Faced with a growing applicant pool for top-level jobs, the 'consultant-to-hire' model - in which candidates start part-time - has helped Porter Novelli Bay Area find some strong execs.It's hard to imagine buying a new car without at least giving it a test drive. While the sleekest automobile could tickle the fancy of one driver, it might not provide the type of ride the next buyer is searching for. Now imagine having the luxury of a test drive when hiring someone at the upper ranks of a PR agency. A "test drive" is not an altogether inaccurate way of describing how Porter Novelli's Bay Area office has been hiring its senior-level practitioners during the past year-and-a-half. "We had to take a step back about 18 months ago and look at how we were obtaining the best of the best for our senior positions," explains Kim Mesfin, VP of human resources for Porter Novelli's Bay Area office. Mesfin says the Bay Area, the epicenter of the technology economy's boom and bust over the past half- decade, has seen a veritable whipsaw in the conditions of the labor market for top-level agency talent. During the 1990's salad days, when Wall Street was valuing tech start-ups in the billions of dollars, rounding-up qualified candidates to fill a vacant VP spot was no small task as demand for talent was fierce. Yet just a few months later, after the tech boom cratered, any advertised opening would see a flood of candidates. The sudden change would seem to lead many firms to reevaluate how they makes hires. "When you make a hire, you never know what you're getting," explains Mesfin. "Even when you interview, you never know how the person will perform on the job." With such thoughts in its head, the office's management adopted a hiring model for top-tier talent called "consultant-to-hire." Since the concept was first devised in 2001, the majority of the office's senior level hires have been made under this system. The program's premise - as its seemingly self-explanatory name probably conveys - is to bring in senior-level talent on a part-time or project consultant basis before committing to a new hire on a full-time basis. Essentially, it's a test drive for both the agency and the prospective hire. The executive is first brought in to work on a project or two. That initial work then snowballs over subsequent months into more work. It finally culminates with an offer of full-time employment. "We've had tremendous success bringing people in on a part-time contract basis," says Mesfin. "As business builds and they work their way in with their teams and meet various people, they are offered a full-time position. I'm happy to say that all of the people we've tried this with are still with us." Perhaps a testament to how weak the Bay Area job market has been in recent months, PN's consultant-to-hire candidates are led through the same rigorous interview process that any full-time hire might expect. Nevertheless, the office hasn't extended the part-time-to-full-time concept to lower- level staffers. It isn't even considering it. The model was specifically adopted with an eye towards hiring only senior- level talent. "We have many people who have been here for a long time," says Mesfin. "So when we bring in [a manager] in a consultant capacity, it doesn't threaten the current employees in any way. They're not told, 'This is you're new manager whether you like it or not.' Instead, they are allowed to merge with their teams in a non-threatening way." Those executives who have been hired under the consultant-to-hire model say it provides a unique opportunity to try out life at the agency before committing to full-time work. "It gave me a chance to really kick the tires here," recalls Sandy Skees, EVP at PN's Bay Area office, who was hired after consulting for the firm. Skees, who had been working as a freelance consultant in the Bay Area prior to joining PN, says that the consultant-to-hire model allows the company to attract experienced executives that are often enjoying life as a freelance consultant. "Almost everyone we've hired had been working as a consultant, and this was just another consulting gig," says Skees. "When I tell people, 'You'll have a chance to come in and see what kind of fit this will be,' that's very attractive." ----- 'Consultant-to-hire' advantages Allows the prospective new hire to become assimilated to the agency's culture before taking on full-time position. Allows the agency to hire as business comes through the door and not before it has client commitments. Allows employer and consultant to "kick the tires" before making a full commitment to each other. The model may not work as well if labor market heats up and new hires have more choices for full-time employment.