Guest Post

Recruiters look for range of qualities in MSP job candidates

It's hard to hire employees with technical experience and an MSP background, but recruiters who understand what motivates potential employees can find good candidates.

Dave Sobel is host of the podcast The Business of Tech and co-host of the podcast Killing IT. In addition, he wrote Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business.

In this video, Sobel talks to Ted White, president of Vertical Talent Solutions of West Hartford, Conn., about the difficulties of hiring people with both technical and MSP experience. White's business focuses on recruiting or headhunting technicians, system admins and engineers with MSP experience for MSP clients located around the country.

The company's process includes having a pipeline of potential system and network engineers, system administrators and technicians, often with experience working for MSPs.

From the MSPs' perspective, to retain top performers, White says companies should make sure they offer salaries required by the market, career growth, technical skills and internal upskilling. Still, White's company tries to recruit top performers and present them with better opportunities. In general, that can translate into a 15% to 20% salary increase or translate into new positions that will allow employees to prove themselves, and showcase their skills and leadership. Other candidates prioritize job flexibility or other aspects of their work.

Editor's note: A transcript of this video follows below. Minor edits have been made for length and clarity.

Dave Sobel: Is it as hard as we think it is to hire right now? I figured, let's talk to someone on the front line, so I talked to Ted White, a recruiter. So tell me about you and your organization.

Ted White: I am a recruiter, and I have 22 years of experience. I spent some time in corporate, and now we are a small boutique recruiting firm that focuses on recruiting system admins, engineers and technicians with MSP experience for MSPs around the country.

Sobel: So I've heard the word headhunter and the word recruiter. Are they the same thing, or is there a difference that I should know about?

White: That's a good question. So I started off as a recruiter, and then I went into getting trained as a headhunter back in 2000 or 2001. The difference is that as a recruiter, you're working with applicants that show interest. As a headhunter, you're going after people who are not looking for new opportunities, who are not expecting to hear from you, but who you build a relationship with and ultimately provide them a really awesome career option. So to get to your point, what we do is more headhunting than recruiting, quite honestly. We don't work with job postings or anything like that.

Sobel: So it isn't like you have some magic database of people you're offering out to organizations. You're specifically going and finding them. How does that process work on your side?

White: That's very good. So we have a database that we add to daily. It grows quite a bit. However, we do target focus our network on a specific, smaller number of people. And we follow up with them until we can talk with them and entice them with a better opportunity. The database is used as a reference of history, conversations with previous candidates and relationships, in a way, to remind candidates that we have talked before and that we're still around.

Sobel: So how do you generally work with IT services companies and MSPs? How does that relationship start and what does it look like?

White: We use LinkedIn quite a bit as a resource for our recruiting. And back in 2019, I was interested in getting involved in business development. We weren't really doing a lot of it. I looked into SEO [search engine optimization]. That was expensive and a long-term return on investment. So we learned how to do some digital marketing using LinkedIn and what it boiled down to is that we're just recruiting customers the same way we recruit candidates. So we do this outreach to customers, and we tell them who we are, and we get these new customers on a call. We get them referred to us through different channels. And we would discuss what their needs are from a hiring and recruiting perspective.

We take an overall picture of what we want to do, but we morph that and mold it to what the customer is used to, and then work on an agreement. On timelines and communications, we're very structured in our process, so we line things up nice and neat. And the communication is always there between the customer and my team. Typically, what we do is work with the candidates directly. We have the tough conversations around salary and things like that. And we take it all the way from start to finish with making the offer and having the offer accepted at the end when the customer would like to hire the person.

Sobel: You're taking full job descriptions from the MSPs and the IT services companies? How does that process work?

White: We don't need job descriptions because the MSPs typically look for similar people. We constantly have a pipeline of candidates that we reach out to all throughout the country, because at any given time, we could come up with a customer in Omaha, or we've got a lot of presence now in the greater Chicago area. We always want to have our pipeline of system and network engineers, system administrator and technicians available. We specifically look for those who are not job hoppers and specifically look for those who have MSP experience, because statistics say most MSPs want candidates with MSP experience. So chances are good, especially for the companies that are hiring remotely, we already have their candidates.

Sobel: I hear all the time how difficult it is to find people with MSP experience, but you're doing it. Is that true? Is that the true reality of the market? How hard is it to find those kinds of people?

White: It is very hard. However, when you focus on it and you leverage the tools that are available, especially with LinkedIn, there's a little trick that we figured out using two different tools on LinkedIn to dig deeper into finding candidates with MSP experience. And it goes along with our business development expertise using the tool, as well.

Sobel: We're recording this in the summer of 2022. And the stories I've been reporting on the show have been about the tightening of the labor market, how much more power employees and potential employees have right now. It was already difficult to find MSPs. How are you finding conditions on the ground right now for hiring? How much control do candidates have during the process now?

White: I had a feeling you'd ask that question. So I came prepared on that one. So what we're finding for the companies that can see what's happening and feel it every day like we do, the ones who are prepared and are being proactive are taking a look at their top performers in their organization and on recommendations that we have and that they collectively have as organizations and saying, "All right, let's take care of our top performers right now before they jump ship. Let's make sure that they have not only the salary that's required right now, but the career growth, the technical skills, the upskilling internally. Now that leaves room for maybe lower performers to take a look at the market, maybe medium-sized performers take a look at the market. And if they get contacted by the headhunter, they keep their options open a little bit more than those higher performers. However, when we're recruiting, we're going after those higher performers. We're building the relationship, and we want to be able to present better opportunities to them, to MSPs that are ready and willing to cater to these higher-end prospects.

Sobel: All right, I'm going to press for some specifics. Are we talking about 10% more in salary, 20% more in salary? Is this benefits focused? What are candidates demanding and getting right now?

White: A lot of them want the next step in their career. We're noticing that when we discuss salaries on the first, second and every touchpoint, when there's interest, the candidates, the really savvy ones, are then saying, 'Well, it seems like this company is looking for more than they originally wanted or more than they even know they need.' Instead of the salary that I'm expecting, which is usually about a 10% or 15% increase, to answer your question, and sometimes 20%, they start there.

In some cases, they build a case that says, 'Hey, this sounds like a larger role, and I'm expecting a salary that's much, much bigger.' So the candidates are certainly jumping for those opportunities where they can prove themselves, showcase their skills or their leadership, if they know they have the strength there. But in general, I'd say that there's about a 15% to 20% salary disparity between those employees who have not been corrected yet or have not moved to another company.

Sobel: So that's salary, but we both know that total comp is larger than that. What are the other things that are going into that? What other benefits are they looking for right now?

White: They are looking for the career growth. In terms of benefits, it kind of depends on the generation. The newer generation might be looking for more purpose than salary. Our customers who are kind of traditional put salary on a pedestal or put even their offer letter on a pedestal. If it's an earlier career candidate, we want to ship them more toward their company purpose and how that person is going to be able to add to the company purpose going forward. That is the bigger driver for the earlier career set of candidates.

Sobel: I want to press into that. What are some of the specific questions candidates are asking around the purposes of an organization?

White: Right now, flexibility is all the rage. Candidates hear a lot about remote hiring, and they tend to expect that a company's going to offer a remote role of some type or maybe even hybrid. The reality is that the entry-level or the one- to two-year career people might have to bite the bullet on the remote or the hybrid situations for a little bit to prove themselves, to learn new technology on the ground, onsite with customers, before they become a remote asset to the company, guiding newer career people to do what they were doing.

Sobel: Are they asking about corporate values? Are they asking about what's important or where they fit into the value system of the organization?

White: No. The candidates with 10 to 15 years of experience, during the interview process, get information on the values of the company. Most of our customers are value-oriented, so they say, 'Here are our core values.' And usually it resonates with the candidates that we come up with. So to back up a little bit, if we have somebody who has all the experience and everything, but their mindset isn't in the right place, if they're not just looking for a better career, but they just want more money and it's more about them, then we put a pause on those candidates. We put them on the back burner until they're more ready. What we do is select the ones who are great people, have great skills and want to progress in their careers. So by the time they get to me and we move them over to the customer, those conversations aren't as awkward as they would be if we would present those other candidates who are going to say, 'What's in it for me?'

Sobel: So what's the biggest challenge you're seeing right now for recruiting, for finding people and for working in this space?

White: There is an overabundance of candidates getting contacted by recruiters and headhunters right now. The challenge is to make sure that we're not overdoing it, not being those headhunters or recruiters that are following up with people too often or too much or bothering anybody, but doing it the right way. With the marketing and the business development I've done, I've learned that if you're selling, you got to stop selling. If you're selling, you're not selling, basically. So we just get right to the point and say, 'Hey, we're working with a company. Your background in these three things popped up. Would you like to know more information?'

Sobel: Talk to me a little bit so that owners get a sense of how the cost structures work, without necessarily getting into exact figures. What kind of sense is there of how are they paying for services like yours to help find people?

White: Right out of the gate, I would say that the smaller MSPs that we work with under 250 [employees], we charge 20% of base salary for the person that's hired.

Sobel: So what is the number one thing you wish the MSPs knew before they started working with someone like you?

White: Keep an open mind. There's a lot of stuff out there we do on a daily basis that would probably surprise a lot of business owners on how much effort and work, planning, strategy and thinking goes on with mapping out and finding these candidates and doing it in an efficient manner.

About the author
Dave Sobel is host of the podcast
The Business of Tech, co-host of the podcast Killing IT and authored the book Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business. He owned and operated an IT solution provider and MSP for more than a decade and has worked for vendors such as Level Platforms, GFI, LOGICnow and SolarWinds, leading community, event, marketing and product strategies, as well as M&A activities. Sobel has received multiple industry recognitions, including CRN Channel Chief, CRN UK A-List, Channel Futures Circle of Excellence winner, Channel Pro's 20/20 Visionaries and MSPmentor 250.

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