Las Vegas takes a fresh look at hiring

Employers are empathizing with local applicants buffeted by the recession

Michelle DiTondo, senior vice president of human resources for MGM Resorts International, poses in her office. DiTondo and other Las Vegas human resources directors say unemployment, uneven credit histories and other imperfections on the resumes of local job applicants aren’t the red flags that they once were.

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Cory Harwell overcame a gap in his work history to become general manager of The Pub at Monte Carlo.

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Solid hiring practices for good times or bad

Diane Johnson, a certified public accountant with the Colorado-based executive search firm Tradewind Solutions, argues that hiring in a recession is “all about getting your hires right the first time.” It’s what happens in good times, she says, so why not maintain the strategy?

Johnson lists key mistakes made by companies hiring during a recession:

• Thinking candidates grow on trees. They don’t, partly because executives are reluctant to switch employers.

• Underestimating staffing needs. Increased workloads and expanded job descriptions often lead to the departure of stressed staff members.

• Hiring now only to lay off people later. When opening a new position, employers should anticipate the worst-case economic scenario before filling that job.

• Undercompensating employees. It might make sense in a down economy, but companies may lose their underpaid employees once the economic picture improves.

• Not replacing a departed worker. It may be tempting to not replace, say, someone retiring at the end of the year and redistribute that staff member’s work to other staff members. If that person is a key employee, though, it’s wise to refill the position — not only because it can be done without taking a further financial hit (since the salary is already being paid), but because it will help the other employees who are in the department (who already may have taken on extra work as the downturn began).

In better economic times, a resume like Cory Harwell’s might have been the kiss of death to a job applicant in Las Vegas.

In 2008, Harwell left his position as director of food and beverage at New York-New York to join several partners in opening their own establishment — Caña, a relatively small, tapas-themed restaurant with 140 seats.

But when the recession forced the partners to close the eatery in February, the 40-year-old divorced father of a young child spent seven months unemployed.

The hole in his job history would undoubtedly have been a black mark to employers during the boom years in Las Vegas — a sign of personal frailty, of flightiness, of a mysterious inability to hold a job when employment opportunities were abundant.

But the fact Harwell has rejoined the workforce as manager of The Pub at Monte Carlo speaks to a new attitude among some companies about imperfections in job seekers’ resumes.

As he applied for more than 200 openings throughout the Southwest and Southern California, Harwell said he found interviewers to be empathetic about his situation.

“The focus was on being able to explain the prior two years of my life since the departure from New York-New York, developing some understanding of why I did what I did,” he said. “I chose to follow the dream. It didn’t work out this time. And I explained why I’m better for it having gone through what I went through the past two years.”

Entering the fourth year of the economic collapse, human resources directors and small-business operators have been forced to adjust their personnel expectations.

Workplace dynamics that raised eyebrows in 2006 — gaps in a resume, low credit scores, multiple job changes within a short period of time — have become the new reality for many Southern Nevadans who are struggling to survive the collapse of the housing market, the disappearance of personal credit and the lack of jobs.

Many of today’s potential employees are simply struggling to pay the bills rather than climb the organizational ladder, and the pool of potential hires has expanded, leaving savvy human resources directors combing through thousands of appealing and not-so appealing applications.

“Now foreclosures are so common, foreclosure, itself, wouldn’t eliminate you from consideration for a job,” says Michelle DiTondo, senior vice president of human resources for MGM Resorts International.

Same goes for other personal setbacks. One top Las Vegas casino executive believes that the worst U.S. economy in 70 years has shredded tens of thousands of resumes throughout Southern Nevada, leaving qualified applicants with unsteady work histories and financial troubles that would have raised eyebrows at the height of the economic boom.

“Now,” he says, “we must be more understanding, more forgiving.”

However, that sentiment isn’t shared by all employers.

Another Las Vegas casino executive is emphatic: Anyone worth hiring locally has a job. If not, the best of the lot have left town to search for work. Those who remain lack the skills or drive to work in this market, he says, noting that a significant percentage of the local candidates he sees have low credit scores and fail employer drug tests.

“I won’t hire from that pool,” he says matter of factly. “I’d rather hire someone from out of town.”

That being the case, it’s difficult to determine whether Harwell’s experience of overcoming an employment gap is common. What is clear, however, is that hiring has changed drastically in the last five years, and some employers’ outlook has changed with it.

Then and now

When Strip employers posted openings before the recession, it could take a month for a single person to apply.

Delivery drivers had become successful mortgage brokers. Beauticians were pulling down hundreds of thousands of dollars as Realtors. Construction workers bought second cars and boats with their six-figure incomes.

Why bother to work a casino industry job that paid $35,000 a year?

The challenge of filling jobs was exponentially harder for the operators of mom-and-pop businesses, who found it virtually impossible to hire qualified cooks, food servers and cashiers who routinely chose to fill better-paying jobs that offered benefits.

That’s no longer the case at most levels of the job market.

“We went from having no one applying for weeks to the same job — a $12- to $15-an-hour, entry level job — now having 40 to 50 applicants, people with master’s degrees, people who have worked in banking, real estate,” DiTondo says. “We’re still spending a lot of time trying to find the right person, but now we have the applicants.”

The resume hole provides one of the greatest examples of the changing perception of potential employees. It once was the classic red flag, a sign that something was not right with a person’s work history. Today, the hole has become an incubator of personal creativity, an unsought opportunity for unemployed and underemployed individuals to create their own freelance businesses and consulting firms, or, in many cases, take whatever work can be found to pay the bills.

“Obviously, we see the gaps in employment, but we also have a pretty good sense of the different industries that have had layoffs, but we don’t hold that against them,” says Staci Vesneske, chief human resources officer for the Clark County School District.

The School District hires custodians, cooks, bus drivers and a broad mix of line workers who have lost jobs to private- and public-sector layoffs in recent years. While troubling for workers, the economic climate has deepened the talent pool for the School District.

“It’s a benefit to us in a sense that we get a lot of applicants for support staff positions that we didn’t get when we were hiring a couple of thousand employees per year,” Vesneske says.

To be sure, a series of resume holes may reflect a spotty workplace history, one that is reflective of poor employee performance.

“I get concerned when I see multiple holes going back in history when the economy was good,” Vesneske says. “It doesn’t concern me when somebody was out of work the last year.”

‘We have to understand’

Six hundred applicants were expected to attend a three-day job fair this month for positions at a new restaurant at the Venetian. Within two hours of the start of the event, nearly 250 people had shown up.

The numbers spoke to the depth of economic despair in Southern Nevada, and the man who oversaw the event was empathetic toward those in need of work.

In better times, many of those waiting in line for interviews would have been written off for having multiple holes in their job resumes or for not having worked within the past year, but Chris Calderon was having none of that. The director of human resources for Block 16 Hospitality Gastro Pub, the restaurant’s parent company, was adamant: “Of course, in this climate we’re going to be forgiving of people who are moving from job to job, even of the people who say they’re not working. We have to understand the climate.”

Calderon’s company is set to open the 140-employee Public House restaurant in late December at the Venetian, and he believes there are plenty of high-quality workers to be found in the army of unemployed and underemployed Southern Nevadans.

No question, sifting through thousands of job applicants has become one of the top challenges for corporate decision makers. “Our struggle has been how do we identify the best candidates out of the thousands we have?” says MGM Resorts’ DiTondo. The company has 1,000 job openings. A single posting receives as many as 60 applicants within 24 hours.

“Now we’re focused on screening all the applicants we do get,” she says. “I think it’s a better position to be in to find great people.”

Back at the Venetian job fair, Hugo Moreno, a top executive with the Block 16 Hospitality Gastro Pub group, believes greater empathy is needed when consdering the applications of the unemployed and underemployed. A 14-year veteran of the restaurant industry, Moreno remembers the boom years when food servers, bartenders, cooks and dishwashers moved from job to job, seeking better wages and greater responsibility. Some held multiple jobs to maximize their earnings. Now, he sees qualified applicants who are underemployed or unemployed and simply need a chance to prove their worth in the workplace. “I believe empathy plays a role in it,” he says of the hiring decision. “We’ve all been on the other side.”

Harwell, the former New York-New York executive, attests to that sentiment. He’s earning two-thirds of what he made at New York-New York, but he’s thrilled to be employed. And now, in a twist, he’s again reviewing the applications of job seekers. His personal job search provided Harwell with a greater understanding of the plight of the unemployed and the challenges they face.

“I think anyone in Las Vegas is a little more forgiving toward resume gaps,” he says. “Generally, most people don’t look nearly as closely at them as they did a few years ago. I think the understanding is there that it’s not something that can be controlled.”

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  1. It's about time employers took this approach in hiring. ESPECIALLY in Vegas.

    NVFisherman: No one profession is exempt from layoffs, including CPA's. Where have you been? Not everyone is good at accounting so why get a degree in it???

  2. Thanks for the comments. I used the comments of unnamed sources because they framed the perspectives of key players in the region's corporate offices. They requested anonymity when we spoke, and throughout thousands of interviews with front-line workers and corporate executives I've found that people are more honest and open when their identities are protected. -- Dave

  3. NVFisherman: The people quoted in this story have fresh perspectives to provide on the job market, whether it be employer or potential employee. Take it for what it's worth, a snapshot of the current employment environment. We've written stories in the past and will continue to write more in the future. -- Dave

  4. What's the correlation between some one's credit score and there ability to serve a beverage.

  5. Casinokid you are totally correct. I believe they had the hiring all wrong to begin with even during the boom years. Requesting 10 years of job history, my credit score, my past 5 years of residences, the color of my skin, a background check, a drug test, a picture, the high school I went to, the name of 3 random people and then they want to know your skills.

    Most of that stuff doesn't matter when you're just serving a beverage and food. The jobs in food and beverage haven't changed since the first restaurant opened centuries ago and neither has the turnover rate in the industry. With all of this information they gather about you as an applicant they still can't find the PERFECT person. That's because they don't exist.

    HR departments are hated in casinos because they get in the way of quickly making a hiring decision. No one grows up wishing to work in a casino in any capacity. It's just where we end up. It's not rocket science and I wish that the hiring managers would stop acting like it is.

    Also, Cana was a lackluster restaurant. I'm surprised that it was headed by a former F &B director. I thought they knew it all and had all of the experience to make such a restaurant work. I guess with all of their experience and connections they can still fail.

  6. Note how Harrahs Execs got bonused on cost cutting measures saving the company money. One way that they got there was to push out those making $60 K and to hire someone at $35 k to take their place. The problem with the $60 K person was their salary, not their talent nor their loyalty. It is nice to see people getting chances. But, there still remains leadership that looks at those as unemployed as all having the same story. That is not the case and to find someone who is willing to even give a person a chance to explain is much harder to find. The comment made about anyone worth hiring has a job already and it is better to hire from out of town - sorry but that is way more of the truth to what is going on. Workers are being bunched as all of the same and you wonder why people are leaving Las Vegas to find work? They dont get the chance. Credit scores, drug tests - that had nothing to do for the manager who had their Casino close down. That person just gets bundled in with everyone else and that is sad.