publications home

Rapid-Response Recruiting Fills Contract Labor Assignments in Danger Zones

SHRM Online
Recruiting & Staffing Focus Area
December 2005

Reprinted with the permission of HR Magazine published by the Society for Human Resource Management (, Alexandria, VA.

By Stephenie Overman, December 2005

One of the most frenetic staffing positions to hold is that of a recruiter for a company that wins many federal contracts for work in dangerous environments. While maintaining a relatively lean staff, the company must have systems in place to hire hundreds of workers quickly once a contract is awarded.

Pasadena, Calif.-based Parsons Corp. is an expert at mass hiring. With military precision, the company has hired and processed more than 600 expatriates for engineering and construction-related jobs in Iraq during the last two-and-a-half years.

It takes a rapid-response staffing team because once the company wins a government contract it has only 90 to 100 days to get all the people it needs, says James Ridings, director of global staffing for Parsons, one of the largest U.S. employee-owned engineering and construction companies, with 10,000 employees. The company has experience building airports, roads, bridges, rail and water systems around the world.

"If you bid on the contract, the government expects you to have the people," he says. When Parsons began recruiting for eight U.S. contracts in Iraq two-and-a-half years ago, it already had plenty of experience recruiting workers for jobs done in hostile environments; it has taken on assignments in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as Iraq.

"You don't know what you're going to be awarded. We have a labor supply chain that allows us to turn on the spigot when we need it," Ridings explains. Parsons uses both internal recruiters and a third-party firm.

Iraq is the first project in many years where "we're sending people into an actual battle zone. It's the first since Vietnam where bombs are dropping and bullets are flying," he says. Still, "we've had a tremendous number of people both inside and outside our company say 'I'll go to Iraq.' When we got the contracts, we turned on the facet."

To handle the job, Parsons' relies on its own staffing task force made up of recruiters and "processors." In addition, Parsons has used Hudson Global Resources as its third-party recruiting firm for the last four years.

The size of Parsons' staffing task force is fluid, Ridings says, depending on demand. "Fully loaded we probably have 11 recruiters and another eight back-end processing people" to handle all the Iraq contracts.

The number of people on the task force will remain high because Parsons is now ramping-up for projects in Afghanistan. Recruiters, individually or in pairs, search for workers to fill one type of position. One person, or team, recruits project managers, another recruiter or pair of recruiters focuses on construction managers and so on. Ridings says this works better than having a team of recruiters searching for employees by project because then they would compete with each other for candidates.

"One of our contracts in Iraq requires Parsons to run the entire campócamp managers, warehouse and logistics people. Parsons is a project/construction management company and generally these types of positions are filled by our subcontractors. Of the eight projects in Iraq, these are the most unusual positions we hire for," Ridings says.

"Once people have said, 'I do,' we turn them over to our processing center [in Pasadena], where they are processed by project," Ridings explains.

Parsons' processing group handles:

  • Visas, criminal background checks and any special government credentials.
  • Medical examinations.
  • Safety training.
  • Mobilization.

There have been a few glitches along the way. "We found that some who raised their hands forgot to ask their spouses" about working in Iraq. But overall, "only about 15 percent bow out," usually because they can't pass the exhaustive physical. The physical is necessary because all Parsons' workers wear 40-pound vests and need to be able to sprint from one vehicle to another in an emergency.

Parsons wants only well experienced engineers, construction managers and others for its Iraq projects. "This is not an on-the-job training type of environment," Ridings notes.

Years ago there were lots of expatriates, called "hobos," who went from job to job and spent decades working outside of the United States. Today's worker is specifically motivated by short-term goals: recouping a loss or building a nest egg, according to Ridings. "It's dangerous, but people can triple their income in a year" by working 72 to 84 hour weeks. "They're paid overtime and there's nothing else to do." Plus there are tax advantages for U.S. workers who stay at least a year.