The Talent-Job Mismatch

Studies show both U.S. and global employers are struggling to fill jobs due to skills shortages in today's younger applicants -- not just in the harder, job-specific skills, but in the softer, behavior-focused competencies as well.

Monday, January 14, 2013
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What's behind an apparent and growing mismatch between the talent needs of companies with open, ready-to-fill jobs and the millions of unemployed young people in the world?

That question was at the heart of a recent study by New York-based McKinsey & Co. -- Education to Employment: Designing a System that Works -- that looked at more than 100 education-to-employment initiatives in 25 countries and surveyed more than 8,000 youths, education providers and employers in nine countries to create a snapshot of the global-skills gap and what's required to fix it.

The data suggest employers, educators and youths essentially operate in parallel universes and are so disconnected in how they describe, understand or even think about solving the problem, that "there are resulting 'collisions' when youth choose their field of study, build their skills and find a job," McKinsey's report says.

Fewer than half of youths and employers, for example, believe that new graduates are adequately prepared for entry-level positions. Education providers, however, are much more optimistic: 72 percent of them believe new graduates are ready to work. disconnected -- and equally distressing -- are employers' perceptions of their hiring difficulties and actual solutions they're implementing to correct them. Only a third of employers (31 percent) say they are successful in getting the talent they require and 75 percent report their inability to secure such talent negatively impacts their business; however, a majority have no plan in place to address the issue.

Added to that and perhaps most central to the troubling talent gap is the lack of "soft skills" -- qualities such as work ethic, teamwork and communication -- that employers responding to the McKinsey survey identified as more critical than the "hard skills" and often lacking in the graduates and students they interview and eventually hire.

Though job-specific (hard) and behavioral-related (soft) competencies both play important roles in determining the success of an employee, it's the latter -- the soft skills -- that are more often at the heart of those successes and failures, experts say.

"I think there are a lot of people out there who are successful, not because of hard skills, but because of soft ones -- collaboration, teamwork, ethics, etc.," says Elise Freedman, Vienna, Va.-based director of the talent-management practice for Towers Watson.

"I was just talking to a client yesterday that does a lot of seasonal hires [so is looking to beef up its talent pipeline now], and they were just amazed at all the people they were looking at who didn't seem to want to work," she says. "You hear about these people who say they want [the job] and then come in with such behavioral issues -- personality conflicts, mouthing off and more."

Freedman says companies need to do a better job conveying to both job candidates and new and current employees what's expected in terms of those softer skills.

"Give them feedback and goals around [such things as], 'What kind of communicator am I? In what way am I ethical?' " she says.

On a positive note, she adds, some companies are, in fact, starting to communicate those soft-skill requirements within the performance-management and performance-review process.

"It's probably more applicable to the level of employee [being reviewed]," says Freedman. "In other words, you'll find [these types of documented requirements and competencies] are more common in the higher levels of leadership.

"But yes," she says, "the need for soft skills in today's hires [is a problem] that's getting a lot of traction right now, both [within the United States] and globally."

If employers want to ensure their hires will actually succeed in the functions they're hired for, this behavior-based interviewing needs to be not only included more in the recruiting and hiring phases, but followed through on as well, Freedman says.

"Decisions aren't being based on those assessments enough," she says.

Can employees be hired and then trained, though, not only in the job-specific skills so many lack, but in the behavior-focused ones they lack as well?

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Yes and no, says Melanie Holmes, vice president of world-of-work solutions at Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup. While attention is starting to be paid to the need to incorporate soft skills into today's training and orientation programs, so much of how one communicates, or applies oneself, or makes an ethical decision, she says, "starts with parents, and really [depends on] our entire education system."

Nevertheless, if employers can focus on "making people aware of the work-ethic issues" as part of their jobs, says Holmes, perhaps progress can be made.

"We need to be creative [in how this is to be imparted]," she says, "but I believe we [also] need to be very explicit and have consequences for not exhibiting the work ethic at work. I believe there are entire generations of young people who have no role models who work, set their alarms by 6:30 a.m., and get dressed appropriately and get to work on time."

The overall talent-mismatch problem, she adds, is very real -- underscored by ManpowerGroup's recent 2012 Talent Shortage Survey, showing 49 percent of U.S. employers struggling to fill mission-critical positions, with skilled trades, engineering and IT positions continuing to rank among the top 10 hardest jobs to fill, year after year.

"In order to solve this whole talent-shortage problem," says Holmes, "we all need to play a part; we all need to be involved -- employers, government, teachers, parents, etc."

Employers and their HR leaders, she says, "need to be very, very flexible and need to encourage people to give back to their communities [to help solve the problem]. At Manpower, we encourage it. We have a homework club, in which Manpower employees help fifth-graders with their homework."

Employers can also be helping by encouraging outreach to help counsel those out of work, and by reaching out even more to the educational institutions in their regions that are feeding their organizations and industries, she says.

"Tell them the soft skills that are needed that aren't coming through the door," says Holmes. "They need to hear from the employers."     


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