by the process. “When you ask a young person, ‘Why should we believe that you can do this job?’ they’re not used to selling themselves.”

Next, Identify Candidates

A relatively limited talent pool, especially in middle-management positions, troubles the metals and manufacturing industries, a consequence of their historically modest recruiting methods. Service centers, in particular, may not have been constantly infused with young talent. These are mostly family businesses that employ succeeding generations. Employees start young and work their way up, but that can leave gaping holes that should be filled by workers between 25 and 40 years old.

In fact, a 2011 review from the Economics and Statistics Administration indicates that employees 45 years or older now make up almost half of manufacturing employment, up from about one-third in the 1990s. In addition, between 2007 and 2010, the number of workers younger than 25, and between 25 and 35, decreased by about 30 percent and 15 percent, respectively, compared to about 13 percent and 3 percent in private non-manufacturing industries.

College education and recruitment programs like the Ferrous Metallurgy Education Today Initiative, created by the American Iron and Steel Institute and the Association for Iron and Steel Technology Foundation, aim to reverse this trend. These initiatives educate students about metallurgy and materials science through internships and scholarship opportunities—and seek to eventually employ these graduates in the metals industry.

Mel Baggett, former vice president of human resources at Severstal North America, says the global steelmaker used its paid internship program to cultivate future employees. “We like growing our own,” he says. “With internships, we develop employees through our own culture.” It’s a proven vetting method, and hiring managers know exactly what they’re getting before they extend a full-time offer, he says, while avoiding expensive training on an employee who doesn’t fit in.

While grants, scholarships and hands-on, paid internships offer appealing opportunities to young talent, when companies are looking for employees to fill middle- or upper-management roles, they frequently must look to their competitors. The best candidates for the job are often already employed, Knopik says.

Assess the Talent

Transforming a candidate into an employee requires a thorough interview, ideally led by the individual who will supervise the candidate. “If I’m replacing a VP or a high-level position, the retiring incumbent should be involved in the selection,” says Jan Burke, senior recruiter at MetalJobs Network, a metals recruiting agency in Eastwood, Kentucky. “But not every really good manager is a very good interviewer.” This, of course, is true of shop floor hires, as well. 

“Entry-level interviews focus on personality and trying to determine the candidate’s attitude toward the type of work or specificposition for which he or she is interviewing,” says Olga Filatova, the present vice president of human resources at Severstal North America. “Executive interviews should focus on how [the candidate’s] past experience relates to the open position.” The candidate should be asked to specifically explain how he or she will make a positive contribution to the company’s profits.

Though these are tough and important questions, some hiring managers can gloss over them because of this common pitfall: People love to talk about themselves. Interviewing managers can wind up talking far too much about themselves and their own backgrounds. By the end of the interview, these managers don’t realize they’ve learned very little about the candidate. “I’ve seen it happen where an interview went like that and the manager says, ‘I really like that guy,’” Burke says. “That doesn’t mean he’s a good fit for the job. That just means the manager walked away feeling good [after talking about himself.]”

Although standardized personality profiling is popular as a vetting technique, Knopik cautions companies against placing too much value on the results. People can test well, but their actions can be inconsistent with the results once they’re on the job. “You have to spend time with candidates to understand how they’ll fit into your company culture,” he says. Which also means a company must accurately understand its own culture. Aggressive individuals, for example, may not fit well at all in an environment that is laidback or team-oriented.

Settling In

No surprise, companies that successfully hire the best talent must provide competitive salaries, and should offer significant raises when trying to recruit someone who is currently employed, says Jan Burke, senior recruiter at Metals Jobs Network. “If a company isn’t able to considerably improve on the position’s base pay, it can promise a review after six months instead of a year, at which point the candidate could receive a raise.”

With salary issues settled and perks in place, the process of introducing the candidate to the company begins. “It’s so important to make them feel like part of the team from the moment they say, ‘I do,’” Burke says. Within 24 hours of candidates accepting the offer, they should get a call from their new boss welcoming them. “It only takes a few minutes and the employee will feel they made the right decision,” she says.

This initial feeling of being welcomed needs to be nurtured by regular meetings with supervisors to make sure the new hire’s expectations match the job’s reality. Sometimes when small issues crop up early, they can become big problems in the mind of a new employee, Burke says. “I’m not saying that it’s the company’s responsibility to adapt every role to always satisfy the candidate, but be flexible, and if it’s possible to keep everyone happy, try to do it. It’s so much more expensive to replace people.”

In addition to finding an employee who will be engaged and enthusiastic, perhaps the best way to keep new hires is to create a company whose employees are its own evangelists. “When a person loves the company they work for, they’ll be able to give three reasons why a candidate or new hire should be excited about the job,” Burke says. It’s a result that is self-perpetuating, a relationship that strengthens over time, but begins from the moment candidates step into the interview room.

Anatomy of an Interview

When Robert Knopik, founder and president of the Leadership Search Group, interviews a candidate, he develops questions that address the specific functions of the job, as well as assess a candidate’s core competencies. A list of 10 standard questions simply doesn’t work, he explains, because interviews are vastly different depending on the level and function of the position. Knopik concentrates on three general areas of inquiry: intellectual (how the candidate makes decisions), interpersonal (how the candidate interacts with others) and motivation (how the candidate’s goals, commitment and interests will shape his or her work).

He says it is extremely useful and revealing to ask candidates to provide specific examples of how and when they demonstrated these traits. The answers don’t always come easily. “The questions are sticky, but situations in the workplace are sticky, too,” Knopik says.

Knopik’s interview checklist and suggested questions to explore a candidate’s capabilities:


Articulateness: Does the candidate express himself or herself clearly in written and oral communication?

Creativity: Is the candidate inventive? Does he or she develop original solutions to problems?

Decisiveness: How promptly does the candidate make determinations?

Intuition: How does the candidate react to insight not supported by obvious facts and data?

Perceptiveness: Is the candidate politically astute and capable of perceiving situations as they really are?


Ambition: Is the candidate enterprising? Does he or she set objectives beyond normal expectations?

Commitment: Does the candidate pledge him or herself to a course of action?

Enthusiasm: Does the candidate have eager inter- est in the essence of the job?

Initiative: Is the candidate proactive?

Persistence: Does the candidate refuse to give up, but instead continues firmly and steadily?

Resourcefulness: Is the candidate clever in finding and using alternative solutions or resources?


Adaptability: Is the candidate flexible? Can he or she handle multiple tasks and adapt to new situations?

Assertiveness Is the candidate confident in stating opinions without infringing on others?

Empathy How does the candidate identify with others?

Independence: Is the candidate susceptible to the control or determination of others, or is he or she self-directed?

Persuasiveness: Can the candidate convince and impact others?

Self confidence: Does the candidate act decisively and forcefully?



Kelly Caldwell is an associate editor at Imagination Publishing in Chicago, Illinois.