During her 23 years in helping people find jobs in Columbia, Ann Williams has found it critical to stay ahead of the next rise, or fall, in the economy.
No one has a crystal ball, but, as she puts it, “change is good.”
Williams is owner of JobFinders, an employment service located in the Broadway Shopping Center. She founded the firm in 1986, a year when the price of oil plummeted from about $31 a barrel to below $14, interest rates finally dipped below 10 percent and inflation fell sharply.
Today, as the worst recession in her lifetime may or may not have reached bottom, Williams has four full-time and two part-time employees, and the company was nominated for the 2009 CBT Entrepreneur of the Year.
By the nature of the business, employment agencies are tightly wound to the whims of the economy. Williams has found the need for change in both good and bad times.
In the heady mid-1990s, the business of filling jobs was good for full-time employment, but Williams saw with such growth a need for temporary hires to staff new projects, fill in during vacations or work on expanding production lines.
She started TempFinders and in the first year placed 75 people, mainly in clerical or light industrial positions. In 1996, JobFinders doubled its income and was a player in the temporary staffing business, she said. JobFinders now places more than 400 temporary positions a year.
“I believe 100 percent that, if employers are looking at their bottom line, they will consider temporary or contract workers because the companies do not have to pay fringe benefits,” she said. During a recession, clients are also often anxious to accept temporary or part-time work waiting for the return of full-time manufacturing jobs.
“In this economy, nothing is going like it usually does, but when our recruiting business is up, then our temporary business is down,” she said. “When temporary business is up, then the other business goes down.”
Williams has experience in dealing with recessions. The first came in 1979, her first year in the recruiting business. In 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, her firm’s sales were cut in half, clients were not paying their bills and almost no one was hiring.
In addition, just a short time before 9/11, the firm had moved to a new location, tripling its square footage and rent and increasing its payroll. Through loans and belt-tightening, the firm made it through and “within 15 months life returned to calm,” she said.
If the 9/11 attacks registered a 10 on the economic disaster chart, the current 2008-2009 recession is about a seven, she said. To survive, Williams came up with some new services.
A new division called J.F. Medical Brokers recruits health professionals for such clients as the University of Missouri, nursing care homes and hospitals locally and through the Midwest.
“We have a model that we think will work better than other recruiting firms,” she said. “The people we will be hiring will be full-time or direct hire,” she said. “There is especially a need in rural areas for quality staff.”
Another success has been the People in Transition program.
The program helps workers who have been laid off. For a fee ranging from $349 for nonprofessionals to $3,499 for executives, clients receive a one-on-one session with a counselor, group sessions focused on resume writing, financial counseling and job search strategies that range from the proper dress to mock interviews. These people are then able to get together and network. The idea behind the program is helping the clients find employment on their own, rather than through the agency.
“We are the only people in Central Missouri to do this service,” she said.
Applicants for temporary work are screened with math and spelling tests, references, tested for drugs, and go through an interview process.
“We’re not right 100 percent of the time, but we have a 99 percent fill rate, and employers tell us people we send stay longer on the job than others,” she said.
Williams believes the economy is turning around. “The Midwest was the last to be hit, and it may take a little longer to get out of it,” she said.
A recent University of Missouri study has indicated that Columbia ranks seventh out of 24 peer communities (in population and having a research university) across the nation in employment growth in manufacturing. It ranks in the lower half of peer communities in employment growth in high-tech and private medical employment.
One local drawback is that so many manufacturing jobs are tied to some aspect of the auto industry, and there are few hirings, she said. “But things are taking off again, and every week my temp payroll is getting larger,” she said.
Williams has some advice for anyone job-hunting right now. Write 200 words about yourself, the things you are most proud of and you want the world to hear. Memorize what you wrote, and during a job interview these thoughts will come to your mind, she said.