Interview by:
Martin Burns

“Three. I’ve been part of three ATS implementations here. It’s been really interesting - you learn a lot. But if I’m being selfish, for my next role, I might want to take a breather on that. Just for a bit.”

In just over ten years at WillScot, Keith Jeremiah has seen a few things. He joined the company - the leading supplier of turnkey modular space and storage solutions in North America - after beginning his career with the staffing firm Aerotek.

This is kind of a broad question, but: why talent acquisition? What drew you to it, and why do you stay?

It’s funny how it developed. When I went to college, my plan was to study architecture. Then I discovered I really couldn’t draw - which is fairly important for that career - so I switched to history. After I graduated, I wound up taking a role with Aerotek, and found out how much I liked talking to and meeting new people. It’s still probably one of my favorite things about the industry. But it’s a tough role in staffing. Huge highs, and huge lows - wins followed by losses, and the money goes up and down. So after two and a half years, I decided to look for a new opportunity.

At that point, I was close to leaving the industry altogether. There’s a part of working for an agency where you’re more like a hired gun. You help solve a problem, place someone in a role, but you don’t get to see them develop, you’re not part of the team. It wasn’t satisfying to me.

Just as I was close to accepting an offer to join Morgan Stanley as a financial analyst, an old colleague from Aerotek called me up. He’d been more senior, and had left to join WillScot as their first-ever Director of Talent. The opportunity was to help build a talent acquisition department from the ground up, as hire number two, and I couldn’t pass it up.

I’ve been in that spot before, building TA from scratch - what was your experience like?

Fascinating - and I mean that. We started off with tracking candidates via Excel and Outlook folders, minimal policies, everything was very tactical. At the time, we were a global company operating in 37 countries, and our leadership team  selected Lumesse TalentLink for their ATS. My boss, who had recruited me in, left just as we were beginning to implement Lumesse, so I took that on. We also implemented an RPO - Hudson. Both the RPO and the ATS were implemented in North America first and then the three other global SBUs followed suit.

At that point, with the RPO in place, I assumed I would be exited. Instead, they offered me a role as HR leader for the East Region. That really changed things. I began to build relationships with hiring managers that went beyond recruiting, and got more involved with overall business operations - and that was invaluable. Getting to see the bigger picture gave me an edge when it came to my understanding of recruiting. I started to dive into HR and operations, that gave me a flavor of the company to make the matches a lot deeper. And, I found that the missing piece from agency life that had bothered me was lacking that level of knowledge. It also makes you more accountable - hiring managers giving feedback, so we can evolve.

HR is really interesting, and the role pulled me deeper in. Along the way I got my MBA. As a history major, I hadn’t had training in business, finance, data analysis. The degree really helped round that out.

And then we went public and left our parent company Algeco Scotsman. Which meant reorganization, and centralization of operations and locations. And, the role of Director of Talent - which was really huge. Taking my operational and business experience, and bringing it back into talent acquisition.

What was the reorg like?

It really showed me the importance of balancing business operations with being human. There were people who were being exited, through no fault of their own, just a result of the changes in the company. Treating people with empathy on exit, and going the extra mile to take care of them, matters. They don’t leave bitter, and they tell people how they were treated

As a company, we built a plan to model hiring based on our new centralized structure - and that gave us the chance to do real workforce planning. Even as we were doubling in size through acquisitions over the course of 2018.  We went from $500 million in revenue to over 1 billion over that period.

And, we implemented iCIMS. There was that, too.

Can you tell us about how you’re structured as a recruiting organization?

Initially, I had a team of three corporate recruiters and two HR generalists. Basically a blend of talent acquisition and talent management. We hired a senior HRBP, who took on the generalists. Once we’d completed the acquisitions, our model was for the HR generalists to report to the senior HRBP and handle core HR responsibilities post-offer. . The problem was overlap - HR & TA were battling over who owned what responsibility, where the hand-off was (onboarding, and all of that), who was going to the lead on projects. It was confusing to our stakeholders, there were too many cooks in the kitchen.

So, we solved it, by reskilling our recruiters into HRBPs. I was worried, at first, about how it would go over. As it turns out, the field loves it. And so do the recruiters. Once they became HRBPs, something clicked. It gave them more business engagement with the branches, and they really started to get a better idea of what they were recruiting for.

So, it went over well

It really did. And the business metrics show it. Time to fill and turnover have dropped - the branches love it. And, the team has really grown in skills. We have right now four HRBPs in the US, and one in Canada.

The balance is, you can’t overload HRBPs with reqs, since they’re handling a number of things that go beyond recruitment. They each carry 10-15. With a seasonal hiring model like ours, when business goes up so does hiring. To solve for that, we work with five national vendors who provide us with contract labor. Additionally, we use a temp-to-perm model to fill most of our skilled trade positions which comes from the contract labor employee pool.  Our mix of employees in the branches is approximately 25% temps, 15% from the vendors, and 60% permanent. Our team can handle that volume, since the 40% non-permanent employees are the high-volume work that they don’t have to get directly involved in recruiting for.

We’re both kind of geeky when it comes to tech - can you walk us through your tech stack/ ecosystem? What’s been working well, what would you change?

We went from TalentLink to iCIMS, and now we’re moving to SuccessFactors at the end of 2020. Part of the current merger with Mobile Mini is that we migrate all HR systems over to SuccessFactors which Mobile Mini implemented back in 2015. That’s been a journey. We’ve done a few things beyond that, but the merger has limited some of our ability to explore lots of new technologies. We’ve really strengthened our LinkedIn relationship, using the job wrapper and connector for example. And we lean on HireClix to manage spend, advise us on technologies when we can look.

And, Zoom: we’ve done a lot of Zoom interviewing, using the breakout rooms, and getting our hiring managers trained and comfortable with it. We’ve done 2-3 trainings on it. What’s interesting is, that’s helped us cut down on time-to-fill. Due to our structure, if it’s a regional operations role, and the ops director covers a huge region, you’re waiting for weeks sometimes to get the face to face with the director. Now, due to Covid, that’s changed. The GM in the local area can dial in the director and move the process forward that much faster. It’s been seamless, no horror stories, or pushback.

What would you invest in right now, if you could?

Inclusion and Diversity - that’s where we’re pushing, and where we want to spend. Also, candidate experience. I’d love some spending budget to partner with L&D to upskill managers on interviewing, feel that we could do a better job training them. I’d also love to continue to build out strong partnerships with colleges to build pipelines - we have a great partnership with the University of Central Florida, I want to model that in all areas.”

Okay, so… Covid. We always have to talk Covid

I know. It’s impossible to escape how it impacts everything. For us, as an organization, we shrank our workforce to about 60% - which meant we had to do minimal layoffs, due to our flexible model on the temporary and contingent labor side. Which was huge. First we cut the vendors, then the temps, but were able to hang on to our full-time employees. That mattered.

We’re also an essential business - we’ve been working with hospitals helping them set up expansion spaces as needed. And the branches needed to stay open, since they’re doing skilled trades and there’s a good amount of hands-on work. Corporate, customer service, back office support were able to work from home, and the majority still are. We tried to come back  about two months ago, but there were a lot of challenges.

While we’re at it: what’s shifted, in terms of priorities due to Covid?

Fortunately, not too much - and I recognize that’s a bit unusual. Due to the work we have to do we’ve been able to remain flat, and even exceeded expectations, so permanent hiring has remained pretty constant. It’s really more about remote work, and dealing with cases at the branches in our roles as HRBPs.

Beyond that, we are relocating the company to Phoenix in 2021 as part of the merger with Mobile Mini, and I’m not following. April 1st will be my last day with WillScot as a result.

That Begs the Question, Then: What’s Next for Keith Jeremiah?

It’s exciting, to be honest. This has been an incredible career for me, and a great company to work for, but new challenges are interesting. With my background and schooling, I’m interested in either leading an HR team for a growing organization - that would be fascinating. A chance to keep learning, using my MBA, L&D, HR, and TA skills to add value to a business. Or, stay in a direct talent acquisition role, and move into a company that is bigger than WillScot to lead a larger team and learn from it. Healthcare or tech would be exciting and a chance to tackle different HR and TA challenges unique to those industries.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m someone who loves to learn. Any role I take would be one where I felt I could keep developing. That’s critical to me.

Nine Questions

What question do your executives ask you the most, and has that changed this year?

Lately, it has been all about inclusion and diversity. Where and how do we attract and recruit a more diverse candidate pool. Outside of I&D, succession planning has been a hot topic with our recent merger with Mobile Mini. We are looking at ways to develop employees from the bottom up, so we can continue to build a pipeline of capable employees to meet the challenges of tomorrow. 

What is the most important quality/skill you look for when hiring a new recruiter for your team?

They need to be a natural conversationalist, confident and have a growth mindset. As a recruiter, you need to persuade and attract passive candidates to your opportunities, be confident in yourself to influence and challenge hiring managers, and view failures as opportunities to improve your skills. When I hire a recruiter, I view past recruiting success as a baseline. What I want to see is how have you impacted your company outside of recruiting, how well do you know your business, and how passionate you are about your previous team members. 

What do you wish vendors understood before they contacted you?

I wish they appreciated how busy we are internally. Whenever I need a new product or service, I always turn to my network first. So, I would recommend new vendors start there before calling and sending me emails weekly and then getting frustrated when I do not respond. 

How do you keep your skills sharp?

I recently decided to sit for my SHRM-SCP exam in Q1 of next year, so I have been studying for that during my downtime. Outside of that, I am a big fan of the Harvard Business Review site and the Flipboard app on my phone. Flipboard is an excellent app that gathers articles from around the web that can be tailored to my interests. I highly recommend downloading the app and using it as an alternative to scrolling through social media. 

What do you think is the biggest threat facing the talent acquisition industry today?

A swing to automate too much of the talent acquisition process. Do not get me wrong, we need to embrace technology. However, we cannot underestimate the value of excellent recruiters. They can pique the interest of a Rockstar, challenge a hiring manager, or truly feel the culture of the company like no AI can ever do. 

Where do you see the talent acquisition industry in 5 years?

It will continue its ascension up the priority list of our future leaders. With this ascension, TA leaders will need to become more well-rounded and strategic. More sophisticated AI and data tools will help with this transformation, but maximizing relationships with their stakeholders will remain critical to understanding the current and future needs of the organization.  

If your talent acquisition budget doubled tomorrow, how would you spend the additional funds?

A third of towards inclusion and diversity, a third towards improving the candidate experience by upskilling managers, and a third towards college and veteran partnerships.

What is the most difficult role your team is recruiting for right now? What makes it difficult? 

Drivers. Our units can range in width from 8 feet to 14 feet, and we require our drivers to setup units onsite. It is demanding job. We have attempted to overcome this challenge by paying above market, focusing on safety, encouraging our technicians to get their CDL A licenses, and selling the fact that you will be home every night. 

How do you stay sane/ maintain balance? 

Before I leave for the day, I reflect and prepare for tomorrow. This routine usually puts me at ease before going home for the day. Outside of that, I meditate, exercise, spend time with my wife Claire, and golf.