As one of the biggest staffing firms in the world, Robert Half International is on the front lines of the job market. Globe reporter Katie Johnston sat down with New England district president Bill Driscoll to ask him about the local employment outlook.
What are you seeing going on in the local labor market?
There’s definitely just kind of been slow, steady improvement. Nothing off the charts.
How does it compare to what’s going on in the rest of the country?
Massachusetts specifically, and the Boston area, would be doing slightly better than the rest of the country. You can see that in the unemployment rate, you see it in the temp hiring numbers, and the permanent placement numbers as well.
What do you attribute that to?
You’ve got highly skilled workers here, highly educated workers, college-degreed workers — a high percentage of them. And then you’ve got the life sciences, health care, biotech fields, the innovation economy so to speak. So those companies have been hiring and creating a lot of jobs.
Are there other hot sectors out there?
IT, financial analysis, senior staff accounting. The specialized skill sets, it’s becoming harder and harder to find those people.
The last state jobs report in August showed some softening. The unemployment rate went up a little bit, we shed about 4,800 jobs. Has that affected the staffing industry?
One month a trend does not make. Typically in the temporary workforce we will see any significant issues come quickly. If they really think that things are going to get nasty, you’d see those temp numbers come down. We haven’t seen that. In fact, third quarter, we saw strong sequential growth in both temporary and permanent placement.
Do you see employers upping their job qualifications, with jobs that used to require a high school diploma or associate’s degree now requiring a bachelor’s?
Yes, not just as it relates to degrees. [Employers might say,] “In the past we would have taken skill set A and B. But you know what, we should have a better choice based on the fact that unemployment’s so high, so we want A,B,C, and D.”
But you’re not necessarily seeing employers requiring a higher degree of education?
Lower-skill-level jobs are being filled by people with more experience, and so less entry-level people have been getting into the workforce because people have been willing to do lower-level jobs just to make ends meet. Having said that, the National Association of Colleges and Employers just said that [in] their nationwide survey, employers were planning on hiring 13 percent more entry-level folks from the class of 2013.
Are you seeing more companies relying on temporary employees?
Yes. Definitely companies have embraced the temporary workforce as a must-have. You take a fixed cost, turn it into a variable cost. Most businesses aren’t busy all the time. They have peak periods and down periods and they realize that they can hire temporary labor to meet those peak demands.
That’s harder on workers, though, because they’re not necessarily getting benefits or the security of a full-time staff position.
Companies like ours offer access to benefits. Yes, what you say is accurate. The other side, too, is that it gives a lot of people opportunities, and companies tend to use these temporary assignments also as live tryouts for people. We’ve seen our conversion rates rising, and I could tell you thousands of stories of people who thought they were just going on a one-month, two-month, three-month gig that ended up with a permanent job and lived happily ever after.
Do you get a greater satisfaction when you’ve been able to help somebody who’s been out of work for a long time?
It always feels good when you get somebody a job. It’s fantastic. And when it’s tough times, certainly that’s great, too. But obviously it’s a lot harder for us as well, because it’s hard to find jobs in those times for anybody.
What do you do when there are so many people in need of work and not enough jobs?
You make more phone calls.