The typical recruiting process is both time-consuming and challenging — recruiters and hiring managers often have to interview many candidates before finding the right fit.

Now imagine you need to fill a role where there’s only a handful of qualified candidates in the entire country. What then? It can seem nearly impossible. But sometimes, finding an expert takes an expert.

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In our Hard Shoes to Fill documentary series, you’ll meet Mary Rigas, an agency recruiter who specializes in hiring in the food science industry. Rigas walks us through her hiring process for the role of pea protein professional — a niche job focused on removing the taste from a substance widely used in protein bars. The role requires someone with both knowledge of the specific pea protein, and expertise in the physiology of taste.

Below are Rigas’ five takeaways for anyone — not just those in the food science industry — who has to hire for niche jobs.

1. Building and maintaining a strong network is key

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When hiring for niche jobs, Rigas emphasizes the importance of having a strong network — even if that means making hundreds of calls a week (as she does) to maintain those relationships.

“When you’re fishing out of a thimble, you have to be really good at knowing exactly where that thimble is,” Rigas says.

Building a strong network can widen your candidate pool, which will increase your chances of filling an open role when the time is right. Who knows? — Your next job order might even come through an organic conversation you’ve had with a connection. The more you continue to connect with new people and build your network, the more your network will work for you.

2. To successfully fill a niche job, do your homework

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Due to their much smaller candidate pool, niche jobs require more than simply sharing the role and its description across different channels. More than ever, you’ll need to tell a compelling story that convinces potential candidates to take the job.

To do this, Rigas makes what she calls “company visits” to the places her agency hires for. This means it’s even more important for her to familiarize herself with the companies she hires for, as these visits help shape what she tells candidates about a particular role.

“A company visit is when one or several of us will go in on a planned visit, get to see the facility, get to see the labs and just be able to describe to our candidates as much as possible beyond the job description – what [the company] is about,” Rigas says.

These types of visits can be helpful in developing a sense of the company culture. For example, people smiling when they’re walking through the hallways can tell you a lot. A company visit also helps you connect with the hiring manager, so you can really understand what the role entails and what their needs and pain points may be.

If you’re an in-house recruiter hiring for a hard-to-fill role, you can replicate Rigas’ experience by shadowing someone in the role you’re trying to fill. Once you’re more familiar with it, you can begin to storyboard how you’ll discuss this niche job with candidates.

3. Know your recruiting superpower

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Recruiting for niche jobs is a challenging task, so knowing what sets you apart from other recruiters is key. For Rigas, her recruiting superpower is her “big heart” — which she jokes can also be her Achilles heel.

“When I find somebody that I care about, I will completely dedicate myself to that candidate or that company and work until it’s done,” she says. 

Her empathy allows Rigas to detect the difference between a candidate saying, “yes — I’ll take the job,” and “YES, I’ll take the job!” This kind of dedication proves useful in ensuring the candidate is 100 percent happy with their final offer. It can also motivate candidates to work with you the next time they look for a job.

4. Use the power of human connection and personalization

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Rigas and her team receive many of their job orders through referrals, one of their strongest channels. To continue to fill those challenging niche jobs, she recommends leveraging the power of personalization and human connection.

“I really like to make connections on the phone,” Rigas says. “I know a lot of people use email, but I need to hear the nuances in [the candidate’s] voice, and be able to describe with accuracy what the position is.”

Rigas also recommends being open and willing to engage with anyone, because you never know what might happen. Someone who stopped her by a booth at a conference once told Rigas they liked her necklace, for example, which led to a more meaningful conversation that has since resulted in four or five placements. Engagement really can be that simple sometimes!

5. General tips for filling niche roles

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Rigas also shares some more general advice that has helped her over the course of her career.  

First, she encourages recruiters to work on really branding themselves to stay top-of-mind to the people who matter. A tip: Rather than identifying yourself as “a recruiter,” try introducing yourself as “a recruiter who specializes in…” and detailing your area of focus.

Furthermore, make good use of your connections and ask for referrals. If someone is truly grateful for the work you’ve done, a good referral can go a long way in boosting your credibility for someone who doesn’t know you at all.

In conclusion…

It takes a lot of skill and dedication to first find candidates for niche jobs, and then fill those roles. However, by building a strong network within your area of focus, knowing the job and company you’re hiring for, leveraging your recruiting strengths and fostering personalization and human connection, you can get that much closer to successfully hiring for those difficult-to-fill roles.