7 Ways to prep for the seasonal warehouse hiring rush

In a year where COVID-19 caused eCommerce to skyrocket and the labor market to shrink, hiring never stopped at many warehouses. As of July, the industry has recovered 92.9% of jobs lost since the initial February-April 2020 recession, but with many former warehouse workers sitting it out, businesses are still struggling to fill these roles. Add to that the upcoming busy season, and recruiting warehouse workers is more stressful than ever.

But seasonal staffing isn’t something you can afford to bungle. If being short-staffed leaves you unable to fulfill all your orders of, say, holiday sweaters, for a week or two, you can’t make that up later in the year. And once you gain a reputation for late fulfillment, you might not get an opportunity to make up for it next holiday season, either. 

Beyond being dangerous for your business, a lack of staff can also be dangerous to your workers.

“If companies don’t get enough people, they’re going to work people on the floor 80 hours, and that’s where you get injuries.” —Kelly O’Neill, veteran HR executive & coach

So how can you ensure that you’ll have the workers you need trained and ready to go in time for the holidays — or any other seasonal peaks your business has? Consider the tips and tactics below.

1. Start your search for workers early

The right time to begin your search depends largely on how many workers you need and how tight the labor market is in your area. But starting too late is probably the number-one mistake most seasonal businesses make.

“Start much earlier than you think you need to,” said O’Neill. “It’s always easier to shut down the search process if you’re too far ahead than it is to try to make up for lost time.”

What’s more, by starting the process earlier than others competing for the same talent, you’ll have the first chance to hire the best workers.

“Don’t wait until the last minute, or you can be stuck with some candidates who aren’t right for the business,” said Chris Campos, a change and human capital consultant.

2. Cast a wide net, and be creative

Keep in mind that you need to attract many more candidates than you have job openings. This pool will be winnowed out during the hiring process, and you also need to account for turnover. 

“If in the past [turnover has] been 30%, you need to factor that into how many people you need,” O’Neill said.

So especially in a tight labor market like the one we’re in now, posting a job description on a few job sites might not suffice, especially if other businesses in your area are doing the same thing. 

“Sometimes the normal channels aren’t necessarily the best,” said Campos, who has had success with local forums on Reddit. 

You might also consider turning to Instawork as a flexible staffing solution. Our platform has a large network of experienced warehouse and other shift workers you can easily access to fill openings as needed. This is an especially handy option if you’re unsure of just how many workers you’ll need, or if you find yourself short-staffed at the last minute. And since the workers are already vetted, you don’t need to spend time and effort reviewing individual applications — just check out their Instawork profiles.

RELATED: The true cost of hiring warehouse workers (full-time vs. temp)

O’Neill also advised asking local colleges and tech schools to help spread the word, as well as “building a selection process based on a model of your best employees. If your best workers are renters, put up posters in local laundromats; if they’re car nuts, put posters up in auto parts shops.” 

And don’t overlook some very close-to-home sources: your customers and your current employees. Both groups are familiar with your business and invested in its success. Consider offering employees a “finder’s fee” for every candidate they refer who gets hired.

“Why use a couple of people to recruit when you can use an army?” O’Neill said. “If you incentivize them to bring in people they know, you’re making them not just an hourly worker but a company ambassador.”

Your company’s past seasonal workers are another commonly overlooked resource. Even if they’re no longer available, they’re likely willing to spread the word.

“If you’re going to do a lot of hiring, you need to pull a lot of levers,” O’Neill notes. “No one thing is going to solve all your problems.”

3. Be specific about expectations

Campos had one client unable to find the right kind of candidates — pick/pack workers who could handle small, delicate items — because it advertised for “warehouse staff”; just about every applicant was a machine operator. If you need staff who can operate forklifts, or who are experienced with gift-wrapping, mention that in your outreach efforts.

Also “be transparent about what they can and can’t do, like which hours they need to work and whether they can take any time off,” Campos said. “The more you can be transparent about every aspect of the job, the better it is for both you and any potential applicants.”

4. Involve the functional team in the hiring process

Too often HR handles everything from writing the job description to interviewing the candidates, with only minimal (if any) involvement from members of the team that needs the workers. 

“If it’s an ops job, ops needs to be involved with the planning and the process, from soup to nuts,” O’Neill insists. And it’s not just operations management.

“Consider involving key hourly people in the selection process. They’re experts in the job function, and know who they would and wouldn’t want to work with,” O’Neill explained.

Another benefit of this approach, he said, is that “you can start grooming those folks for future managerial posts.”

RELATED: How Instawork builds reliability in warehouse staffing

And if you have a unionized workforce, “once you have a solid idea of what you’ll be doing, meet with your union rep or leadership to let them know,” O’Neill advised. “It’ll save you issues and grievances for months to come.” The union members might also be a source of strong job candidates.

5. Don’t over-interview

Chances are you don’t need higher management to speak with potential shelf-stockers or loaders, and you probably don’t need to subject those candidates to three rounds of interviews either. 

If you’re hiring for a significant number of positions or shifts, consider implementing what O’Neill describes as a mass hiring process: Prescreen applicants, then invite those who pass muster to a group event. After a manager kicks things off by welcoming the entire group, have the candidates proceed through any necessary tests and speak with the people ultimately responsible for hiring, in something like an assembly-line process. That doesn’t mean you should treat them like cogs, though.

“When you have the applicants on site, you should be treating them like guests,” O’Neill said.

By the time each candidate leaves, he or she should be either presented with an offer of employment or politely turned down, but encouraged to apply for another position or in the future. Such hiring events should take no more than several hours and yield a number of potential workers.

6. Get back to applicants quickly

“If you don’t contact [candidates] within three days after they’ve applied, they’ve often forgotten about the job and moved on,” Campos said. “As soon as they apply, take 24 hours to review their application, then reach out to them.”

He suggested speaking with these candidates on the phone long enough to assess whether you want to call them in for an in-person interview. Sometimes, all it takes is several minutes to determine that someone simply isn’t a good fit — and that can save you and the applicant significant time and effort.

And in an effort to meet candidates where they are, more and more companies are engaging candidates through text messaging — a practice that results in “faster response times, increased engagement and an improved candidate experience” as you communicate with them in their preferred medium, said Roy Maurer of SHRM.

RELATED: How to speed up the warehouse employees hiring process

7. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good

The likelihood of applicants having every skill and quality you want is slim. Determine ahead of time which qualities are non-negotiable, and which are ideal, but not essential.

“It’s okay if they don’t mark every single box, so long as you can train them and they have the right moral compass and sense of reliability,” Campos said.

And if an applicant does check most or all of the boxes? “Pull the trigger and hire them,” O’Neill said. “Don’t wait.”