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Viewpoint: Businesses Must Adjust to Fill the Talent Gap

A group of people sitting together in an office.

​Both employers and employees are wrestling with the right way to return to the office. Many workers are questioning whether returning to the physical worksite is worth the trouble and what would make it more appealing—including changing employers or even industries.

Here are a few ways employers can capitalize on this mobility.

Meeting Changing Employee Expectations, Despite Potential Inconveniences

A recent article in The New York Times found that many job quitters in 2021 were actually job swappers, referencing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the census. The data shows "a nearly one-to-one correlation between the rate of quitting and swapping."

The article elaborated that those job switchers have tended to be in leisure, hospitality and retail.

"In leisure and hospitality, the rate of workers quitting rose to nearly 6 percent from 4 percent since the pandemic began; in retail it jumped to nearly 5 percent from 3.5 percent," the article stated. "White-collar employers still struggled to hire, but they saw far fewer resignations. The quitting rate in finance, for example, declined at the start of the pandemic and is now just below 2 percent, and in media and technology it stayed roughly consistent, also below 2 percent."

Some of the reasons for the white-collar job market's relative stability may include overall higher wages, better benefits, and the former perk that quickly became the norm and which allowed many businesses to survive the worst upheaval of the pandemic—the ability to work remotely.

Now many employers are suggesting or mandating that workers return to the office. The companies that have a smart strategy to meet employees' needs will be better insulated from the deleterious effects of the Great Resignation and better positioned to attract top talent.

A recent labor-market trend—"quiet quitting"—is yet another signal to employers that the workplace needs to change in significant ways to motivate workers to show up at their best.

Rewriting Job Descriptions to Meet the Skill Sets

Even if job candidates do not meet specific qualifications for a position, employers should consider other qualities and characteristics that they may possess, including an ability and willingness to learn and acquire these skills.

To what extent would we, as employers and hiring managers, be willing to change our mindsets about the types of people and skill sets needed? Are we just pulling our hair out saying, "Hey, I posted these jobs and I haven't got any good applicants?" Maybe a problem is the way that companies think about most of their job descriptions and how well—or poorly—potential applicants relate to the description.

There's a lot of buzz about how there aren't enough people to fill open positions. I don't think that's true. What is in short supply are the people with the skills needed by today's employers or the ability to acquire those skills quickly.

The labor market is inefficient. There is a mismatch between what employers need and the availability of people who can and want to perform those tasks. If we look at the Great Resignation through this lens, the labor shortage narrative evaporates quickly. People are not quitting the workforce in droves to focus on other priorities. They are seeking better career opportunities.

However, finding these opportunities can be difficult when job descriptions are not written for available skills and job seekers are inadvertently positioning themselves as candidates with irrelevant skills.

Companies have plenty of experience in using the right keywords to show the right product to the right audience. Why not apply the same approach to finding the right skill sets? Call it a "People Search Optimization" and have artificial intelligence write the ads; chances are they will be more inclusive, more accessible and seen by more-qualified candidates.

Offering Continuing Education Signing Bonuses

There was a time when hiring new college graduates was "bread and butter" for a lot of companies.

Fresh college grads were recruited by corporations with offers to pay for MBAs or other graduate development programs. The companies would hire new graduates and put them into these multiyear training programs, sending them on a promising career path.

Executive education is typically made available to employees at the senior-manager level. In recent years, many companies, particularly those in the tech industry, offer rigorous in-house training, which is great but may be perceived as less versatile of a benefit, unless a person stays at the company or in that field.

One way to attract top talent could be to expand these offerings of professional development and education at reputable universities to build on core skill sets. This would provide applicants with the skills they need for that job and with the credentials to expand their professional horizons.

Recognizing Generational, Not Just Situational, Changes in the Workforce 

Midcareer professionals tend to value the competencies and the prestige associated with a reputable higher-education institution, but Generation Z is questioning the need for a formal education. They've watched their parents and older colleagues struggle with crippling student loans to pay for degrees that may no longer be relevant to secure employment in many sectors of today's economy.

The younger generation is choosing entrepreneurship and cultivating purpose-driven skills instead of a broad educational foundation.

A May 2022 Fast Company article reported that, "As of January 2022, only 51 percent of Gen Z teens are interested in pursuing a four-year degree, down from 71 percent in May 2020, according to a recent study by ECMC Group."

Employers are starting to recognize this trend and use it to their advantage. The Fast Company article noted that some companies "are embracing Gen Z's self-starter and constant learning mindset to train and develop the workforce they want. In this paradigm, the personal drive and entrepreneurship Gen Z's possess is a critical asset to their success."

Finding a Productive Path Forward

Before companies commit to hiring the best candidates for open positions, they must think about how to re-energize existing talent. Their employees might not view work as the most important aspect of their lives, but companies know their workforce comprises capable workers who have chosen their organization above others.

Managers must show appreciation by:

  • Recognizing workers' needs.
  • Re-engaging employees in the work, even if it means creating new job descriptions and career paths within their organization.

If companies need to find new employees, remember the power of "weak ties," the "friends-of-friends" type of connections. Recent research show that weak ties are more powerful than close networks for finding a new job, and conversely for finding great new talent.

A manager's job is to constantly find, recruit and develop talent—not solely rely on HR colleagues to do that for them. HR might be too far removed from truly understanding what qualities, characteristics and experiences will help managers build the team they need.

Peter Hirst is the senior associate dean for executive education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass.


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