TAMPA — In a state with a sticky 10.6 percent unemployment rate and a country where "economic recovery" means stumbling forward in concrete boots, it seems bizarre that so many companies nationwide still can't fill their job openings.
Meet Kforce. The Tampa company should hit a landmark $1 billion in revenue this year, making a good living matching companies that need to fill temporary but sophisticated jobs with people with those skill sets and experience.
If the employment scene in America were that simple, Kforce would do just fine. But there's more to this story. Company CEO David Dunkel sees a shift in the way many major corporations are hiring since suffering through the rough recession. Many companies slashed payrolls during the worst of times. But don't assume they will bring back nearly as many full-time workers during this recovery.
Companies have learned to operate leaner and meaner using more temporary workers.
"We believe temporary staffing penetration of the work force may achieve historic highs in the U.S. in this cycle," Dunkel recently told analysts. "Our clients' increasing desire for a more flexible work force," he said, "… may contribute to a sustained shift toward a flexible staffing model."
It's not unusual for companies to hire more "flex" or temporary project workers and fewer full-time employees early in a recovery. But after the major downsizings of 2007 to 2010, managers remain wary of the high expense of finding and adding full-time employees with benefits and health care plans. Business executives also want to avoid the extra hassle of another round of big layoffs should the U.S. double-dip back into a recession.
And this isn't a one-sided trend. More workers are embracing — some by necessity — the role of independent contractors, aided by firms like Kforce or others like the recent St. Petersburg startup called Back of the House. Such firms increasingly provide individual workers with administrative, bookkeeping, health insurance or benefits services.
It's all about remaining flexible in a fickle economy.
Flex hiring, Kforce says, will likely become "a bigger piece of the payroll dollar in the future." In 2010, the company says, 36 percent of new jobs were temporary placements.
In this second year of the economic recovery, the company's back to 99 percent of its prior peak revenue and 46 percent of prior peak earnings.
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Step inside the enormous national recruiting center at Kforce's modern Tampa headquarters on Palm Avenue and bask in the intensity of a room that handles up to 300 (mostly) 20-somethings in headsets busy arranging job placements. This room is the heart of Kforce, where the company matches the needs of large client companies — including major drug companies, health care firms and other businesses seeking mostly temporary workers skilled in technology skills like Java programming, conversion of paper medical records to electronic medical records, accounting and other specialities.
The national recruiting center also scours social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn looking to build a deeper bench of candidates with the skills companies need now. A center in the Philippines takes over when the national recruiting center in Tampa is not open.
"There's more demand than we can handle," says a pleased Michael Blackman, Kforce corporate development chief and a 20-year veteran of the company. "That's counterintuitive to today's high unemployment rate."
No argument there. Overall, the nationwide ratio of unemployed workers to job openings is 4.7-1, with 3 million job openings in the country for 13.9 million unemployed. That means for much of the past 21/2 years, there has been no available job for at least three out of four unemployed workers.
Workers lacking the right skills is one big reason Kforce finds it hard to fill all the specialized jobs sought by its corporate clients.
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Finding the right people to keep up with Kforce's own expansion has its challenges, too.
The company's national recruitment center, stretching the length of Kforce's headquarters, is run by Jennifer Cirrito. She's a no-nonsense manager with a master's degree in microbiology who joined Kforce's center six years ago and quickly rose in the ranks. Now she oversees a sea of cubicles, typically manned by college-educated men and women, most of them young.
Kforce recruits at local universities. In Kforce's aggressive sales culture, Cirrito says she looks for young, hungry people accustomed to adversity. The greater the applicant's track record in dealing with stress, the better.
"God knows they are going to get it here," says Blackman, only half in jest.
Blackman, who bears a passing resemblance to actor Dustin Hoffman, says one big factor behind Kforce's ability to grow and attract employees is the campus-style headquarters. The company occupied it nearly 10 years ago, the week after the terrorist events of Sept. 11, 2001.
The building's features include its own cafeteria, ample training rooms where Kforce clients come to explain their needs and train workers, a fitness room and even a popular basketball court out back. In cooler weather, Kforce employees can stroll to nearby Ybor City.
Slackers rarely survive the Kforce interview process. But Kforce enjoys some buzz among recent grads eager to put in the hours and who know there is the potential to make good money.
At this time in the economy, when a college degree can feel like it's lost so much of its clout, those kinds of jobs are looking better every day.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]