Recruiters’ Role as We Emerge from the Recession

Jun 17, 2009
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Unemployment is an ugly thing. It not only injures people financially, but socially and emotionally. I was reading a fascinating article by Arthur Brooks entitled “I Love My Work.” He chronicles what happened to a small town in Austria in the 1920s when the local factory closed and most men were unemployed. Despite being paid unemployment insurance, their lives began to take on a very different — and not a happy — shape.

Many of us may have had a bout of unemployment and know how empty a day becomes when it is without purpose or goal. We miss the social interactions, and the distractions and diversions from our own problems. Employment, even when people are not really pleased with the work they are doing, gives meaning to life. It provides a reason to get up, to join social events, and is a primary source of happiness. Certainly, there are many people who for a while enjoy the leisure of unemployment, but almost all eventually became bored, dissatisfied, and start looking for something meaningful to do. Recruiters know this is true because every day they see people who may have the resources to not work but are seeking a job. When we ask candidates what they are looking for, they almost always, somewhere in their answers, mention the desire for a challenge or for social interaction and always for meaningful work.

Ultimately, unemployment becomes an issue that can threaten the stability of governments and lead to riots and worse. Germany’s Nazi government was partly an outcome of the unemployment created by the Great Depression, combined with massive inflation. Organizations are always caught in the space between wanting to be good citizens and keep good people employed, and the need to generate profit and increase stock prices. Many of us work (or have worked) for organizations that had every intention of not laying anyone off, yet in the end succumbed.

Yet, as the United States and other countries struggle to keep people employed, they often forget that the solution is not always about preserving the jobs that already exist. The solution to unemployment is to create jobs — lots of them in new and emerging areas.

Most recessions lead to the destruction of jobs in industries and areas that have been automated or made obsolete by newer technologies and methodologies. And at the same time, new jobs are created in emerging business areas. This has happened here in Silicon Valley many times. As semiconductor production was sent to Asia, software and biotech firms began to emerge, and picked up many of the unemployed workers. Venture capital fueled the growth of Yahoo, Google, and hundreds of other firms. And these firms employed thousands and attracted some of the world’s most talented and educated people to the United States.

Innovation and creativity are employment engines, but at the moment they are idling when they should be at full power. Even the U.S. Patent office is slowing down as innovative dries up.

Yet in this recession we have seen venture capital investment fall to record lows and, after a peak of 22 companies filed for an initial public offering in 2007, only two have done so since. New companies are not being created with the zest of the past, and lack of money keeps many innovative firms small and less able to make an impact on the marketplace or to employ many people.

As a nation we face several conundrums: As Richard Florida points out in The Atlantic, unemployment is highest where there are the least educated and skilled people and where the likelihood of new companies investing is low. Fewer private companies are going public, venture capitalists are investing less money, and the education of technical and scientific talent is at a low.

We are not going to come out of this recession just by employing people in massive public works projects or by propping up failing companies with obsolete and non-competitive products and services. Even if these measures work at all, their impact will be small and short.

Our stimulus money should go to entrepreneurs, inventors, and creative people who will dream up the new services and the new tools and products that will fuel growth and employment. We need to incentivize investment in high unemployment areas and provide education and training at no cost to those who need it.

We should be investing in education of all types, but especially in non-traditional areas that hold the potential to help people learn faster, cheaper, and with more enjoyment. Education is partly to blame for the uneducated and unskilled workforce we have. It did little to make learning fun, challenging, or useful. It still relies on pain as the main indicator of learning quality; if a course is fun or easy, then the student must have not learned very much.

The online universities, video learning, podcasts, virtual tutors, and other non-traditional tools may be the game-changers education needs. It will take government investment to make this mainstream. Pouring tax dollars into yesterday’s industries is not only wasteful but very dangerous.

I realize that recruiters have little to do with job creation or loss. We are primarily the ones who find the people to fill these new jobs. But here are two ideas about how we can make a significant difference.

Idea #1: Find a job in an emerging industry or service area
Green energy, robotics, and biotech are all job creation industries. U.S. News & World Report each year publishes a list of those jobs they see as “ahead of the curve.” This past December, for example, a couple of their emerging jobs were data miner and healthcare informatics specialists.

By focusing on finding people for these industries, you can enhance your own career and help thousands of people find employment.

Idea #2: Help your organization use different people
Very often people with obsolete skills can adapt to new industries and learn new skills quickly. What recruiters need to do is to be aware of what skills translate well and of which types of people can make these transitions the fastest. As the semiconductor industry emerged in Silicon Valley in the 1970s, there were no fabrication workers and no equipment repair technicians who had experience with the equipment used. Recruiters were then forced to find existing workers who could learn fast. By taking workers from the fruit and vegetable canning industries and mechanical technicians from the Army, they staffed an entire industry. Our challenge today is to find the emerging jobs and the existing workers who can fill them. This is how we can contribute to the “new” world that is emerging from this recession.

Recruiters can influence, drive change, and educate their organizations. The great recruiters are already doing this and making a big difference in the lives of thousands of unemployed and underemployed people.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.