Robert Half: Staffing and Adapting for Decades

First founded in 1948, Robert Half is named after its founder and CEO. And in the nearly 70 years since, the company has had only one other CEO, current head Max Messmer.

It’s that consistency that’s partly responsible for the Menlo Park-based company’s longevity, according to Paul Flaharty, regional VP for Robert Half Technology and the Creative Group in the greater Los Angeles area. But what’s also made Robert Half thrive is its ability to adapt to the changing needs of companies, and the changing talents of prospective employees.

Flaharty spoke with the Media & Entertainment Services Alliance (MESA) about the biggest staffing changes in the creative, tech and IT spaces, how more and more companies are looking for multi-talented employees, and whether there’s an end in sight for the gender gap in IT and technology.

MESA: 1948. You guys have been at it for decades now. Other staffing agencies have come and gone. What do you credit the longevity to? How have you guys managed to stick around so long?

Flaharty: Robert Half first opened its doors in New York City in 1948, which was the market where I started with the company. So my first job with Robert Half was a sales job down on Wall Street in 2005. Part of what drew me to the company was the consistency and the longevity in what appeared to be an industry where there was a lot of moving parts, where there was a tremendous amount of competition. And it seemed like there was so much change in the industry and with our competitors.

Robert Half clearly was doing something different and something right. I wanted to work for a company in a dynamic industry, but I was trying to avoid a volatile environment, which can be challenging when you’re talking about sales and sales organizations.

But the thing with Robert Half, the reason why I believe that we’ve been just so effective since 1948 is that the company has never changed who they are and what they’re all about from an operating principle perspective. We have grown organically as a company. We hire great people, first and foremost. We hire some of the best talent in the industry from a point of entry perspective. It’s also worth mentioning that our training has been recognized as being the most value-added, the most well-received in the business. We’ve been training on the same strategies — the same operating principles — since the day I walked into the company to today. The only thing that’s changed are the resources that the company provides to its recruiters and sales people, which make it easier for us to do business and give us greater exposure just from a brand recognition point of view.

Robert Half was the first CEO of the company in 1948. Max Messmer, our current CEO, took over the company from Robert Half in the ’80s and has been the CEO ever since. Our COO, Paul Gentzkow, has been the same individual who’s been in charge of operation since the day I joined the company. What’s the most impressive about our leadership, in my opinion, is that these people all grew up doing the job. They grew up as sales people in our company and as a result, we have executive leadership that knows what it means to do our job at every level. And so I think that’s really helped.

We’ve grown our business very organically over the years. We’ve selectively looked at different business units that would be helpful complements to our suite of services. But a lot of our competitors, they acquire huge organizations that they compete with and that’ s how they grow. And the way we grow is by hiring and training great people.

It starts with great people and then a really solid operating model that stands the test of time. And that operating model is built around taking great talent to the marketplace. So we don’t go out and sell our services; what we do is go out and help people. And I think that’s really worked over the course of time. We’ve stayed true to who we are, and we’ve been in business for a long time, and it’s worked.

MESA: Now obviously, you guys have your hands in all industry sectors. But specifically, we’re interested in creative, marketing, IT and tech. Those are our areas of interest. We’ll start with creative and marketing. What are companies looking for today? I mean this is a different world than it was just a decade ago in terms of our digital environment. What’s changed? What are they looking for?

Paul FlahartyRegional VP RHT TCG_JPG Flaharty: Sure. Good question. And it’s interesting, because you frame the question as tech and creative in terms of your interest areas, and I think I can provide my answer as a bit of a hybrid of both of those areas in terms of what companies are looking for. Because that’s truly what they’re looking for: they’re looking for a combination of aesthetic and functional skill set.

Certainly we still get a great deal of client demand for a “graphic designer” or “web developer.” But what we find with every passing year is that people look for more technical, aesthetic oriented designer developers. You know it’s not going to be sufficient to have someone that can just design, but doesn’t have at least some level of understanding and competency around how a functional web application is built.

And the same thing for our web developers. The functional role of full-stack web developer — the demand for that skill set is so massive. If you do a search for full-stack web developer on Indeed, you’ll see significantly more jobs than there are candidates in our marketplace. And the reason for that is it’s just rare that we find clients that are just looking for someone that can develop a functional web application in the middle tier or someone who can just work in the database layer. They’re looking for candidates that have the ability to not only build a functional application, but also have a deep understanding of user interface design and user experience, and how to develop a really feature intensive, you know, rich media UI. And so what I think has really changed the creative space is that hybrid of aesthetic and functional skills.

And the same can be said for technology. We look for developers all the time that not only build something that works really well but also build something that is pleasing and easy to operate for the user.

MESA: You said that there’s just far too many jobs and not enough applicants in the pool. What’s the problem there? Is this an education thing or an interest thing? Why are we seeing this imbalance in terms of positions and people to fill them?

Flaharty: Yeah, I definitely think it’s an educational thing and just a lack of quality candidates pursuing that skill-set space from a classical education perspective. That’s definitely true. When I talk to professors in computer science departments, that’s a common theme that they hear. Part of it is there’s been sort of a trend toward or maybe a less critical emphasis put on classical education for technologists. So people are gaining the skill set through different means outside of like just attending a four-year degree.

I just think that as much as there aren’t enough quality candidates hitting the marketplace today, the growth of the space has so vastly outpaced the supply of talent. Yes, I mean there’s been talent shortages for quite some time – it’s been a candidate-driven market since 2012 from my perspective. In conjunction with the fact that there just aren’t enough graduates in the technology space and in the design space. But then the expanse of companies whose primary business is the web or an application that runs on the web. That space is growing much faster than the talent population is.

MESA: Is there a solution? Do you see the universities taking a step back from the liberal arts and putting more emphasis into tech training? Do you think that’s a realistic goal or is this just a problem that’s going to continue forever?

Flaharty: I think it puts a greater emphasis on the need for organizations to hire folks for the ability to learn these skills. So what we need is for organizations to maybe take a risk on someone that has a couple of years of experience in this space, but has the ability to learn. In a number of instances, if you’re doing a search for someone with a skill set that’s just so in demand that it’s so hard to find, you either continue your search with the hope that someone turns up or you find somebody to train along that skill set.  And so I think that’s one of the solutions. It’s just finding a way to home-grow your own talent through internal training within your organization.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if these schools promote their technology departments in terms of the average salaries that their technology grads are able to gain within just a couple of short years after they finish their degrees. What we find is that the client approaches us with the interest of having us conduct a search for a one- to three-year web developer. And then that same client is open to talking to web developers that have five years of experience. The differential in compensation is just absolutely enormous. And because these people ramp up their salaries so quickly, and the first couple of years the professional experience – there’s just a major disparity between what the one- to three-year developer gets paid and what the five-year-plus developer gets paid. And so I think that could be a way that schools could go to increase the attractiveness of computer science or technology or design programs.

MESA: How big of a gender gap are we looking at here? Exactly how big of a problem do we have in terms of women getting into this marketplace?

Flaharty: I see the gender gap shrinking every year, in my experience and in our technical placement operations. We find that especially as the integration of the design and development field continues to move forward that we’re seeing much more kind of equal balance of males and females in the skills sets or the functional roles where we’re making placements. And I think the days of developers being kind of thought of as exclusively male – that term, if you watch “Silicon Valley” — they call it “bro-grammers,” just like the male programmer. And I think those days are kind of gone.

And I think that technology environments value diversity too. And so I can say that my organization personally works with more talented female coders and designers. There’s always been a really strong population of strong female designers, but from a coding perspective, in every passing I think there are more talented, really capable female developers that can just write amazing code and build very impressive scalable applications.

Part of what I love about technology is it tends to be a very merit-based world whereby people care a little bit less about what you’re all about like male/female, education/non-education, and more about what you can do and what you can bring to the table. Can you build out a Cloud infrastructure? Can you design a highly scalable web application? Can you build a mobile app that appeals to your user base? Can you market your application the right way? I don’t know that people care what it looks like on the outside if you can get that done and help an organization to grow and scale.

MESA: Along those same lines, how much are you seeing in terms of telecommuting nowadays? Is this a trend that’s going to keep going or do you see it leveling off at all?

Flaharty: No, I see it continuing to grow, especially in the marketplace where I sit in Southern California. I mean every time we qualify an opportunity with one of our customers, we inquire about the telecommuting options, but flexibility in telecommuting opens up your population of talent from a commutability perspective tremendously. So if you’re really hard and fast in Los Angeles on when you need people to get into the office, and that’s 9 a.m., I mean you know – you’ve experienced this first hand.

Comparatively speaking, it’s really hard to find anything that’s really affordable in Southern California, but there are neighborhoods that are more affordable that really kind of put you in a very difficult place from a commuting perspective for people who are building families. And with the war for talent — you know we talked about talent shortages — if there’s a talent shortage and you need to compete for those individuals and you need a competitive edge over other companies that are competing for the same candidates, you’ve got to have the most competitive package that you can put together, and that includes compensation, that includes opportunity for training, that includes work-life balance.

If a client of ours is struggling with a search and they were initially closed off to the idea of telecommuting, we’ll always propose that as an option to change the pool of candidates that we can reach out to. Because, you know if Variety would’ve given that option maybe you’d be working there.

MESA: Anything else you want to add on the media and entertainment sector? Anything else you’re noticing in your business that peaks your interest?

Flaharty: I’ll just say that we’re seeing a substantial increase in demand in our advertising agency business over the course of the past — even the past month or two. A lot of our ad agency clients have recently scaled up their operations from a project perspective due to new buys made by their brand partners.

And so we’ve seen the entertainment industry pick up substantially over the course of the last couple of months. But interactive advertising, which gets busy when brands are paying money to expand their reach and their visibility to more customers. That’s usually a really good indication of growing market conditions. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen, which is always positive.

We pay close attention to the ad agency business, because it’s so heavily client driven. And when they ramp up and they’re calling us consistently asking us to build up project teams so they can build a new campaign for their brand partners and they just can’t get their hands on enough talent — you know you either dole out a new social media campaign or a new website or a new global application or an ad spot or like a commercial or a YouTube channel or something like that, that general bodes well for the web and digital industry on the whole. And so we think that market’s just going to continue to accelerate in L.A.

MESA: What are you guys eyeballing that you’d like to get into? Anything you’d like to expand into? What do you guys have your eye on?

Flaharty: Yeah, so I think that there’s a number of areas where we’re focused now that we see continuing to grow or we think there’s opportunity for continued growth. We think that network security is going to continue to be a space where we’re going to see growth and demand due to the increased stress and risk level of vulnerability from a network perspective. I mean it’s hard to turn on the news without hearing about some major operation or political entity being compromised from a data perspective. So people that can keep your data safe, we see that as being an area that will just continue to grow in a tremendous way.

And also big data and data analytics is a world where we expect there to be continued growth, because companies have access to more data today, more consumer information, than they’ve ever had. But very few companies, still to this point, know what to do with that data and how to use that data to analyze trends and make decisions for the business.

So I would say a lot of what we’re focused on centers around data, whether it’s keeping that data secure or analyzing that data more effectively and making decisions therein. And so that’s space where we’re going to continue to make sure that we’re very focused in keeping our eye on the trends, because I think that there’s going to be a lot of demand and a lot of growth from a hiring and project-based perspective in that world.