A War for Talent? As We Say in Brooklyn, Forgetaboutit!

Jun 17, 2008

Do you know my friend MJ? You should, because that will almost certainly be you someday. But more on that depressing reality later.

Let’s start with MJ’s reality first. He is 45, brilliant, accomplished, and well-spoken. He is politically savvy, knows the right things to say in all situations, and even looks the role of a corporate executive. (Truth be told, he is almost as strikingly handsome as I am.)

He is technically up to date, communicates well, and has all of the requisite educational credentials. There is only one small problem. He can’t get a job.

To quote Ron Jenkins, “Something is wrong here; something is terribly wrong.”

If there is a war for talent, why can’t a highly skilled, amazingly talented overachiever who lives in a major metropolitan area find a job after one year of searching?

What expectations, position profile, ATS, political ramifications, compensation structure, communication protocol, workforce planning initiative, talent acquisition strategy, or lord knows what else has broken down so miserably, so totally and completely that all of the companies that are warring for talent have not hired MJ?

If the war for talent is as portrayed, companies engaged in this war should be beating each other with sticks to hire MJ. So, why can’t MJ get a job and how does it relate to this war on talent? (Please don’t tell me he needs to do more social networking or I might just have to get on a plane and slay you.)

We have heard for endless time of the war for talent. I remember the war on poverty, but we lost that one. We have a war on drugs but that seems to be a losing proposition as well.

But a war for talent? I find that to be an interesting war because there seems to be no winners, no losers, and little set out to define specific battle plans or terms and conditions for victory.

Yet we are so glib as it relates to this war and so accepting of its existence. Tell me, when will it end and how will we know it is over? When all of the organizations that want the very best talent, have the very best talent? Talent by whose standards? For how long must this condition exist? How is it measured and by whom? Is that the win? I hope not, because that is not going to happen. Not ever. Never, never, ever!

Who do you suppose is in charge of this war for talent? Please allow me to introduce the cast of characters:

We have thought leaders and futurists as our field generals (few who really agree on anything but will consult with you for a fee) and recruiters as our foot soldiers who spend most of their time “runnin and gunnin” in an attempt to find great candidates.

Tossed into the mix are those in management who sweat more than the rest of us because no matter what they do, it is never enough. The reason for this, of course, is those darn recruiters who are clearly guilty of the following:

  • Not identifying candidates who are quite as good as management had hoped for. (Surely, there must be a Java programmer out there who also understands composite iron tensile capacities and plays accordion.)
  • Not able to meet the sheer number of qualified candidates for which management had hoped to pick through. (You only found four PhD toxicologists local to Shaboine? What do you do all day?)
  • Not capable of finding the qualified candidates as quickly as management was hoping they might. (What do you mean it is going to take a month? Don’t you use Facebook? Where are the programmers with the pierced tongues and cleverly concealed tats? (Tattoos to those of you in the Midwest.)

Wait…perhaps it is time to get new recruiters to help us to win this war. But who hires new recruiters? Other recruiters? Hmmmmm.

Ok, to quote John Updike, “I have had my say,” but let me highlight one important point. MJ is not an apparition. He is a real person who has no clue as to what is going on and why he can’t land a job.

More important, I have no idea either and therein lay the problem. A war for talent perpetuates the myth that great talent will be gobbled up as fast as it hits the street. Truth be told, we don’t even wait for it to hit the street. We unearth passive candidates and try to pull them in as well.

Wait! What about “the recession?”

Are we in a recession? The government seems to think not, but for those of us with an IQ over 34 and 11 cents worth of common sense, it seems as though we are. Layoffs are either the reality or the rumor and the other signs are there as well. (Got fear?)

So tell me, what happens to the war for talent in a recession? Is there a cessation of hostilities? Less recruiting? More use of Friendster? OK, enough with the questions. Let’s look at what I see as some answers.

Is there a war for talent? Not as I see a war because you go to war to win and no organization will ever have the capability to simply turn on the faucet and get as many of the great employees they want when they want them. Quite frankly, their childlike carping as to not being able to have exactly what they want as quickly as they want it is almost embarrassing at times. (Not to mention that fact that one can’t apply a liquidity metaphor to new employees. That is creepy at best and dehumanizing at worst. They are human beings, not things.)

On the other hand, if YOU believe there is a war for talent, consider the following five ideas to ease your pain and anguish:

  1. Look at older workers. By older, I mean over 45. Take me seriously, because what goes around has an almost cosmic ability to come around. If you are 33 years old in a happening company on the left coast that gives out free lattes, with cargo pants as the dress code, do not pass on the older folks when you make hiring decisions. If you live long enough, you will make it to those ages as well and suddenly see what it is like to be left out in the cold. Print out this message and bronze it because you heard it here first. (If you think OFCCP prevents this, I have a bridge to sell you; email me for details.)
  2. Develop reasonable position profiles. Loosen up! Perhaps you really need 10 people as opposed to 8. Don’t have headcount for 10? Go get it. (Budgets are artificially imposed. Build a business case to have it changed.) To be understaffed and not meet organizational objectives as you whine about those bad recruiters who can’t find you the people you want is laughable.
  3. Pay an agency. Folks, at times you have to simply bite the bullet and pay an agency because they have the person you need. Tell me, would you sell your best salesperson or Java programmer to the competition for $25,000? No? Then why would you not buy them for the same price? (Have you spoken to Shea Putnam at Cool Hires lately?)
  4. Do you deserve great talent? Being from Brooklyn, I seldom get overly philosophical, but I can’t help wondering if your company deserves great talent. I have been asked to go out and find the “best and the brightest” by teams of leadership losers that were so inept, so devoid of any ability to create a great company, I did not know if I should laugh or cry. On some level, it is sad because these folks will forever be in a war for talent.
  5. Look closely at active candidates. In recent years, a number of people have made big money beating the passive candidate drum. They plumb the deepest depths of the solar system (at times as far as Pluto) to uncover the candidates no one else can find. (Attend a workshop for $399.00 and you can learn this, too.) That’s ok at times, but what about the good, active candidates who apply to the postings for which you pay? Too busy to read those resumes? I do sympathize, but looking at resumes is part of our job and the sooner we stop complaining and get to it, the faster we will fill positions with candidates who came to us.

Is there a war for talent? Hard to say, but I think not. I do believe there is a perpetual need for talent; a supply-oriented balancing act that is in endless flux.

But a war? Only if you make it one.