Published: Apr 29, 2013
There's a serious disconnect between companies and potential employees in the United States—one that may be holding our entire economy back. And, contrary to the conventional wisdom, it's a problem that has been caused—and can only be cured by—companies. So says Peter Cappelli in his 2012 book Why Good People Can't Get Jobs.
In Cappelli's view of the state of the modern employment landscape, there are several issues preventing companies from finding the talent they need—and none of them are related to the conventional cries from businesses and the media about a lack of talent in the pool, or the failure of the American education system to turn out people with appropriate skills.
Instead, Cappelli—the George W. Taylor professor of management at The Wharton School and director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources—points the finger of blame at two major, and interrelated, factors: the process that companies are using to identify potential hires, and their refusal to offer training or onboarding time for new employees.
A Broken Hiring System
What's wrong with the hiring system? According to Cappelli, a lot: the book paints a picture of understaffed HR departments struggling to identify the qualified candidates amidst a tsunami of applications—with the killer wave itself the product of the broken system.
As Cappelli explains, the rise of automated hiring software (you know: those pre-set forms and questionnaires you have to fill out before you attach your resume and send it off into the void) has made it easier for companies to weed out qualified applicants than ever before—all they need is a sophisticated piece of code that can parse application materials for the right keywords. Once it identifies those, the appropriate candidates can be called in for interview.
While that sounds great in theory, the reality is proving to be a little different: in a bid to cast as wide a net as possible—often out of an abundance of caution over the potential for falling foul of discriminatory hiring laws—vague language in the requirements sections of ads, coupled with the high unemployment rate, is leading to an enormous number of applications. To deal with that problem, firms are then filtering the responses using specific requirements that rule out most—and in some cases all—of the applications. And, because of the same fears over discriminatory practices, firms are unwilling to go back through the data and reassess candidates who almost made it. The result: firms either get the perfect hire, or none at all.
What Companies Can Do
If Cappelli's name sounds familiar, the chances are that you've probably already read the following quote from the concluding section of Why Good People Can't Get Jobs—it's been making the rounds for a while, and is how I first came to hear about his book:
"The United States is at the moment the only country in the world where the notion that employers are simply the consumers of skills is seriously considered."
Traditionally, the route into the workforce for those who didn’t have experience was to convince a hiring manager that they were worth taking a risk on, and then spend some time on the job learning the skills that would be required to do it effectively. In many cases, this was formalized as an apprenticeship.
However, in many industries, on the job training is something of a relic, with companies increasingly fearful of investing time and money to train employees who can then be poached by competitors. That has led to a spiral where employees—and candidates—are increasingly having to use their own time and money to acquire the skills that they think employers might want. That situation is not ideal for anyone—not the workers who end up out of pocket just to try and get a shot at getting hired, or the companies, who can't direct the training and ensure its quality or relevance.
Small wonder, then, that Cappelli concludes his book with the observation that:
"The time has finally come for employers to develop a more realistic sense of what their own interests are with respect to workforce issues and what best serves both their interests and the well-being of society as a whole."
What Can Job Seekers Do?
That's all well and good, and there are signs that some employers are starting to take that kind of advice to heart. But what of the job seeker? Do you have to sit around and wait for companies to realize that they hold the keys to their own success?
Given the odds—the unemployment rate, the application systems that seem to have been designed to exclude as many candidates as possible, rather than to find candidates who are capable but may need additional time or training to get up to speed—it would be easy to conclude that, yes, until things change, the search for a job is an exercise in futility.
However, where there are problems, there are usually workarounds. Whether that's mirroring some—but not all—of the language in a job ad to maximize your application's chances of making it through the automated stage, or bypassing it altogether by researching the firm and making direct contact with those responsible either for hiring or supervising the role you'd like to fill. As time-consuming as those activities might be, they're a sight more effective than throwing yet another copy of your resume into the void. And until such time as more firms start taking Cappelli's advice and change the system, trying to work around it just might be the best thing you can do.
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