June 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

Good help is hard to find

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Talent is also scarce at less senior levels, particularly in hot, new specialties like search engine optimization and marketing. Scifres of Affinity Group says he hired a junior staffer from CampingWorld.com and sent him to conferences and training courses to turn him into a search engine optimization specialist. “If you go out to the market, the compensation is high for SEO people, more than we can afford,” he says.

Scifres says compensation varies widely by market. Affinity Group, which operates 52 e-commerce and informational web sites, has operations in Los Angeles and Denver, as well as in Bowling Green, Ky., where Scifres is based. He says a search engine optimization expert in a major market can command a base salary in the range of $80,000 to $120,000, while in smaller markets they might receive $45,000 to $80,000.

Back to school

Scifres is one of several online retailers turning to local universities to find students to train in hard-to-find skills. He asks professors at Bowling Green University to recommend top students in marketing, advertising and programming, then offers the students part-time jobs at $8 to $11 per hour.

“In the first 90 days, if they’re not any good, we know it and get a replacement,” he says. “If they are good, they stay on for a year or a year and a half, and by that time they have experience.”

Tom Cox, president and CEO of web-only retailer Golfballs.com in Lafayette, La., gives presentations to business and computer science classes at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “That keeps me plugged into a steady flow of young people ready to graduate,” he says. “We really haven’t recruited nationally. We’ve found good talent locally and grown that talent.”

More courses are being taught in online specialties. Teaching the course at Ohio State is Laura Thieme, president of Columbus, Ohio-based search engine marketing company Bizresearch. Thieme says she proposed the course because she has trouble finding workers with knowledge of such subjects as paid and organic search, search engine optimization and web site analytics.

“I have a shortage of staff, and I don’t know of any search engine agency that isn’t struggling with it,” she says,

Also recognizing that staffing shortage, the Search Engine Marking Professional Organization this year launched its SEMPO Institute, which offers online courses in search marketing. The first course, Fundamentals of Search Marketing, attracted 81 students.

Think out of the box

In a tight market, retailers not only have to find good workers, they also have to recruit them. Gore, the recruiter, notes that nearly half of Ph.D. candidates in U.S. science and engineering schools are immigrants. He says companies that have a diverse work force and programs, including mentoring, that help people feel included will be more attractive to those from other countries.

Special perks or tactics can help attract and retain skilled workers.

Catalog and web retailer L.L. Bean tries to turn its location in Maine, well off the beaten track for many Stanford or Princeton grads, into a plus by offering employees free use of seven company-owned cabins and access to camping, fishing and other outdoor gear. The company also paid 4,900 employees, including all full-time workers, a 7.5% bonus last year.

So Young Park, who moved from New York City to head up e-commerce at Musician’s Friend, an online retailer, began a blog to describe to friends and relatives her experiences in rural southern Oregon. Joiner says the blog helped him recruit two candidates to work for Park last fall.

“The blog really humanized her,” he says. “I would e-mail it to candidates and say, ‘There’s the person you’re going to be working with. Read the blog and you’ll see how smart and nice she is.’”

And, every now and then, fortune smiles on a retailer, even one in Cumberland, Md.

Butler of Dishes, Décor and More says she recently hired an I.T. professional who had been working for defense contractors in the Washington area and wanted to move back to Cumberland, where she had a home and could more easily commute to West Virginia University, 60 miles away, to work on her Ph.D.

“She had the experience we had been looking for for six months and hadn’t been able to hire,” Butler says. “I lucked out.”


What do recruiters charge?

There are two types of recruiting firms, with different fee structures.

Some recruiters work on a contingency basis and they only are paid if a candidate they find is hired by the client firm. Harry Joiner of EcommerceRecruiter.com works on this basis, and says his fee typically is about 20% of the employee’s first-year base pay.

Retained search firms generally are expected to take greater responsibility for vetting potential candidates and are guaranteed payment even if the client does not hire anyone. Gene Manheim, who leads the E-Commerce/Internet practice at Herbert Mines Associates, a retained search firm, says a typical fee is around a third of the employee’s base salary, with the fee paid in the first 30 to 120 days of the search.

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