Technology

General Electric focuses on tech in its talent hunt

CEO Jeffrey Immelt is leading GE’s transition away from the industrial.

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File 2016

CEO Jeffrey Immelt is leading GE’s transition away from the industrial.

For years, General Electric Co. relied on a tried-and-true playbook for hiring: Sit back and let the resumes roll in.

But today, as part of a corporate makeover that includes moving its headquarters to Boston, GE says it wants to hire the software programmers and other digital talent who are the backbone of the innovation economy.

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That pits the 124-year-old industrial stalwart against the giants of the next-generation tech world. And to keep up, GE is going on the offensive.

With a top recruiting executive poached from the tech industry leading the way, GE is implementing plans to pursue job candidates all over the Web, using some of the same digital marketing tactics that an online retailer might use to sell you a pair of shoes.

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The idea is to find prospective employees well before they’re ready to send in a resume, said John Termotto, who joined the company in 2014 after stints as a recruiting executive for Akamai Technologies Inc. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

“There’s a war for talent, and talent is winning that war,” Termotto said. “I don’t think GE saw Facebook or Apple or Google as a competitor for talent five years ago. But they certainly are now.”

GE’s changing approach to tech recruiting is part of a larger push to reinvent the company for the digital age. Over the past few years, the conglomerate has sold off its stake in NBC, its iconic appliance division, and most of its financial services businesses.

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In their place is a $15 billion plan to build software units into GE’s many industrial businesses, from jet engines to wind turbines, with the goal of making GE “a top 10 software company by 2020,” chief executive Jeffrey Immelt wrote in his most recent letter to shareholders.

GE has a steep hill to climb, however, if it hopes that dominance in the emerging industrial Internet will make it competitive with the world’s hottest software companies.

Company stock is a key part of employee compensation, and here GE typically lags such high-fliers as Facebook and Google parent Alphabet Inc.

GE’s new headquarters in the Seaport District, underwritten with incentives from Boston and the state, is a key part of that plan to transform the company into what Immelt has called a “digital industrial” leader.

This spring, Immelt told Boston-area business leaders that being able to “look out the window and see deer” at GE’s longtime headquarters in suburban Connecticut had become a competitive liability. Instead, he wanted GE employees to get a new competitive kick from being surrounded by Boston’s world-class technology and education scenes.

“I want people that are down in the Seaport, I want them to walk out of our office every day and be terrified,” Immelt said. “I want to be in the sea of ideas so paranoia reigns supreme.”

That sense of urgency prompted GE to turn to SmashFly Technologies Inc., a Concord company whose software lets companies market their job openings more aggressively online.

SmashFly’s product allows companies to comb the Internet for publicly available information, such as Google search results and LinkedIn profiles, to find potential job candidates with the right qualifications.

Recruiters can contact those candidates to see if they’re interested in a new position, or use the information to flesh out digital dossiers of people who visit a company website and sign up for e-mails to hear more about possible jobs.

The software also helps companies publish job openings across the Web and tracks the sources that show results, which can be an eye-opener for hiring departments.

“We have case after case of companies, when they see that data, who say ‘Oh my God — we spent all this money and we haven’t gotten anyone to the interview stage?’ ” SmashFly chief executive Michael Hennessy said.

The approach was a big step forward for GE, which in some cases relied on recruiters to maintain spreadsheets of potential hires, Termotto said. “Technology was a black hole in the talent acquisition space in GE,” he said.

The company also is trying to spiff up its image, especially among younger techies. GE has run a series of lighthearted commercials revolving around a tousle-haired guy with hip glasses who explains to befuddled friends and relatives that he’s taking a cool software job at GE.

That kind of marketing will be needed to compete with the titans of tech and fast-growing startups, said Larry S. Kahn, a vice president at the Swampscott recruiting firm New Dimensions in Technology.

“The perception is still that it’s a much older organization . . . and that they’re building products that are not as sexy as some of the software companies,” Kahn said. “If they’re able to rebrand that image, they’ll at least get candidates to talk with them. But the hardest part is closing those candidates.”

And while GE will be anchoring itself next to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, and other top-shelf universities, the company will instantly find furious competition for tech talent.

The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council recently reported that there were 17 tech-related job openings for every new graduate holding a bachelor’s degree in tech fields in 2014. That competition is driven in part by West Coast tech giants like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Twitter, all of which have offices in the area.

Those household names are probably not quaking in their boots at the prospect of hiring battles with GE, said Sean McLoughlin, head of the tech recruiting practice at recruiting firm HireMinds LLC.

“I would say the number one request we hear from candidates is, ‘I want to work for a consumer-oriented company.’ That’s what GE’s up against,” McLoughlin said.

But if GE goes head-to-head with business-software companies or other behind-the-scenes tech providers, “I think that’s when they’ll be able to show their muscle.”

Curt Woodward can be reached at curt.woodward@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.
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