10 Essential Recruitment Strategies for Hard-to-Fill Positions

10 Essential Recruitment Strategies for Hard-to-Fill Positions

Organizations often face challenges filling positions that require specialized or in-demand skills and expertise. With hard-to-fill roles, finding the right talent is only part of the process; standing out from other organizations is just as important.  

Recruiting for hard-to-fill positions can be costly, competitive, and time-consuming and requires a thoughtful approach that goes beyond traditional hiring methods. With the right strategies in place, your organization can effectively source, attract, and engage qualified candidates for your most critical positions.

If your team currently has an urgent need to access talent for hard-to-fill positions, consider enlisting the support of an independent talent acquisition and recruiting specialist on Upwork. Through Project Catalog™, you can search one-on-one consultations and fixed-price projects based on your specific recruiting needs and get started right away. Browse available talent acquisition and recruiting projects now.

Recruitment strategies for hard-to-fill positions:

  1. Understand the role and associated challenges
  2. Develop a compelling employer brand
  3. Utilize niche job boards and platforms
  4. Engage freelance and contract workers
  5. Leverage social media and networking
  6. Offer competitive compensation and benefits
  7. Foster an inclusive work culture
  8. Implement employee referral programs
  9. Partner with educational institutions
  10. Embrace technology and innovation

1. Understand the role and associated challenges

Before beginning the sourcing and recruiting process for a hard-to-fill position, gaining an understanding of the role, key requirements, job market trends, and associated challenges is required.

Some steps you can take to learn more about the position include conducting market and competitive research, scheduling discussions with industry experts, and reviewing professional profiles and networking with individuals in similar roles.

Consider addressing the following questions as you seek to understand the role:

  • What are the key responsibilities of the role?
  • Which hard and soft skills are required for the role?
  • What common and niche skills are required?
  • Which business outcomes do you expect the position to drive or support?
  • What kind of educational background, certifications, and experience are necessary for the position?
  • How does artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technology impact this role?
  • How competitive is the market for this specific role?
  • What’s the typical hiring timeline and process for this role?
  • Is the role best suited for a full-time team member, part-time worker, or independent professional?  
  • What does the average salary and compensation package look like for the position?
  • Is the role, industry, or focus area expected to see continued growth in the coming years?
  • Which sourcing channels are the most effective for attracting professionals in this area of expertise? Does your team currently use the right channels or do you need to expand your reach?
  • What does the career trajectory look like for the position?
  • Which roadblocks may your team face when recruiting for the role?  
  • What feedback has your team received from candidates who have interviewed for this or a similar position in the past?

2. Develop a compelling employer brand

Your organization’s employer brand can have a significant impact on your organization’s ability to attract talent for hard-to-fill positions and other roles. According to a survey from CareerArc featuring 1,156 respondents, 82% consider employer brand and reputation before applying to a job.

An employer brand is the general perception prospective team members have of what working for your organization is like. Many organizations promote their employer brand across multiple channels, including company careers pages, job descriptions, and social media channels, to show job seekers a glimpse into the company.

A compelling employer brand is about more than simply a careers page with job postings or a section on the website with executive bios. The following tips can help you build an engaging brand and attract qualified talent as a result.

  • Highlight your company mission, vision, and values in all recruitment materials
  • Develop a strong employee value proposition (EVP) that includes a summary of what your company has to offer workers
  • Share worker success stories and testimonials on your careers page
  • Illustrate potential career paths on your company website
  • Apply for and promote local and industry-specific best workplace awards
  • Add a recruitment or employee spotlight-focused section to your company blog
  • Distribute a newsletter featuring company updates to your candidate database to engage passive talent
  • Respond to feedback on job review sites

3. Utilize niche job boards and platforms

A critical strategy to attract talent for hard-to-fill positions is reaching potential candidates where they’re searching for open roles. While promoting open roles on traditional job boards and job search sites can help you reach some candidates, you also face the risk of your roles being overlooked in an endless list of open positions. Additionally, traditional job boards often prioritize paid, sponsored posts at the top of job search feeds; the costs associated with sponsored posts can add up quickly.

In addition to casting a wide net on broad job boards, also share your open positions on niche job boards and platforms, where candidates with the specific skill sets you need are likely to be networking and looking for their next opportunity.

Niche job boards, platforms, and networks include:

4. Engage freelance and contract workers

When most organizations identify a skills gap, their immediate reaction is typically to hire a full-time worker. While this approach is effective in many cases, exclusively relying on full-time talent can be costly and time-consuming, while leading to increased competition for hard-to-fill positions.

Your team can expand your talent pool by engaging freelance and contract workers. According to Upwork’s 2022 Future Workforce Report, 78% of hiring managers surveyed who engage independent professionals feel confident about finding the talent with the skills they need, compared to just 63% of those who don’t leverage independent talent. Additionally, 79% agree that working with freelancers enables their organization to be more innovative.

Additional benefits of engaging independent talent include:

  • A larger, more diverse talent pool
  • Access to more specialized skills
  • Faster time to hire
  • Reduced fixed recruitment costs
  • Flexibility to engage talent as needed, from short-term projects to long-term engagements

Through Upwork, your team can access skilled independent professionals with diverse skills and perspectives. Using Upwork’s end-to-end full-time hiring solution, you also have the option to initiate contract-to-hire working relationships. This approach can enable your team to quickly fill skills gaps, engage workers for a trial period, and decide whether the individual is the right fit for a full-time working relationship.

5. Leverage social media and networking

Promoting your company and open roles on social media and participating in networking events and communities can help your team connect with prospective candidates on a more personal level. Content Stadium surveyed more than 100 in-house recruitment, talent acquisition, and employer branding teams and found that 98% of respondents use social media. Additionally, 65% have dedicated social media accounts for branding and recruitment initiatives.

Most organizations have at least a baseline social media presence and share links to open positions and their careers page on LinkedIn. However, active and passive candidates’ social media feeds can get cluttered with posts from countless employers. Thinking outside the box and taking a creative approach to social media and networking can help your hard-to-fill open positions stand out from others.

Strategies to consider include:

  • Expanding your reach beyond LinkedIn by sharing open positions on Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter), Instagram, and TikTok
  • Creating video content, such as worker testimonials, an office tour, examples of a day in the life on your team, and highlights from company events
  • Engaging social media influencers to share your open positions or create videos for your account
  • Encouraging team members to engage with your brand and share open roles on social media
  • Asking current workers to connect you with passive candidates in their professional networks
  • Using relevant hashtags on social media posts to reach target candidates
  • Leveraging paid social media advertising to target specific demographics and individuals with the skills you need for hard-to-fill positions
  • Responding to messages and comments on your social media accounts in a timely manner
  • Joining relevant LinkedIn and other social media groups and participating in discussions
  • Attending virtual and in-person job fairs and other industry events relevant to your critical hard-to-fill positions

Developing and implementing an impactful social media recruitment strategy can take time away from other strategic recruiting tasks. Consider engaging a skilled independent social media specialist, who can share their expertise and leverage the right channels to attract top talent for your open roles.

6. Offer competitive compensation and benefits

When your organization is looking to fill challenging positions, you can stand out from other organizations and attract qualified talent by offering competitive compensation and benefits. In fact, a survey of 11,000 employees conducted by Boston Consulting Group found that pay is the top factor that would drive respondents to take a new job, immediately followed by benefits and perks and work-life balance.

Ensure salaries and compensation packages across roles, years of experience, levels, and departments at your organization remain competitive by conducting market research at least once a year. Some criteria to include in your market research include the role and job title itself, education level, skills and certification, and the worker’s location.

Because salary is only one piece of a comprehensive benefits package, as part of your market research, also look into which employee benefits and perks other organizations offer.

Benefits that can help you attract new workers for hard-to-fill roles and other positions across your company include:

  • Paid time off (vacation, sick, and public holidays)
  • Family leave (parental, caregiver, and bereavement)
  • Health, dental, and vision insurance
  • Life insurance
  • Short- and long-term disability
  • Retirement plans
  • Quarterly or annual bonuses
  • Profit-sharing
  • Stock options
  • Remote, hybrid, and flexible work arrangements
  • Home office supply reimbursement
  • Commuter stipends or reimbursements
  • Professional development resources and stipends
  • Tuition reimbursement
  • Financial planning assistance
  • Childcare assistance
  • Wellness stipends
  • Mental health resources
  • Community service opportunities

Keep in mind, comprehensive benefits are intended for in-house employees. If your team engages independent professionals, they’ll receive compensation for their work on an hourly or project basis.

7. Foster an inclusive work culture

Prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), can help your organization attract qualified talent and build a workplace where every team member feels welcome and respected. According to a survey of 2,515 employed U.S. adults conducted by the American Psychological Association, 94% of respondents say feeling a sense of belonging at work is very or somewhat important to them.  

Some ways to display your commitment to an inclusive company culture during the recruitment process include:

  • Sourcing candidates from diverse channels, such as Diversity.com, Women’s Job List, the National Association of Asian American Professionals, Jobs for Humanity, AbilityJobs.com, and Military.com
  • Featuring success stories from team members of diverse backgrounds on your career page and in employer branding resources
  • Highlighting your organization’s mission and values in employer branding materials
  • Using inclusive language, such as neutral terms versus gendered terms, in recruitment resources
  • Following a standardized hiring process and leveraging technology to evaluate all candidates on an objective scale  
  • Including a diverse set of workers in the interview process, including the recruitment team, hiring manager, and other team members
  • Setting aside time during the interview process to show candidates you value their input by encouraging them to ask questions about your organization and culture
  • Being prepared to answer questions about your team’s commitment to DEI efforts during the interview process
  • Acknowledging holidays of all cultures and offering flexible time off to encourage workers to celebrate the holidays that matter most to them

8. Implement employee referral programs

While a wide range of external sourcing channels are available to recruit professionals for hard-to-fill positions, in many cases, your top source of talent may be your referrals from current employees.

Referrals offer many benefits, including cost savings compared to job boards and other paid channels, more qualified hires, and increased engagement. In fact, according to a survey of 322 HR professionals conducted by Aptitude Research, 84% of respondents said referrals are the most cost-effective way to find talent.

Existing team members want to work with other individuals who will make positive contributions to the team. Because of this, referred workers are often among the most ideal candidates. This approach also saves time, because your team can bypass initial screening steps.

Rather than receiving ad hoc referrals, consider implementing a formal employee referral program to streamline the process.    

Elements of an impactful employee referral program include:

  • Referral software and defined key performance indicators (KPIs) to track the success of your program
  • Integration with existing recruitment systems to compare metrics with other candidate sources
  • A standardized, user-friendly process and guidelines for team members to submit referrals
  • A communication strategy to share open positions and referral opportunities across internal team channels, such as the company intranet, messaging applications, email, and team meetings
  • A job application field for candidates to share whether they were referred by a current team member
  • Referral bonuses, gift cards, and other rewards as incentives
  • Additional incentives for referrals to leadership, executive, and hard-to-fill roles
  • Non-monetary recognition, such as thank you notes and team shoutouts

9. Partner with educational institutions

Whether you’re looking to fill entry-level positions or more senior-level, hard-to-fill roles, developing partnerships with educational institutions can be mutually beneficial. Universities, colleges, certificate program providers, and other educational institutions can help your team expand your reach to new sources of talent. At the same time, your business helps students and alumni find roles that align with your skill and experience needs.

While your recruitment team can research educational institutions to learn about potential partnerships as part of your broader sourcing strategy, also consider asking existing team members about opportunities to connect with their alma maters.

Some ways to partner with educational institutions include:

  • Attending virtual or onsite job fairs to connect with students
  • Posting job vacancies on career center pages or alumni networks
  • Offering internship opportunities to upcoming or recent graduates
  • Inviting students or alumni to your workplace for an open house, networking event, or mentorship opportunities
  • Attending class sessions as a guest lecturer to highlight career opportunities at your organization
  • Partnering with MBA and other advanced degree programs to access qualified individuals for more senior-level roles.

10. Embrace technology and innovation

A key challenge with recruiting for hard-to-fill positions is that the most qualified job candidates often receive offers soon after starting their search—and many juggle multiple offers. To secure top-performing talent before competing employers, reducing overall time to hire is essential. An effective way to do so is by embracing AI recruiting tools and other technology.

A survey of 1,068 HR professionals conducted by Tidio found that nearly 67% of respondents believe using AI brings many benefits and has a positive impact on the recruitment process. Traditional recruiting efforts are often time-consuming and require manual steps. Adopting technology can help recruiting teams decrease time to hire, drive candidate engagement, and free up time to use in building relationships with talent.

Many technology tools are available to speed up the hiring process, including but not limited to talent sourcing tools, AI-enabled recruiting assistants, generative AI-powered job description software, resume parsing tools, applicant tracking systems (ATS), talent assessment tools, and interview scheduling software.  

With the right technology in place, your team can more efficiently recruit for hard-to-fill roles. Steps that can be streamlined using automating and other technology during the recruitment process include:

  • Sourcing qualified talent across several channels
  • Matching top candidates with the best-fit roles
  • Reengaging past candidates
  • Centralizing applications or proposals
  • Administering screening surveys and talent assessments
  • Sending communications, answering questions, and sharing status updates
  • Scheduling interviews
  • Comparing interview feedback using a standardized scorecard
  • Initiating background and reference checks, if applicable
  • Sending digital offer and onboarding paperwork to new hires

While technology can help simplify the recruitment process, a human element is essential for successful recruiting. A member of your team should always make final hiring decisions to ensure each new team member is the right fit for the company and role.

Staff your hard-to-fill roles with Upwork

While identifying and attracting the best candidates for hard-to-fill roles can be daunting, implementing the strategies above can help you find the right talent and stand out from other organizations looking to fill similar positions.

For additional assistance with staffing your hard-to-fill positions, skilled independent recruiting specialists are available on Upwork. Independent recruiting professionals can share their expertise about employer branding, relevant sourcing channels, recruitment technology, and more, helping you quickly and cost-effectively fill critical roles.

Upwork can also help you access talent with specialized and in-demand skills needed to drive positive outcomes for your business. Through Talent Marketplace™, engage professionals with more than 10,000 skills across specialties, including marketing, development, artificial intelligence, design, finance, and more.


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Author Spotlight

10 Essential Recruitment Strategies for Hard-to-Fill Positions
Beth Kempton
Content Writer

Beth Kempton is a B2B writer with a passion for storytelling and more than a decade of content marketing experience. She specializes in writing engaging long-form content, including blog posts, thought leadership pieces, SEO articles, case studies, ebooks and guides, for HR technology and B2B SaaS companies. In her free time, you can find Beth reading or running.

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