The Myth of a Labor Shortage: There is Only a Shortage of Imagination and Responsibility

I hope you all had a very happy holiday season and that you are ready to face what looks like him a challenging 1999. To start the year, I would like to really look at this perceived shortage of skilled labor that we are all complaining about. Recruiters and hiring managers report that it is exceeding difficult to find information technologists, computer programmers, software engineers, network administrators, health workers, and even senior managers and executives. The time it takes to fill open positions seems to have increased, and hiring managers frequently complain that they have to settle for “second best”. Congress recently expanded visa quotas for non-citizens to work in the United States as a way to meet this labor shortage. Yet, in many cases the shortage of skilled labor may be caused more by very narrowly defined job descriptions and a lack of imagination than by any real shortage. We set up expectations and define jobs based more on what we want (or think we want) than on what is realistically available. Many of us say that we cannot find qualified web masters, for example, when we all know that because the web is so new that there are obviously very few people with good skills in web design. There are actually plenty of people out there looking for work. Many of these people have a high school diploma, even a college degree, and many have experience, although not in the areas we need. We know that many technically inclined graphic artists or artistically inclined programmers could be trained in web design relatively quickly if we were willing to invest the time training them. 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 training and development does not have to be of the same type that a person would receive at an ordinary academic institution. In a 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. I spent many years working in the semiconductor industry facing 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. In both world wars, the U.S. Armed Forces have 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. As recruiters, we need to become coaches to our managers, as I have mentioned in previous columns. It is very difficult, I know, to convince a hiring manager that the kind of person he is looking for is better developed in-house than found externally. But I think it is to your credit if you can convince them. As a recruiter you need to develop a relationship with them that is good enough and strong enough that they will listen to you. 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 has a process, and if we are to embrace any of the things that I mentioned last year and in my series of columns on world-class staffing, 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 – there are just shortages of imagination and an unwillingness to accept responsibility for filling our own needs.

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Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at