Forget high salaries Featured

9:44am EDT July 22, 2002

Much like free agency in professional sports, offering signing bonuses to highly skilled professionals in the ordinary work force is becoming a larger and larger bargaining chip to attract the brightest and best minds.

The positions most likely to be offered the increased bait are those in information technology, engineering, cost accounting and management, according to Tim Burkhart, a certified professional consultant — or headhunter, as some would call him — for the Adecco Employment Agency in Columbus. A business matchmaker for 17 years, Burkhart insists this latest recruiting hook is nothing more than the simple economics of supply and demand.

Ohio’s unemployment rates are at unprecedented lows, with some counties, including Franklin and Delaware, averaging between 2 and 2.5 percent, according to estimates by the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services. The key is finding the right lure, especially when someone isn’t really looking to change jobs.

A sign-on bonus is an incentive to take action,” Burkhart says. “It’s validation of your worth in the marketplace.”

Approximately one-third of the positions Burkhart fills offer sign-on bonuses, he says, adding that the standard perk runs between $2,000 and $4,000. Adecco had one client in the last year, however, that offered an automotive professional a $15,000 to $20,000 bonus to switch employers.

Most sign-on bonuses are paid immediately upon hire, although some companies delay payment until after 30 to 90 days of employment, or, in the case of nurses in some assisted-care living facilities, after two weeks of perfect attendance.

“As the labor pool gets leaner and leaner, you have to get creative,” Burkhart says. “You need to bring in a sign-on bonus to sweeten [the deal].”

Such bonuses are usually more prevalent with a lateral move or a small increase in base pay, he adds.

“It’s not as common when it’s icing on icing,” he explains.

But when you’re trying to entice higher-caliber programmers, plant managers or accountants from one of the Big Five accounting firms, that’s when a stronger enticement is required. Jennifer Bisciotti, director of human resources at Deloitte & Touche LLP says she's seen signing bonuses in the industry for 15 years, but not to the degree she’s seen lately.

“The major thing that’s increased is the frequency of when they’re offered,” she says. “It’s pretty much across the board. The top talent is in great demand.

“Signing bonuses are not a given for every offer we extend, but it’s a strategy and a recruiting tool to attract and retain the top talent,” she adds. “It helps to lead the field.”

Bisciotti declined to pinpoint a monetary range for bonuses, saying it was decided on a “case-by-case basis, depending on the competition.”

Megan Wolfe, assistant manager at CVS Pharmacy on Sawmill Road, says she’s seen signing bonuses for registered pharmacists as high as $5,000. And she expects the payroll pendulum to continue swinging in employees’ favor, particularly with national accreditation and postgraduate standards for pharmacists gradually being increased to include additional years of schooling, according to Dr. Ken Hale, assistant dean at The Ohio State University’s College of Pharmacy.

“Nobody works for free, and a sign-on bonus can really get their attention," Burkhart says. “It’s a nice tool to motivate someone to take the leap of faith.”

To avoid losing your own employees to the allure of big sign-on bonuses elsewhere, another incentive is quickly emerging in the marketplace: lucrative “stay-on bonuses.” These have become especially popular for retaining computer programmers, Burkhart says.

“They’re real and designed to keep people in their seats when it’s critical,” he says.

Forrest Clarke (fclarke17@hotmail.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN Columbus.