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Job recruiters proceeding at warp speed

The tight labor market and an explosion in online recruiting are forcing businesses to chase hot prospects faster than ever or lose qualified candidates.

In the new, overheated world of recruiting job candidates, speed pays.

Just ask Global Sports Interactive. It offered its new engineering director, Joe Romello, his $130,000-a-year job eight days after he responded to an Internet want ad in late April.

The day before, a Big Five accounting firm had conducted a second interview with Romello for a higher-paid senior vice presidency. But the accounting giant didn't make its offer until five weeks later. By then, Romello already was working for the online marketing unit of apparel distributor Global Sports Inc. in King of Prussia, Pa.

If the Big Five firm "had been a little quicker," Romello, a 48-year-old systems specialist, said, "I probably would have gone the other way."

The tight labor market and an explosion in online recruiting are forcing businesses to chase hot prospects faster than ever. The result? A drastic overhaul of conventional hiring tactics. Companies such as networking-equipmentmaker Cisco Systems Inc., for instance, are embracing "just-in-time" recruitment, which involves courting candidates electronically long before vacancies occur.

Lack of speed has cost Dell Computer Corp. candidates, especially fresh college graduates. "In a lot of cases, they are fielding three, four, five job offers," said Andy Esparaza, vice president of worldwide staffing for Dell. "We are making our hiring decisions a lot faster than we used to."

Dell offered Lea-Jeanne Martin a $16-an-hour position as an executive analyst eight hours after her February job interview. "The turnaround time was definitely phenomenal," said the 24-year-old Austin, Texas, resident, whom Dell hired after a two-week temporary stint with the company that she found online.

If an employer does not call top candidates within 72 hours, it "probably shouldn't even bother," said Barry Deutch, a Los Angeles executive recruiter for CJA_Adler Group Inc. Moving too slowly is the reason he or corporate clients lost the talent race in about half of the two dozen searches he has handled during the past six months.

One big reason for the head-spinning pace is the Web; about 2,500 Internet career sites provide extensive databases of openings, resumes and job-hunting tips. Often, job seekers can apply instantly. Only a handful existed three years ago. Job seekers will soon be able to attach 30-second personal video clips to their cyberspace resumes through a service set for launch this fall.

Already, people with technical backgrounds and other scarce skills can "leave a job on Friday, look over the weekend and have a new job on Monday," said Anne McKenna, North American senior recruiting manager at Nortel Networks Corp. With 90 percent of its North American recruitment handled online, the Canadian maker of communications gear uses special software to sift through the resume deluge and pinpoint rejects. But McKenna said the company has still lost good candidates because it was not quick enough.

Allergan Inc. used to lose some qualified professionals and managers because it didn't initially contact them for up to five days. In 1998, employment manager Judy Fox ordered internal recruiters to reach the hottest prospects within 48 hours. The health care company's new manager of corporate reporting is an accountant whom Fox called the same day she learned about her from a former employer.

Sometimes rapid initial screening is not enough. Allergan received two attractive applicants for an $80,000 senior medical writer's job posted on the Net in the spring. The supervisor wanted to hire both. He spent several weeks seeking approval for the second slot.

By the time the Irvine, Calif., company dangled an offer, a South Carolina man was in final talks for a job closer to home. "If we had moved more quickly, he would have taken our job," Fox said.

Even small, nimble enterprises recruit too slowly at times. Enfish Technology Inc., a Pasadena, Calif., Internet software business, recently missed a chance to interview a strong candidate for a Web producer's position. Her e-mailed resume arrived while chairman and chief executive Louise Wannier was on an East Coast business trip and a lieutenant was preoccupied with drafting a key marketing plan.

Upon Wannier's return two days later, "that person wasn't any longer available," Wannier said.

WebLine Communications Corp., a Burlington, Mass., software start-up partly backed by Intel Corp., also paid a price for not moving quickly enough. The small company failed to snare Stephen Prescott, a valuable senior software designer, because officials didn't call him until almost a week after the company got his resume early last year.

"We were very busy," said Firdaus Bhathena, a WebLine co-founder and vice president then toiling about 80 hours a week. "We let that resume sit around. When we finally got (him) in, it was the day before he accepted a job somewhere else."

Prescott, now a contract technical consultant, said he badly wanted to join WebLine. But because of the delay, "I sort of got the impression they weren't interested."

Upset over the Prescott loss, Bhathena said, he made recruitment a companywide priority, created special hiring teams and told them to review resumes "in less than a few hours for all level of jobs."

Recruiting at warp speed places tremendous pressure on employers to abbreviate time-consuming tasks, including reference checks. Consider, launched in late June by parent Bank One Corp., the nation's fourth-largest bank. The unit, which sells financial services via the Internet, has brought in more than 100 staffers and wants to find more _ fast.

So Wingspan eliminated all paper from its hiring process. Interviewers swap opinions by posting their numerical ratings of an applicant in an electronic "interview room." And while the venture verifies individuals' degrees and job histories, it usually does not talk to their references.

"Nine out of 10 reference checks are worthless," said Carlo Frappolli, Wingspan's senior vice president of human resources. "I have been in HR for 16 years, and I can't remember there being a candidate everyone liked (where) the references came back bad."

Informal networking with industry acquaintances gives a faster and more realistic picture of someone's performance than contacting people "the candidate wants you to call," concurs Nortel's McKenna. Nortel recently hired 33-year-old software engineer Frank Catanzariti five days after he applied _ without checking his references.

His new boss "felt comfortable not going with references" because he knew the engineer's old employer, an affiliate of rival Newbridge Networks Corp., spokeswoman Wendy Herman said.

Some superfast company recruiters do regret their haste. In October, WebLine took four days to pick a senior quality-assurance engineer. He never fit in with the start-up's freewheeling and open culture because he "preferred to withhold information," Bhathena said. The WebLine executive now thinks a more thorough reference check could have avoided the clash. The engineer quit in May.