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Insights from Linden Wolfe, Vice President, Onin Staffing

Baron Leacock

It would be hard to find a career recruiter with more experience and more heart for the discipline than Linden Wolfe, VP at The Onin Group.  Named in January to Staffing World’s list of Top Staffing Leaders to watch in 2022, Linden has been putting the human into Human Resources for multiple decades, today leading a recruiting team at Onin Staffing responsible for over $100M in revenue.  In the light industrial and light clerical space, Onin Staffing is an award winner in its own right, being named SIA Best Staffing Firms to Work For, Grand Prize Winner in both 2018 and 2021.  With the ability to deliver 20-200 highly-qualified, ready-to-work employees with only 2-8 hours of notice from 83 full service branches in 16 states, it is easy to see why Onin is a leader in its field.

What follows is an abridged version of a very delightful conversation we had with Linden earlier this year.

What got you into recruiting?

I’ve been in this game for almost forty years.  It was not what I had intended to do, but it’s turned out to be a good career, a rewarding one.  I started out as a technical recruiter right out of college and over the years I have been fortunate to get some additional opportunities and career path growth.  I love what I do.

Is this an interesting time in the recruiting world?

I don’t think there’s ever been a time when recruiting and retention is more critical than it is today.  I’ve never seen a dynamic like this in all these forty years.  Massive numbers of people filing for unemployment, unemployment percentage is 3.9%?  That just doesn’t add up.  The Great Resignation is a real thing. It’s crazy, with all the people that have left the workforce, and many of whom I believe are in the informal economy, working for cash, mowing lawns now or whatever they’re doing, it’s just a very, very strange dynamic that we can’t find workers and yet there are millions that are theoretically not working, in the system, in the formal economy.  

Everyday is an adventure.  I get the opportunity to work with a lot of large, well-known, highly visible clients like Marriott, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and it’s interesting, those brands used to be so recognizable.  They would go into a market and the candidate pool would just apply directly, and now those companies are struggling.  They were the premier employer in the market, they were relying on their name recognition and brand, and now they’re losing the war for talent.  

How has recruiting changed due to COVID-19?

I think, obviously, no one was prepared for it.  I think that it’s just a seminal event that is redefining the way we look at work, how work happens, where work takes place.  You’ve got all kinds of compliance issues and worker’s safety concerns, and that’s not going away.  Obviously the Supreme Court made a pretty big statement yesterday with what they called OSHA’s overreach.

Let me level-set here.  The company I work for primarily places people in manufacturing, logistics, food processing, and hospitality.  Those are our teammates, our contractors that we’re placing on assignment.  Those people are rarely in situations where they can work remotely. You can’t run a forklift from the privacy of your own bedroom.  But on the other side of things, the recruiters are doing a lot more remote recruiting than we ever imagined.  

In the light industrial space where we are, it’s always been driven by brick and mortar.  The job candidate walks into a branch, and we have 120 branches in nearly 25 states, they walk in, you eyeball them, you could do an I-9, drug and background screen, sometimes on the premises there and then you send them to a physical location to do a physical job.  So I’m seeing this move away from brick and mortar to a more complimentary type of model.

I also work with some RPO (Recruitment, Processing and Outsourcing) organizations, and literally, the team that works with me, I’ve got recruiters in Colombia, Mexico City, New Delhi, The Philippines, Canada, as a matter of fact, every week we’re on a call together and I call it the United Nations call because they’re literally scattered all over the world. The use of that kind of organization to do sourcing, screening, and sending people to our physical branches is something that our company would never have done pre-covid.  It was just completely non-traditional.

I work from home.  I’ve worked remotely for almost twenty years.  And to the team that reports in to me, even before covid, I gave more flexibility, to the chagrin of some of our executive leadership, to work from home.  We did “hot desking,” where we have one desk for two people.  So let’s say for Tuesday and Thursday one person is at the desk, Monday, Wednesday, Friday they work from home, and you switch out.  My organization was already doing things pre-covid, now that’s been accelerated. 

Another thing that’s been accelerated is obviously the use of technology in the process: video interviewing, remote onboarding.  There are organizations that have popped up everywhere that will help you get an I-9, a drug and background screen, in a place where you don’t have a physical location.  You’re seeing things like a reimagining of the CX, the candidate experience.  And that would include digital welcome.  That would include an ongoing, multi-touch approach to keeping people engaged.  With remote work, I’ve felt that the sense of collaboration and community can decline significantly.  But you have to work really hard to make sure that you don’t lose that because supposedly you're all wearing the same jersey.  I’ve seen companies struggle with: ok we're moving from this work-from-the-office model to remote recruiting, yet we’re sending people to a physical location.  And it’s been very reactive.  

We are rethinking, especially on the retention side, things relative to our target audience, which is primarily, millennials.  Millennials want much different things.  They’re looking for flexibility, work-life balance.  By the way, I think the gig economy, though it was growing exponentially, is going to explode even further.  And so, we’re doing some things from a recruiting and retention standpoint that we never dreamed of, like on-demand pay.  You work Monday through Friday and most people don’t get paid until the next week, well, pretty soon here, if our people, if they work one day, can go to an ATM, and for $1.50, get that day’s pay out.  That’s more important to these younger generations.  Plus, our people are typically at the lower end of the wage scale.  And so, unlike some people, they don’t have ten days to wait on a check.  So we’re having to accommodate.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know if in ten years there will be any branch offices in this industry.  The overhead, the lack of nimbleness and agility associated with locking in the leases.  We were already supplementing that and again, that was really accelerated by the pandemic.  These were all ideas that thought leaders were having that were forced to become at least a partial reality.  I think that will continue even if we get through all these waves of variants. I believe that people are now demanding, unless the job absolutely requires physical presence, they are demanding that they work from home.  It’s not an option, if you want to keep your people, you’ve got to have a mechanism in place that allows that kind of flexibility.

And all studies indicate that people who work from home are more productive.  As a matter of fact, if you’re in an office and someone stops by and speaks to you, or engages in some water cooler discussion, on average it takes twenty-three minutes to get back on task.  There are a lot of hard statistics that say, wow we should have been doing this a long time ago, this is not only more cost effective but we’re more productive and we’ve got a happier employee base.  

So those are some of the things that I have noticed.  It’s crazy, especially in that gig space. By the way, we’re in the staffing industry space, one of the biggest staffing companies in the world is Uber and Lyft.  And they’re all independent contractors.  It’s interesting how that is not going away.  

I was touring a facility a while back and they had started recruiting using this technology based solution.  It’s almost like a scheduling software, completely automated, all onboarding, everything, you check in, you say, hey man I think I’ll do that job for today, you go to work and you never see anyone face to face, in some cases you don’t even have a conversation with anyone.  But the problem was, all those people that were running his machines were classified as independent contractors and they’re legally not.  They’re in their facility, using their equipment, based upon their scheduling.  They are under the direction, control and supervision of the company, and therefore they are not legal independent contractors.  Yet all credit to this company, they found a niche, because they’re saying, we can put these independent contractors to work, we have no overhead, and, we don't have to pay Social Security, unemployment, workers comp because we’ve classified them as independent contractors, just like Uber.  

So you’re going to see more of that, especially post-pandemic, with the supplemental tools and the companies that are really pushing the envelope.  And there will be some shakeout, when there are some class-action lawsuits, relative to, we received no benefits, etc.  In the meantime, the demand for people is so high and the pool of people so low, that companies are in some cases willing to risk the legal exposure and potential liability because if they don't get product out the door, no one is going to sue them because they won’t exist.  

“Sounds a little bit trivial, but looking at someone in the face, even if it's a teleconference, is more conducive to nurturing relationships, community and collaboration than just emails, texts, or just telephone calls.”

How do you keep people motivated when you’re not coming into the office, when you’re not having those water-cooler conversations?  

A couple things that we’ve done: We do provide space for those who are more comfortable working that way.  We do things like, and sometimes I wonder how risky it is, every Friday afternoon, we have a virtual happy hour.  So everyone gets their own beverage, at the office we actually provide the alcohol to them, and if they’re at home, everyone joins in.  We try to nurture some sense of community.

We’ve had to get much more deeply into things like project management tools like Wrike, that do nothing but facilitate collaboration. It actually kind of forces collaboration.  So that creates a situation where colleagues are having to work together even though they may be remote.  

We, for example, strongly suggest video conferencing as opposed to a telephone.  That sounds a little bit trivial, but looking at someone in the face, even if it's a teleconference, is more conducive to nurturing relationships, community and collaboration than just emails, texts, or just telephone calls.  I have actually told my team, and I have a team of about fifteen that I’m responsible for, supporting about $100 million worth of revenue, I say hey, don’t call me, you log into Google Meet or whatever we’re using, let’s have a discussion that way.  I want to see if your hair’s tousled and you clearly were out too late last night or whatever.  

We created this thing called family meetings. Even if someone works remotely, they’re going to be required to actually not only gather with their colleagues in their department, but they will also meet face-to-face with any cross-functional committees, teams or project-related work.  I’ve been beckoned to our Birmingham, AL office this month because some of the things that are going to happen there are just better facilitated by face-to-face.

There are lower costs clearly in terms of overhead for remote work, but I also had much less in travel expense.  So we’ve actually tried to bump up our travel expense to compensate for this face-to-face interaction because we’re saving so much in office space.  We are fortunate in that we are a debt-free, cash-rich company of about $700M. We actually sat, the executive team, and said, we need to increase our travel expenses, which is kind of a strange thing, but it was necessary during this time.  

“Do you as a company have an identity that would make you distinct as the employer of choice?”

Let’s talk about the Great Resignation, you mentioned that and it’s a question that comes up a lot.  You said it’s a real thing.  How are you proactively addressing that?

So, there is an historically high number of people who are leaving the workplace.  However, we’re also seeing a lot of job shopping because of the acceleration in wages.  People may be seen as leaving a company and maybe the workforce, when in reality they are going to be going to work somewhere else, at higher wages.  Here’s the deal, the power right now is in the candidate’s hands.  It used to be that companies dictated, now people have choices.  

We mentioned Uber, so someone technically leaves the workforce but they say, you know, I’ll take Social Security early and supplement my income with Uber.  It appears that they’ve left the workforce because they’re now independent contractors.  So even though I think it’s a real thing, I don't think it’s as problematic as we would like to make it.  And I will be honest with you, historically companies have thrown money at those things.  We’ll just give them higher wages, or better benefits, or whatever.  It’s gotta be more holistic than that.  If you don’t deal with the sense of purpose?  Culture is huge.  When I say branding, that sometimes sounds like a marketing term, but I wrote an article recently about, do you as a company have an identity that would make you distinct as the employer of choice?

You see this dynamic like, Amazon will move in, and they’ll pay $3 or $4 an hour more than everyone else.  But historically, they’ve treated everyone like dirt, and many of those people don't return the next Christmas season.  They would rather have some place where there is a purpose, they are respected, they have a voice.  One of the things that I’m working with my team on is, as consistently as possible, using someone’s name.  That sounds a little silly. But someone asked me the other day, as a human being, what is the most important thing that someone needs. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, let’s forget the shelter and food and clothing, etc., in terms of identity.  And people will say respect or any number of things, dignity or whatever.  And I say, well you cannot provide those intangibles if you don’t acknowledge them as a human being.  Joe, you’re running that machine and you’re doing a really good job, Joe.  I cannot even begin to express the value that creates.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had a conversation with someone and they said, well I'm  just a ___.  No, don’t ever use just a ___, in front of what you do.  If you’re not creating value, then you’re not needed.  You ARE needed.  You ARE creating value.  You’re benefiting a larger cause.  And, I know who you are.  So we have to work that much harder with that remote dynamic of making people feel like they’re acknowledged.  They’re a real human being. 

Thank you to Linden for taking the time, and for reminding us of what it's all about.

About Rocket

Rocket pairs talented recruiters with advanced AI to help companies hit their hiring goals. Rocket is headquartered in the heart of Silicon Valley but has recruiters all over the US & Canada serving the needs of our growing client base across engineering, product management, data science and more.

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