Skill shortage or ineffective hiring?

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Credit: G. Grullón

What is the state of the technical labor market? It depends on whom you ask, writes Laurianne McLaughlin at Information Week. “[H]iring organizations see an IT [information technology] talent shortage, while job hunters insist that employers are botching the hiring process, screening out too many good candidates. Both sides agree on one thing: They're frustrated.” While the IT job market is distinct from the scientific job market—with important differences—there is some overlap, and there are notable similarities.

Employers complain that they can’t find employees with the specific skills they need, while applicants find it difficult to convince companies that they can do the jobs on offer. As we’ve previously reported, Peter Cappelli, a professor of management and director of the Wharton School’s Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania, examines (in his book Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs) how the widespread use of computerized algorithms to screen applications has made hiring practices rigid and ineffective at doing what they’re supposed to do: match workers with jobs they have the ability, or can acquire the ability, to do. “Job hunters struggle to make it through the first electronic filters of resumés, and when they do, the follow-up phone screenings prove frustrating,” McLaughlin writes. “Interviewers show little willingness to bend on specific technical requirements or to consider transferable skills.”

A major reason, she continues, is “the disconnect between HR [human resources] and IT.” Job descriptions generally specify particular types of experience and qualifications, even though people with somewhat different experience or qualifications may well have skills that could also equip them to do the job. The HR professionals who evaluate resumes and do interviews, however, lack the technical knowledge to discern which types of experience are applicable to which tasks. A far more effective method of selection “would be for HR to sort candidates into an A pile and a B pile and let IT see all of them, before people are green- or red-lighted for in-person interviews,” writes McLaughlin, paraphrasing Stuart Lathrop, a marketing enterprise solution architect for ESAB, a welding and automation equipment supply company. “But that, of course, takes time.”

Another source of frustration is the “ ‘purple squirrel’ hunt,” in which “companies seek a job candidate whose mix of skills and experience is impossible to find,” McLaughlin writes. “The ‘purple squirrel’ job postings arise in many cases because HR needs a way to thin out the mountains of applicants that they have,” says Norman Matloff of the University of California, Davis, as quoted by McLaughlin. “[T]he claimed shortage is actually an embarrassment of riches.”

Employers need to “remove their perfection goggles,” McLaughlin writes. Insisting on finding the perfect candidate “not only hurts the business but also heaps extra work on the existing team. Delays also turn off qualified candidates, who assume that if a slot is open too long it's like an unsold house that has ‘issues.’ ”

Tracy Cashman of the WinterWyman search firm near Boston suggests that employers try something new. She recommends the “best available athlete” strategy, which sports teams use to sign “the best player available rather than hiring a lesser player to fill a specific position,” McLaughlin writes.“Hire a smart, creative person who's eager to learn, and train that person on the rest, [Cashman] advises clients, before the other valuable people on your team walk out or you blow the business deadline.”

“The [article’s] conclusion, though, is that there isn’t much that the job seekers can do to close the gap,” Cappelli tells Science Careers by e-mail. “What the employers want that they find hard to get is work experience, which requires that someone hire [applicants] first. Employers can adjust their standards, raise their wages to get better/different applicants, or train more. Those have always been the options, and they still are today.”

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