With a new crop of hiring apps, companies can get employees on demand

Boston startup HigherMe tries to make it easier for employers to evaluate candidates based on their location, hours available, experience, and a short video. The company's software creates a "fit" score, shown in the circles at left.
Boston startup HigherMe tries to make it easier for employers to evaluate candidates based on their location, hours available, experience, and a short video. The company's software creates a "fit" score, shown in the circles at left.

I was texting with Kendra this week about finding a new job. Kendra was perky, quick to respond, but also easily befuddled.

Kendra wanted to know where I live, whether I have access to a car, and what hours I can work. “How about a retail store — like a cashier or sales position. Would you want to work somewhere like that?” she asked.

“Sure!” I replied.

“Scott, I am a few sandwiches short of a picnic basket today,” Kendra texted back.

Turns out Kendra prefers yes-or-no answers, because she’s one of those rudimentary software agents that we’re interacting with more and more — such as Siri or Julie, Amtrak’s automated reservations assistant.

Kendra was created by a Boston startup called HigherMe — one of a handful of local companies that want to make applying for jobs and hiring employees more efficient. The days of the résumé and the sweaty sit-down interview may be dwindling.

We’re at an interesting juncture: a statewide unemployment rate under 5 percent, mobile phones in virtually every worker’s pocket, and startups that think technology can streamline the process of matching workers to open jobs. As Gary Swart puts it, “the war for good talent is full on. It is expensive, time consuming, and competitive to hire good people, and traditional methods are not working like they used to.” Swart is a partner at the Boston venture capital firm Polaris Partners, and the former CEO of oDesk, an online marketplace for freelance workers.

After graduating from college, HigherMe founder Rob Hunter opened seven Marble Slab Creamery franchises in Canada. He discovered how tough it was to find great hourly workers; the traditional job application process didn’t necessarily give him good insights into whether someone would be a good team player at one of his ice cream shops. HigherMe’s website takes applicants and creates a “fit score” for employers to see, based on their location, hours they can work, experience, and other factors the employer deems important. Applicants can also record a 30-second video to offer a sense of their personality.

“The application process needs to be easier,” says Hunter. “These hourly workers don’t want to go through lengthy applicant screening tests. But you as an employer also don’t want to just get a résumé.” The company introduced the Kendra feature this week as a way to make it even easier to create a HigherMe profile that employers can see. By texting “Hi” to her number, she conducts a Q&A that sets up your initial profile on the site.

Among the employers who are working with HigherMe are franchisees of Pinkberry, the frozen yogurt purveyor, and Brooklyn Water Bagel. Burrito chain Boloco, based in Boston, is conducting a pilot test.

Headquartered in the same building near South Station as HigherMe is Jobble, which wants to make it easier for companies to hire temporary staffers to work booths at trade shows or hand out free samples at a weekend road race. Jobble CEO Zack Smith says that his startup helped find 40 people to work at the Boston Comic Con event early this month.

Jobble’s app lets workers create a profile, apply for jobs, communicate with employers, and get paid. “Getting paid instantly is the biggest value we provide for Jobblers,” says Smith, using the company’s chosen term for the temp staffers. “When they get work through agencies, it can take weeks to get paid.” As the Jobblers complete more jobs, they collect ratings and recommendations. The company takes a cut of the hourly wages.

Even more focused on a particular role is Pretty Instant (yes, in the same building as HigherMe and Jobble), which operates a marketplace for event photographers. Its pricing starts at $150 an hour. CEO Ben Maitland-Lewis says more than 2,500 photographers have signed up to get work through the site. The company’s clever motto: “No selfies.”

Drafted, a Boston startup (different building) that launched in May, lets companies offer bounties of $1,000 or more to a chain of people who help them fill an open job. Once a job is posted, people at the hiring company can spread the word to their networks of contacts. Anyone who receives the job posting can spread it to people they know, and so on. When someone fills the job, everyone who passed it along — including the person who lands the job — shares in the wealth. Similar to Drafted is ReferralMob, another Boston startup. Both have raised more than $2 million each.

How much startup activity is there around the reinvention of hiring? Two companies participating in the MassChallenge entrepreneurship program this summer, Clothbound and Easy Pairings, both aim to help restaurants find workers. (A company in Manhattan, Harri, does the same thing.)

One thing is obvious: not all of these startups will be able to find enough employers and candidates to create a thriving marketplace. Dozens or hundreds of companies are now pitching human resources execs on their miraculous solutions.

“HR technology used to be stodgy,” says Danielle Weinblatt, CEO of Manhattan-based Take the Interview, which promotes video-based interviewing. “Now, there’s a lot of noise in the market.” Just like job candidates, these hopeful startups have exactly one chance to make a positive impression upon their potential users.

But that raises these questions: What happens to the employer-employee relationship when finding a new worker, or a new job, can be done as easily as summoning an Uber car? Does it make employees less loyal? Employers?

Some things about the job market are constant. When employees are in demand in a particular industry, they may be forever evaluating their other options, something these apps make easier; in recessionary times, all the cards are in the employer’s hand. And also, adds Boloco founder and CEO John Pepper, “If you pay people more, you attract and retain better people. Maybe that’s the thing to do, instead of spending money with startups.”

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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