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Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota : Sep. 1--Retailers such as Target and Home Depot sell everything from lumber and garden hoses to toilet paper and pantyhose.

So why not sell jobs as well?

Faced with a chronic shortage of workers, that's exactly what they're doing. Both have set up computer kiosks in their stores in which shoppers can apply to be workers.

Minneapolis-based Target and Atlanta-based Home Depot have computer kiosks in all of their stores, typically in highly visible locations. As the candidates fill out the applications, they are screened by computer programs, and the successful ones can stick around for an interview.

"What they're doing is taking the human resources function and automating it," said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a Chicago-based employment consultant.

While many companies now invite those who click on their Web sites to apply for jobs, Home Depot and Target are the first to aggressively expand an in-store system and rely on it for the bulk of their applications. The retailers say their automated system has not only made the application process faster and more efficient, they're finding and hiring a better class of candidates because of it.

In fact, the computer kiosk has sped up the application process to the extent that Target can hire a candidate on the spot any time during store hours.

"It's employment as an impulse buy," said Mitch Potter, an attraction and retention consultant with William Mercer and Associates in Minneapolis.

There are some drawbacks. After all, the computerized system may not have much appeal to technophobes, and even the technology-savvy may feel it's a bit depersonalized (in fact, Challenger predicts it won't be long before the interview will be automated as well). And some candidates may be screened out because of a mistake -- either their own or the computer's.

But for the most part, employment experts found little downside to the trend. In fact, Potter saw the main risk in a temptation for the employer to overrely on it.

And retailers say it has attracted a better class of applicants. After all, the candidates shop at your store, so they have at least a basic knowledge about who you are. Perhaps they even have a predisposition to wanting to work there.

But best of all, the candidate is there.

"A lot of times, you can set up interviews, and the candidate never shows up," Challenger said.

The application process itself can screen out candidates who are too young, who can't work the required hours or who refuse to take a drug test. At any step in the process, the candidates may choose not to continue. In the end, that probably saves both candidate and retailer a lot of time.

Take the application process at Home Depot, built from scratch by the retailer.

To start off, the computer runs a five-minute video that promotes Home Depot as an attractive place to work while it cautions the applicants about the duties and night and weekend hours expected of them. After the video, candidates fill out an application form and answer some questions at the end.

Home Depot tries to gauge the candidate's expertise, such as whether they would do better selling paint, plumbing supplies or carpentry tools. The whole process takes about 40 to 45 minutes, not including the personal interview that follows for candidates who haven't been screened out.

Home Depot's system allows it to better screen candidates and to find the appropriate candidate for the right job, said Dave Shackelford, Home Depot's senior manager in information services.

The retailer pools the applicants so that if the store where the candidate applied doesn't have a suitable opening, the candidate could be matched with another store in the same metropolitan area that does. Under the old system, perhaps one or two of 30 or more applicants might get a job; under the new system, as many as 20 out of 30 are landing jobs, he said.

The automated system gives both retailers an advantage over their competition by allowing them to offer jobs virtually on the spot any time the store is open.

Target's process, in particular, is geared for speed, taking the average candidate between 15 and 35 minutes to complete, said Pete Scheldt, Target's project manager overseeing the system. Target uses the new system in all of its 890 stores, as the last of the computer kiosks were installed two weeks ago.

The emphasis on speed is a reason Target's kiosks don't start with a video, Scheldt said. Also, since Target is typically filling jobs requiring general retail skills, it is less probing than Home Depot in determining areas of expertise.

"You don't have to be a human resources expert to interview," Scheldt said. "We used to hire mostly during the workday, but now we're doing a lot more off-hours hiring."

In the end, a process that used to take Target two to 10 days to complete now can be done before the candidate leaves the store.

Target could soon set up kiosks outside their stores in areas where they might attract likely candidates, such as university campuses, he said.

Potter anticipates computer employment kiosks will become like porta-potties, set up wherever throngs of people assemble: concerts, libraries, even the State Fair. A big reason is that the labor shortage is not expected to get better any time soon, he said.

"We seem to be playing a game of reverse musical chairs," Potter said. "Each time the music stops, there are more empty chairs."


Visit PioneerPlanet, the World Wide Web site of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, at http://www.pioneerplanet.com

(c) 1999, Saint Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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