Pre-Employment Screening: Same Methods, Different Marketplace

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, had great impact on the food industry, but not necessarily in the way one would think. One might assume that terror threats drastically altered the processes staffing firms have used for pre-employment screening with an eye toward food safety. However, the reality is quite the contrary. The food industry has long relied on the stringent processes used by top staffing firms to pre-screen food scientists, microbiologists, etc. for research and development and manufacturing practices. Those firms using a thorough and disciplined process prior to 9/11 have found that their processes are still applicable today. However, the focus and drivers behind the screening have changed with the demands of the marketplace.

A Client-Driven Market

The recession following the terrorist attacks brought a spending shift in the food industry. Businesses stopped spending money on personnel and instead invested in safety precautions like bulletproof glass, property fencing enclosures and entrance key cards to monitor when, where and how long employees and visitors were at their facilities. As a result, salaries for food scientists dropped and the market became more client-focused.

Hiring managers placed great value on pre-employment screening, albeit not necessarily with an eye toward safety, but with the more immediate goal of ensuring they used the limited monetary resources available for personnel to hire the “right” person. Given the higher costs involved in having to fire the “wrong” person if hired directly, food companies opted to invest in the services of staffing firms with a disciplined pre-employment screening process.

Using a staffing firm to place temporary-to-permanent candidates also offered “try before you buy” protection. If a candidate did not work out, the company could simply end the assignment, whereas the dismissal of a permanent employee required a well-documented case, possibly preceded by a course of corrective action.

Candidate-Driven Market

In 2003, as consumer confidence increased and the nation began to emerge from the recession, the scientific food industry shifted from a client-driven to a candidate-driven marketplace.

Companies began hiring again and adding more positions to their staff. Overtaxed employees, who had done the job of two for the past several years, now had their choice of employers.

With this shift came a change in the focus of pre-employment screening. Previously, screening was driven by clients looking to ensure the right match. Now the candidate – who could choose from many available jobs – must be “sold” on a particular company. Staffing firms began to play a consultative role, advising client companies of those factors beyond salary and location that might influence a candidate’s job selection. Client companies came to rely on staffing firms to ensure they employed a long-term candidate, one who sought a job with those extra benefits that their company offered.

This paradigm shift in employer attitudes toward compensation prompted investments in benefits like sales-driven bonuses, enticing travel, team-building lunches and birthday holidays to recruit and retain top talent.

A New Position is Born

The anthrax threat probably had the biggest impact on the food industry, bringing to light the vulnerabilities in our nation’s food and water supply.

The threat of bioterrorism has led to the creation of a new, hybrid position in food science: Food safety personnel. This professional must not only have a manufacturing background, but also an understanding of contamination. This career path requires a micro-based degree, although no specific coursework in food safety is offered at the university level. The skills and experience of food safety personnel are niche-focused, specific to meat, milk or the canned foods industries, for example, and thus it is very expensive and difficult for companies to find qualified food safety staff.

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