Talent Management Column

Finding Qualified Workers

Short-sighted HR practices and unreasonable job requirements may be two leading factors that contribute to the difficulties employers are having in finding qualified workers. A recent article on the issue drew an avalanche of responses, including a few that were quite enlightening.

Monday, November 7, 2011
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I have written here before about the "man bites dog" stories where U.S. employers report they cannot find anyone who can do the jobs they are trying to fill despite an unemployment rate above 9 percent. Basically my view is that higher wages would solve most of these situations and for others, even minimal training or a short ramp-up time would do the trick.

The Wall Street Journal asked me to extend those arguments in a feature on Oct. 24, and it generated what was, in their words, an avalanche of responses. The follow-up article produced more, probably 500 messages in all. (Yes, I read them all.)

Here's what I learned from those emails, some of which was new to me.

About six -- not 6 percent, six in total -- thought I had it all wrong. These were mainly CEOs of small companies.

Maybe another half-dozen or so wanted to blame schools, but it wasn't clear what they were blaming them for because none of the skill-shortage stories were about entry-level jobs where recent high-school or college graduates would be hired. Employers want experienced workers.

There was also pushback on the idea that taxpayer-funded schools should be asked to provide job-skill training, something employers should be doing themselves.

The other 485 or so not only thought my explanation was right, but went on to offer more details as to why this mismatch between job openings and apparently qualified candidates exists. These are Wall Street Journal readers, not a bunch of business-hating radicals, and a very big proportion of those notes came from people who were in human resources themselves or close to it.

Most of those stories focused on the peculiarities of the modern hiring process, especially the parts that are now automated. The Internet makes it so much easier to apply for jobs, and with the current high unemployment rate, employers are overwhelmed with job applications.

At the same time, HR departments are pushed to cut costs, especially their own headcount. The only way to meet those two demands is to move toward automated, electronic hiring systems.

The problems, these writers note, come from how that process evolved.

First, there is the task of writing up job descriptions. It's tempting for hiring managers to simply list every task someone in a given job will do and then list the ideal attributes that will ensure the new hire can step right into that job.

In practice, this means requiring that a candidate will have already done each of those tasks someplace else.

One of my favorite emails pointed me to a website of job ads with crazy candidate requirements. A memorable one was for a cotton-candy machine operator where a necessary condition for applicants was to demonstrate prior success operating similar cotton-candy machines.

An obvious shortfall here is that there is no pushback on the hiring manager's job requisition to say, "Are all these skill requirements deal-breakers? Is it really necessary to have been successful at operating cotton-candy machines before?"

Perhaps this doesn't happen because HR has been cut back so hard that there is no one to do the pushback; perhaps it doesn't happen because in some organizations the HR professionals are held responsible if a new hire doesn't succeed. So, why take the risk of forwarding along an application unless a candidate is perfect? Maybe it's better to leave the job vacant.

This "demand everything" approach becomes crazy and self-defeating when job requirements -- no matter how narrow and trivial -- become a requirement for an application to be considered.

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This recruiting approach means that, even if a particular task would take only a short time to learn, candidates that cannot demonstrate they have already done it are out.

In addition, I heard from many IT professionals, for example, who were rejected for jobs despite, by all standards, being overqualified for them because they had never used a particular piece of software in the job requirement.

Two memorable emails were from IT job applicants who had built software systems similar to the ones that employees would be expected to use in particular jobs. Even though the job only required an employee to use the software, and anyone who could build software could surely use it, these applicants were rejected because -- you guessed it -- they had never actually used that particular software in prior jobs.

Second, there is the wage issue. Some of these automated systems tell applicants the rate of pay for particular jobs and ask if it's acceptable. If respondents say "no," their applications are put aside. Maybe that's reasonable if the employer can't pay more, but don't label those people as not being able to do the job, which is what is happening now.

The final issue that bothers me is whether anyone calculates how much it costs to keep a position vacant while the company waits for the appearance of a perfect candidate who is willing to take the stated wage. Primitive accounting systems, of course, will suggest that it saves money when the position remains open. That view reminds me of the man who said he almost had his mule weaned off food when it up and died.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. His latest book, with Bill Novelli, is Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order.

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