Why is Project RPO Important Now?

Explore a New Way to Tackle Near-Term Hiring Demands

As hiring needs rise and fall, how can you meet scaling demands? One answer is through project-based recruitment process outsourcing (RPO). This isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that has evolved to help empower talent acquisition and business leaders be ready for anything. 

Listen in as Sevenstep's Executive Director of Client Solutions Sandra Zawacki joins HRO Today's CEO Elliot Clark to explore how project RPO can help fill the gaps of managing a talent strategy. 


Elliot Clark: Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening and welcome to another HRO Today Educational Podcast. I'm Elliot Clark, the CEO of HRO Today. We publish HRO Today Magazine, HRO Today EMEA and HRO Today APAC; as well as host, the HRO Today Forums and Educational Events around the world, and we’re the managers of the HRO Today Association.

Today, we're going to talk about talent acquisition [TA] but specifically, with respect to economic volatility, and we're going to talk a little bit about what options you have and some of the products. One of the options available to talent acquisition leaders facing a spike, an increase in volume or hiring initiative, or, let's say, a product launch or a new plant opening is to contract with an RPO provider for what is often referred to as Project RPO.

Now, Project RPO is a subset of the RPO industry product line, and it involves a discrete number of hires over a limited period of time, usually less than a year. However, during times of economic uncertainty, this practice can be used to deal with volatile hiring needs. Although in that case, Project RPO is not one and done. It's sort of done and done again and again and again. The expectations of Project RPO as a product line are changing. The current economic uncertainty is driving this, and the providers are changing as well to adapt to their evolving client needs.

To discuss what is changing, we have someone who lives every day in the eye of the storm. I'd like to welcome Sandra Zawacki, the executive director for client solutions for Sevenstep. Sandra, welcome to the podcast.

Sandra Zawacki: Thank you, Elliot. Thank you for having me.

Elliot Clark: And thank you for taking part. So, you've been with Sevenstep, or its related parent company Motion Recruitment [Partners] for about 16-17 years. You're now the executive director of client solutions. For folks in our audience, Sevenstep is one of the most highly rated providers of recruitment process outsourcing and workforce services by HRO Today. They are very close to, or almost always near the top of our HRO Today Baker's Dozen for RPO and a company that that has really bitten down on some of the kind of hardest-to-fill type jobs, difficult programs, but they have a lot of expertise around how RPO is done and also some real operational excellence around how they train their recruiters to fulfill those needs.

So, Sandra, let's get right into this. Right now, TA executives are not sure whether they have to be ready for everything or frankly be ready for anything. How is uncertainty and economic volatility impacting their decisions, and you have a lot of clients that are in this boat? How can the RPO firms who work with them on this on-and-off basis help them with managing the uncertainty, workforce planning, optimizing processes or other critical aspects of the TA function? What do you think is going on here? What should they be doing?

Sandra Zawacki: Well, it's a great question. I think there's a lot that's happened in the last three or four years within every industry and certainly TA. There's been a lot of things that have changed, and I think if we go back to maybe during and certainly post-pandemic when that volatility started, I think we saw a lot of organizations look for quick changes in their departments in order to frankly cut costs, right? A lot of organizations saw a reduction in total number of hires. A lot of Fortune 50 companies [and] tech companies saw reductions in their overall volumes during that time, and so as a result, we saw a lot of TA departments, and even HR, go through layoffs.

That said, in 2023, I think the final numbers are that the economy added 2.8 million new jobs. And so, I think there is certainly hiring happening as we come into 2024, and I think we've got a lot of companies who are now potentially a little bit understaffed in some of their TA and HR functions. I think we've got leadership that knows that they want to grow in 2024. They think they will grow in 2024. But they're not exactly sure of what that timing is going to look like, and what that growth will ultimately look like. And I think that causes some really interesting challenges for the leadership over these parts of organizations, because committing to hiring back much of their HR team or TA team to full capacity can be a little daunting when you don't know when that growth ultimately is going to happen. It may feel not quite fiscally responsible to do so.

And I also think that organizations think of RPO as a very, very big commitment, and in a lot of situations it is. It's a long-term, 2-3 year engagement. But I think that that's where Project RPO can be so relevant because a lot of organizations – in order to create that flexibility – really need, and are, looking for something that's in between. I'm hearing from more and more of my clients that they're not quite ready to fully grow their TA teams, but they also need to be able to meet these projects and meet these hiring demands that they're getting from their businesses when and if they happen.

I think that you mentioned seasonal hiring. You mentioned potentially new growth in a new region. I really think that where Project RPO can come in is to help provide that agility – where you don't have to have the exact right internal headcount, which might be difficult to do in this type of unpredictable market. But you can have a reliable partner that can scale for you when it's needed.

Elliot Clark: You mentioned this concept of agility, and I think that's really important. A lot of HR departments are talking about how to become agile, or if they are agile, but the real question is, really, do you think that the HR departments are thinking of this in a long-term sense of how do I set up my infrastructure? If I need to hire 600 people in the Christmas season you know, as an example for retail, or 800 people, or 6,000 people, whatever that number is, then is it appropriate for me to maintain that level of TA staff for the month of February, where I'm actually not hiring anybody?

Are they thinking of it long-term in terms of I stack my infrastructure, because when I have a spike, I'll use a Sevenstep as a partner, or they are they doing it sort of on like a rolling, short-term basis?

Sandra Zawacki: You know, I think if you go back five years ago, they were doing it more on a rolling, short-term basis. But I think what this last few years has taught us is that having a number of different tools in your tool belt that you can reach for, and that are going to be there for you, and you don't have to go out to the store and go buy it from scratch when you need it, if I can use that analogy. I think that's how a lot of firms are starting to think about Project RPO.

And I think frankly, I know a lot of companies may have used or thought of staffing agencies in that way to augment in situations where they don't quite have the bandwidth to cover volume. And you know those staffing agencies, or those types of partners can be wonderful partners for certain hard-to-fill roles. You know we have a big portion of our company that does that work, and they're great recruiters.

But I do think that to your point, when you are building your TA infrastructure to be able to be nimble and agile, and address different situations with partners that will provide more than just filling a one-off position here and there who can really scale external recruiting teams for you to meet a volume demand in a city or a region that you may have never filled positions in before, you really need a partner where you can build long-term trust and collaboration.

I think that collaboration can show up in other parts of your brand. If you have a partner who really understands how your business functions and where it's going over an extended period of time, because you've taken the time to build that partnership into your existing infrastructure, and not just as a short-term solution kind of when the house is on fire, then I think you get the benefit of having an external vendor who really understands how your brand is being represented to the market and how it's being represented to the candidate base that you're targeting. And I think that type of engagement really comes back around when it comes time for recruiting and filling jobs.

Elliot Clark: Let's expand on that, because what you're talking about actually raises the issue of the client side. So if I could borrow your expertise for a moment to talk to our audience, what should they be thinking and expecting? Maybe the rules have changed, and the providers need to be able to provide something different. So given that the Project RPO providers can make these kinds of contributions to a partnership, how do you recommend clients qualify the providers that they pick for an Project RPO program to make sure that the right firm to pay receive these additional benefits and to be a prospect for that long-term relationship? What are the questions that that HR leaders should be asking their providers to make sure that they've got what NASA would call, “the right stuff?”

Sandra Zawacki: Well, I think there's a few different buckets, if you will, that I would focus on if I'm trying to evaluate whether an RPO firm would be a good partner for Project RPO engagements. I think, first having a clear scaling or kickoff or handoff plan that they can verbalize and outline for you in a streamlined manner is extremely important, because the difference with a project engagement as compared to maybe a multi-year engagement is that in a multi-year engagement, you may have a three- to four-month runway to get that transformation team involved and get that project kicked off, but in a Project RPO setting, most of my clients are looking for a much quicker stand up than that. And so, it's important that organizations know how to do that, and they can show you that they've done that in the past and walk you through what that would look like. I think established deployment strategies is very, very critical, and there should be questions asked about that.

I also think that one of the things that an RPO should be able to provide you with that maybe a staffing agency can't is data analytics and a solid technology footprint that can be leveraged to benefit that project. There should be data and market knowledge and market insight that is maybe more – should be more – than what that internal TA team may have at their disposal. So, the RPO should be able to come in and provide some helpful content and some helpful analytics, especially if we're talking about a project that may be in a new geographical location or that is seasonal in nature. They should be able to come in and help that TA team with some useful data points that will help optimize the recruiting strategy.

And then, lastly, I would say, agility, which I know now is a word that we've repeated a few times here, but it's really important, especially in this type of market, as you said, and resource agility is crucial in these projects. Not only should the RPO be able to scale this project efficiently for you, but they should really be real-time analyzing progress in such a way that they are able to bring in new resources or shift them off as necessary without reinventing the whole project. I think that level of ongoing agility is something that companies should inquire about and get a sense for how they handle those situations, because I do think that the more agile organizations are within the project the better the results.

Elliot Clark: You brought up something and I wanted to explore a little bit further. And it had to do with this sort of data intelligence and technology tools for insight and data analytics. It used to be that Project RPO is basically “we need you to source X number of resumes so we can get them processed and hired.” And then some more process management stuff came in. They're now going back over the evolution of the Project RPO product. But you rarely heard of companies going to their Project RPO partner and saying, “Hey, we not only want you to help fill the job, but we want you to help analyze the market and locations or geographies where we're recruiting and look at what is the sort of the comp data around those job families.”

Sevenstep has particularly good product called Sevayo® that provides those insights. Are you finding that the Project RPO clients are calling on you now sort of routinely to bring the Sevayo® functionality and data results into Project RPO assignments? And is that something that you've seen more recently, or is that sort of always been the way that you guys have sold that product?

Sandra Zawacki: Absolutely, I think that it's becoming a bigger part of the conversation, and I think it should be, frankly. As you mentioned, we have a product that we're very proud of, and I think a lot of our clients may not realize that it's an option for them to use some of that data analytics that we have access to in a Project RPO, and I always enjoy conversations where I get to help shift their knowledge base a little bit about what it can mean to utilize a product like that for their project needs, because a lot of times they may be outsourcing that to a third party to go and help them evaluate market conditions in a place where they're looking to do hiring for the first time, just to use that as an example. I think it's growing the understanding that that's an expectation that companies can have of an RPO provider in a project context. And I'm certainly always happy when we can include that as part of our project because I think in the end it really helps the process along and helps everyone make more educated decisions as part of that process.

Elliot Clark: Well, that's great. And so for the folks in our radioland listening audience, Project RPO is changing. And it is a product that used to be about discrete outcomes. Now, it's really about partnership, and from what Sandra is telling us, it's now about the ability to bring a whole host of approaches, solutions, data and analytics. And then, most importantly, being sort of an option to expand the agility of the talent acquisition function to deal with up and down hiring needs, and it is evolving as one of the products available from the RPO industry. So keep that in mind as you're looking at the volatility and as HR leaders, if you're going to manage infrastructure, you've got to think about it a little bit differently, but the world is changing, and economic volatility is here to stay as it as it seems, at least for right now.

So I wanted to thank you, Sandra, so much for taking part in the in the podcast. I hope you had fun. I did.

Sandra Zawacki: Absolutely! Thank you for having me!

Elliot Clark: Well we'll have to have you come back to join us again to talk about where things are going. Folks, I'm Elliot Clark. I'm the CEO of HRO Today. I want to once again thank Sandra Zawacki, the executive director of client solutions for Sevenstep. We hope you enjoyed the podcast, and we will look forward to you joining us in the future on another HRO Today Educational Podcast.