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Kristen Rhodes had tried it all, or so she thought, and was getting frustrated.

There were job offers on the table – one in Spokane, Wash., another in Baltimore – but she wasn’t interested in taking just any position, especially one that would send her farther away from her hometown. She was stuck in a dead-end job, longing for an opportunity that would bring her back to Buffalo.

The road back to Western New York for many of the region’s ex- patriates has been partially blocked for years, either by a lack of jobs or a lack of information about the jobs available. And today, with the local economy evolving and job growth expected in the medical, tech and manufacturing sectors, the need to reconnect with people like Rhodes is becoming more important.

“Searching for the perfect candidate is like shopping in a giant department store for the one item you want,” said Veronica Meldrum, vice president of human resources at Palladian Health, a small health care provider in West Seneca with about 60 employees. “The Internet is a valuable tool, but still it’s not always easy navigating the aisles to find exactly what’s on your list.”

Two local startup job-finder websites are experimenting with ways to clear up the clutter in a job search, combining the power of the Web to reach people everywhere with contacts at local companies. Their objective is to connect job seekers hoping to find work in Western New York with hiring managers looking to lure and retain talent here.

Rhodes, 48, who was living in Erie, Pa., when her job search began, didn’t have much luck scouring national websites for work in Buffalo.

She used aggregate sites like Indeed.com and SimplyHired.com and created a paid account on Monster.com.

Since her objective was to return to the Buffalo Niagara region, she also began looking on local job board WNYJobs.com.

That led her to HireEmpire.com, a new website started by West Seneca residents Martha and Jim Cipriani that seeks to give users a more personal job search experience.

After a short search, Rhodes eventually landed her ideal job as an electronic data exchange specialist with Palladian Health. She created an account with HireEmpire in March, was hired by July and is now living back home in Orchard Park.

“The bigger sites can be kind of cumbersome, sorting through all the posts,” Rhodes said. “These kinds of sites give more personalization. The matching, for me, was dead on. I don’t want a job in Spokane or Baltimore. I wanted to work in Buffalo, and I’m not sure I could have been able to otherwise.”

Need for talent

The region has a lot at stake in finding and recruiting top talent, and luring back some of the people who left is fertile ground for hiring managers.Tom Kucharski, president and CEO of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, said many local companies have positions to offer, but struggle getting the word out.

“The hardest jobs to fill seem to be those in the $35,000-$60,000 range,” Kucharski said. “You either have folks who aren’t looking at these positions or they just don’t have the skills to be able to get to that level.

“The more that we can get the word out about the jobs that are here, the better off we are,” he added. “The more we can bring folks back home, and they get the chance to investigate the ‘new Buffalo,’ so to speak, the better off we’re going to be.”

Two local startups

Jim Cipriani Jr. founded a local recruitment agency called Systems Personnel 18 years ago, working with Western New York companies to identify qualified candidates to fill IT and accounting jobs.

He used that experience to create and develop HireEmpire with Martha, his wife, who serves as the company president.

HireEmpire uses a custom profile not unlike LinkedIn to create search criteria that matches candidates with potential employers. It then works to coordinate the hiring process like a recruiting firm, with account representatives serving as liaisons between the candidate and hiring manager, providing career coaching and recommendations to both parties.

The Ciprianis launched the site in February and have accrued about 1,000 users, they say, with more than 100 companies signed on using the software to conduct hiring searches.

Around the same time that HireEmpire started, Bill Naab, a Town of Tonawanda resident, launched a similar site called MatchMyWork.com from the z80 incubator labs. Like HireEmpire, it promises to broker the hiring process, working as the middle man from the creation of the job profile to the final handshake.

MatchMyWork has gained a following similar to HireEmpire’s in a few short months, Naab said, with more than 1,000 job seekers and 170 companies registered with the program.

The main difference between the two is that MatchMyWork charges an up-front membership fee of $5 per month in order to use the site, while HireEmpire remains free to both job seekers and hiring parties until a hire is made.

MatchMyWork is also confidential for users who do not want their resumé to be shared publicly.

It has branches in south and central Florida, Atlanta and Phoenix that operate like franchisees. Naas requires each to be locally owned, noting an importance for a personal presence to guide users through the hiring process.

Naab and the Ciprianis feel one of the biggest weaknesses for national job sites, which could host millions of job posts at a given time, is the lack of a personal and local touch.

“I focused on what companies like Monster, CareerBuilder, Indeed, were lacking – they didn’t have a real solid, local feel to them,” Naab said. “Local companies – this is what they’re telling me – were using those websites, casting out a wide net and weren’t getting the responses they were looking for.”

Personal touch

Those in charge of sifting through applications and resumés say the biggest problem with job boards is the difficulty to distinguish candidates actively seeking employment from passive ones or those who already have found jobs.

And job seekers often grow frustrated with what they perceive as a disconnect between themselves and hiring managers. That is caused, in part, by applicant tracking software that filters candidates through keywords included in their resumés before they even make it to the desk of the hiring party. For companies that use ATS technology, as many as 50 percent of applicants will be weeded out by the software before they are looked at by a human, according to InterviewSuccessFormula.com.

“It’s an antiquated system,” Naab said.

The Ciprianis agreed.

So they created a network with software similar to a dating website.

Naab studied the systems used by Match.com and eHarmony.com to pair compatible couples based on software that considers dozens of interests to find the “right” match.

HireEmpire’s method is similar.

“These other sites, they just pay to introduce,” Jim Cipriani said. “Imagine if you had a dating site that not only found you the perfect match, but took you all the way through the marriage.

“In our business, the match is only the beginning of it.”

Successful match

The matching system at HireEmpire paired Rhodes with Meldrum, the woman who oversees hiring for Palladian Health.

Meldrum, having been a client of Systems Personnel previously, had been approached by HireEmpire to give the system a try.

Palladian Health now uses the HireEmpire software in addition to its traditional methods, which include posting openings on its own website and hosting at career fairs and other networking opportunities.

Meldrum emphasized the importance of good, old-fashioned networking and personal communication in the search, including cold calls to companies.

The connections made, she said, are invaluable, and the ultimate deciding factor isn’t always how well your application looks online.

“As great as the Internet is, networking and word of mouth referrals are very much still valid,” Meldrum said. “You can try it all, but there’s still something to be said for that personal touch.”

Once someone gets a job in the region, it’s usually not hard to hang onto them, said Kucharski, of the BNE.

“The second hardest thing to do is to get people to come to Buffalo,” he said. “The first hardest thing is to get them to leave once they’ve been here.”

email: bschlager@buffnews.com