When a job offer comes without a job

Some companies are hiring first and figuring out jobs for these recruits much later.

Amid a fierce market for college recruits, companies like Facebook Inc. and Intuit Inc. are making offers to dozens of hires without having a particular job waiting—or even, sometimes, a starting salary.

Recruiters say so-called “program hiring” helps companies scoop up promising talent ahead of competitors and ensures their newest workers can stand a little uncertainty. College career officers say more students are getting offers this way.

Beverage giant Anheuser-Busch InBev NV and retailer Zappos.com Inc. are among those planning or experimenting with program hires.

Large employers in finance and consumer products have long offered rotation programs for entry-level workers to polish skills like marketing or business development. By contrast, program hiring identifies a person’s “transferrable talent,” such as problem-solving or analytical ability, and then finds a job that puts those traits to the test, said Marcus Buckingham, a consultant who has advised Facebook on evaluating its employees’ strengths and performance.

As businesses large and small seek workers who can adapt to rapid technological or strategic shifts, companies are realizing they should recruit for innate abilities or attitudes, such as high motivation, rather than skills applicable to a particular job, Mr. Buckingham said.

Intuit, which brings on about 200 new graduates annually, started program hiring about three years ago, said Dawn Carter, director of university recruitment for the Mountain View, Calif., tech firm.

Entry-level hires are locked in more quickly, since recruiters arrive on campus armed with approval to make hires on the spot as they see fit, she said.

This is important as employers press onto university campuses earlier and earlier in the school year.

A candidate who accepts Intuit’s offer sets in motion a complex matchmaking process that includes salary discussions.

Each new hire is assigned a recruiter who coordinates a series of matching conversations between the hire and various Intuit managers over the course of several months.

The conversations are designed to align the hire’s interests and talents with an available position—and teams that help with campus recruiting often get first dibs on new hires—Ms. Carter said.

Hires are given their assignments shortly before starting work, having received information about pay some time before that.

The company tries to accommodate anyone unhappy with the posting, she added.

The complex logistics “keep me up at night sometimes,” said Ms. Carter, wondering whether she matched candidates and managers correctly, or whether they have had the right conversations.

Belgian beer maker AB InBev recently began a pilot with program hires, bringing on about 10 staff in marketing, sales, finance and commercial development.

Alex Nelson, who heads product management for the e-commerce division of the company’s innovation unit, says the program-hiring process makes clear that anyone joining her team should be ready for anything. “Everybody’s a generalist,” she said.

Ms. Nelson’s interviews center on candidates’ raw talent, and not job duties. If a candidate “asks for a job description, we know they’re not a fit,” she said.

While exciting for some, the uncertainty stokes anxiety in many others, college career officers say.

Everette Fortner, a head career adviser at the University of Virginia, said some students balk at nonspecific offers. “This generation is pickier about what they want to do,” he said.

It took Cindy Chou five months to accept a full-time job at Intuit. After her internship with the company last summer, she was offered a position in its small-business unit.

Given few details, Ms. Chou, then a second-year M.B.A. student, waited before accepting the offer. “I could have really gone anywhere,” she said.

Later in the year, Ms. Chou had a series of conversations with hiring managers in different departments. She was notified that she was placed on the social-media marketing team of Intuit’s small-business unit about three weeks before her September start date.

Zappos currently hires the old-fashioned way, but that won’t be for much longer, said Rick Jordan, the company’s head of recruiting.

In conjunction with the company’s shift to a self-management system, recruiters have begun considering ways to allow hires to carve out their own roles, Mr. Jordan said. Beginning early next year, the company plans to shift hiring to focus on bringing strong talent in the door sooner, he said.

“Let’s not worry about that specific position,” Mr. Jordan said. “Let’s just get them here.”

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