A Tale of Two Cities


As COVID-19 changes the working landscape, staffing firms have adapted to higher demand for remote work, skills shortages and an expanded, nationwide candidate pool.

Share this article!

You may have heard the term “recession-proof industry,” referring to a type of business that can weather, and sometimes thrive, amid an economic downturn. Typically, the staffing sector benefits from economic downturns.Companies forced into layoffs need more temps to handle runoff work. For staffing firm headhunters, more highly skilled professionals newly out of work mean a larger roster of qualified candidates. 

While most of these trends have held true for the COVID-19 downturn, the pandemic has accelerated trends in working remotely and has had disproportionate impacts on certain segments of the economy. 

More remote, flexible work mean local staffing firms have more competition with national firms that are more able to recruit from anywhere. With more jobs requiring digital skills,  staffing agencies that offer virtual training to ensure their candidates are competitive perform better. 

Louisa Waldman, vice president at Robert Half, who oversees the Oregon and Idaho region, says certain industries that are more capable of having employees working remotely, are recovering more quickly. Those industries also require employees who have technical and digital skills. 

“Even though unemployment is at 6% nationally, industries like legal and the tech have almost reached full employment,” says Waldman. “I think some companies look at unemployment numbers and think, ‘Oh, unemployment is high, I can hold off on hiring that perfect person.’ But that perfect person is going to go quickly.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the past year has seen an unprecedented number of new businesses being formed across the country, many of which are in the financial and tech sectors. But these new organizations predominantly require employees to possess engineering or e-commerce skill sets. 

“In the beginning it was like A Tale of Two Cities,” says Brooks Gilley, president and founder of 52 Limited, a staffing firm based in Portland. “On the creative and communications side, we saw a cutback while engineering, technology, e-commerce, information-based work was going gangbusters.” 

Clients in creative industries were forced to slash budgets by over 50%, says Gilley. “I had to do a lot of hand-holding with a lot of clients,” says Gilley. “They said ‘I have a big payroll, we’ve had our budgets frozen, what the hell do I do?’”

But as marketing and communications firms, as well as businesses overall, adjusted to a digital work environment, job openings have picked up. The problem facing many staffing agencies was a lack of qualified personnel suited to the new job market. 

To give its clients a leg up on the competition, 52 Limited began hosting a series of 10-minute expert panels four days a week. Topics ranged from meditation and stress management to how to set up a home office,making an eye-catching LinkedIn profile and online skills training. For employers, the staffing firm held seminars on how to coach teams in a virtual environment. Both employers and candidates could attend sessions on how to conduct effective interviews remotely.  

Gilley says staffing demand at his company has recovered and exceeded pre-pandemic levels. It will continue online skills trainings since that is now essential. 

Other industries have seen a reduction in employment that has not returned. One staffing firm executive who chose to remain anonymous says they are not confident restaurant-server skills will ever be as in-demand as they once were because of customers’ new familiarity with online delivery sites like DoorDash. 

Even after the pandemic has run its course, the trend of remote work could continue to accelerate. According to a survey conducted by Robert Half, more than half of workers want remote-working options, and say they would likely move to a different city if remote work options were available at their  job. That trend, says Waldman, is here to stay. 

Larger staffing agencies like Robert Half, which operate nationally, have found themselves less bound by geography when matching candidates to positions. Access to a nationwide talent pool could give a head start to larger, national firms with the ability to recruit talent from across the country. 

Companies are also offering more flexible work hours. “More companies are saying, ‘It doesn’t matter when you want to work, as long as you get your work done.’” says Waldman. 

Another trend staffing agencies and job recruiters are adapting to is the prevalence of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Having well-qualified candidates of color has become an increasing area of competition between staffers. With more companies than ever seeking to recruit diverse talent, firms that are able to make inroads in communities of color could reap big rewards. 

“We are competing with everyone else over who has the best diversity, equity and inclusion work,” says Gilley. “There’s been a crescendo for that among companies.” 

Some sectors, such as legal, health care and finance, are already nearing pre-pandemic hiring levels. There is no telling just how many jobs will remain remote as the pandemic abates. But if trends continue, the new positions being created favor staffing firms able to recruit and train candidates to succeed in an evolving and diversifying job market.

To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here.