Does Our Own Mindset Cause the Talent Shortage?

Jan 14, 2010
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

photo_classroomEven in this recession, everyone I speak with is moaning about not being able to find the quality candidates they think they need. Maybe they have caused their own problem by narrowly defining jobs, by using yesterday’s criteria to solve today’s problems, and by a lack of imagination.

We (hiring managers, executives, HR folks, and recruiters) set up expectations and define jobs based on what is traditional. We work from habit and past experience. This is not necessarily bad, but may not match our current needs or the available supply.

Some of us say that we cannot find qualified C# programmers, for example, when we all know that there are very few people with good skills in this area. We are left with choices: hunt like crazy on the Internet and elsewhere to find someone we can influence to leave their current position, wait to find a disgruntled one, or decide to do something different. Something different might be to rethink the job entirely so that it more closely matches someone we already know is available. It might be to increase the supply by developing training programs or taking on apprentices. It might be to merge the job with another one. There are lots of possibilities beyond just doing what we have always done.

Many emerging jobs require a new perspective, rather than an entirely new skill set. An interior designer could easily do the new job of home stager — someone who decorates your house prior to selling it — but for a much lower price. Many skills for jobs in the healthcare arena can be learned quickly, but are all based on a common set of skills around patient care, communication, and appreciation for and understanding of technology. The real challenge is perspective, attitude, and sometimes the willingness to work for less.

Developing People is a Requirement for Success

I spent many years working in the semiconductor industry when it faced a labor shortage of skilled process engineers and equipment operators. We eventually devised training programs that took basic electrical engineers and developed them into capable process engineers quickly. IBM trained thousands of programmers throughout the 1960s and 1970s to meet its own huge needs. At the same time, IBM and other companies quietly worked with academic institutions to develop today’s academic computer curricula.

This training and development does not have to be of the same type that a person would receive at an ordinary academic institution. In most every case, corporate training can concentrate on skills that are needed right now and forego the theoretical, the basics, and the nice-to-have-but-not-critical things. Whether or not a person goes back at some point to get those basics remains a question, but I believe that efficient training can address the labor shortage issue quickly.

In both world wars, the U.S. Armed Forces reverted to intensive training programs to fill critical positions. They have learned that this can be as efficient a process as having a huge standing army.

The trick is in accepting that there is a responsibility on the part of employers to develop the people they need. Employers should be willing to provide the training and development for the jobs they have a need to get done. Waiting for the school system or the government to do your job for you has never been a very good strategy.

We Need to Expand the Labor Pool

Many available people are older or retired and have skills that have become obsolete or are not needed right now. However, these people could be retrained for some of the open positions if we took a different attitude. Unfortunately most of us, or most of our employers anyway, would rather spend money on search fees, agency fees, administrative overhead, and advertising rather than on intensively training people with decent basic skills. Granted, we cannot train people for every job because many of them do require experience, or time in the saddle, as they say, in order to be successful. However, I think we could significantly lessen the labor shortage if we were willing to be a bit wider in our job expectations and definitions.

This is why I constantly argue for integrated staffing and development because I believe their functions are inextricably intertwined. It is very difficult to do one without doing the other. If we are to look at recruiting as a process, we are going to have to incorporate development into our staffing thinking and staffing into our training thinking.

Whether this is done through merging departments or whether it is done simply through good collaboration doesn’t really matter. What is critical is that there is a dialogue between the two functions. If you work in a small company where there are no separate training and recruiting functions, then this becomes even easier for you to do.

You need to always think whether an open position is better trained for or hired for. Is it a job that would be impossible to train someone for in a reasonable period of time, or is it a job that someone could be trained to do fairly quickly?

When management and recruiters both develop a broader understanding of the issues and step up to the fact that in many cases skilled people are just not available at a reasonable cost, then developing people becomes sensible and cost effective.

There are no labor shortages or surpluses — there are just shortages of imagination and an unwillingness to accept responsibility for filling our own needs.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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