5 Ways to Deal With Skill Mismatches

72% of Directors and business leaders are worried about their skills pipeline. Permanent candidate availability is at an all time low. Skills gaps are reaching crisis proportions. 740,000 more people with digital skills will be needed in the workforce this year alone. Half of recent graduates are working in non-graduate jobs. 66% of engineering graduates don’t work in engineering. 1 in 4 vacancies are going unfilled.

Barely a week goes by without statistics like these being used to demonstrate an acute skill shortage. And for recruiters, there’s more. Time to hire is rising. Cost per hire increasing. Interview processes getting longer. Recruiters have more open requisitions than ever. Quality of hire is going unmeasured but, anecdotally, could be better. Productivity is affected.

What can be done? To rely on bringing in developed skills and finding the ready made, perfect fit candidate from outside isn’t the answer. Waiting for a magical piece of sourcing code to help identify candidates with perfect skill sets from across different platforms isn’t the answer either. Even if you could find them, how do you they would join you? What have you got to offer them?

Your vacancy isn’t always the holy grail for a job seeker. Sure, some of the positions you are trying to fill might present interesting challenges for them, but then so might other vacancies in other companies. Even if you had a steady stream of candidates, how many would come and work for you?

In times of heightened hiring challenges, you need to be a place where people want to work. If you’re not, then no amount of sourcing, searching, advertising and referring is going to produce successful results in the long term. Here’s what you need to be doing first…

Consult with hiring managers

You are the recruitment professional, and the labour market – where the skills are – is your specialist area. When you take a briefing from a hiring manager be armed with all the data and manage their expectations. Know what the market is like for candidates with the skills you need. Educate the hiring manager in where the candidates are, what the pool looks like. Use data from REC, FIRM, ONS, job boards and sites like Indeed and Broadbean to make your case and let them understand where there are candidate shortages and what roles create the most competition.

Don’t just accept a job description, particularly one that replicates what the last incumbent did, but rip it up and find out what the role really needs – skills, competencies, capabilities. Begin to build a profile of what you will be looking for and how to assess it. Re-design the role if needs be around the kind of skills and experience available and help the hiring manager to understand the candidates they will be getting.

And test the hiring manager. Can they sell the company or vacancy? Are they a credible interviewer? Candidates always say that the key interview is the one with the manager they’ll be working for, so what impression will they get?

Understand the internal market

Know the talent pool inside your organisation – what skills people have and who is ready for a new challenge and an internal move, or stretch assignment, to help with their development. Make sure your managers are talent producers, not talent hoarders, and encourage them to support employees with internal moves. Identify the people who could develop with some training or input, and convert those you have into the candidates you need. Remember, people want to work for an organisation that helps them grow, develop and realise their potential, so play your part in making the company a place where that happens.

Research the external market

Do you know what candidates look for when they change jobs? How to make your company and open roles attractive? Well find out! There’s plenty of content out there about what job seekers really want, or why not do your own research amongst candidates and people who have applied previously.

What three things are most important to them? Do you market your roles to show that your organisation can provide them with what they want? People with the skills you need might be out there but not responding to your messaging or not perceiving you as a place where they would want to work.

Leverage all the networks you can. Previous candidates, alumni, clients, customers, suppliers and collaborators all have a relationship with your organisation, and all of them have connections. Somewhere in those extended networks might be the person you need. Find a way to reach them and get your message across.

EVP & Employer Brand

What are you like to work for? How does the employee experience shape up? The way you hire, orientate, develop, engage and retain people counts. The way you treat people and support them in reaching their own goals and fulfilling their potential will mark you out as a great place to work. What is your external brand? Does it align with internal values? The early period of employment is when someone reaffirms their decision to join you. If you don’t have an experience that underlines they have made the right choice in joining you – they’ll leave.

Candidate Experience and Recruitment Process

Have you applied for your own jobs? Do you know what the experience is like? Take feedback from candidates going through your hiring process and act upon what you hear. And don’t just take feedback at the end as it will be affected by the outcome.

You can’t expect there to be a pool of skilled and work ready candidates waiting to jump through hoops, endure long absences of communication and non-existent feedback, and work their may through a selection and interview process resembling the labours of Hercules, just to join you. So ditch the gladiatorial approach to hiring.

Make it easy to apply. Give information and let people show you what they can do. The technology is there so why not let people take video interviews at a time to suit them. Find out how they can perform when they are relaxed, rather than trying to find the perfect fit by seeing how they react under pressure.

You can tell a lot about a company by the way they go about recruiting and enabling their people. Stop waiting for the perfect match to come along and start sending out the right messages about the kind of place you are for people who want to learn, grow, develop and reach their potential.

4 Things About Skill Shortages

In a recent blog I looked at some of the research and narrative around skill shortages. 

We have the necessary numbers of graduates from most of the disciplines* where shortages are reported, but a lack of those with relevant work experience. I won’t repeat the previous blog except to round up that some of the main reasons for shortages seem to be:

  • Graduates perceived to have the best qualifications are working in sectors other than those they’ve studied for
  • The rest are passed over, so end up working in other sectors and in lower skilled work
  • Companies are too specific about what they want
  • Definitions of employability are inconsistent
  • Roles aren’t marketed effectively
  • Less investment in training

Most of these are fixable by either better recruitment or workforce planning, or more realistic assessment of what we have and what we need. I don’t think the general discussion around skill shortages is helpful. As I’ve written before, no recruiter ever got fired because there was a sill shortage, so the individual circumstances around unfilled vacancies never get scrutinised. 

In fact there are four things that get lost in this conversation that I believe could benefit from greater scrutiny:

  1. Maybe we’re past peak hiring. Could well be that most vacancies now are for ‘nice to haves’ rather than ‘need to haves’, and that’s why they are unfilled. The budget for recruiting is signed off, give vacancies to a third party recruiter, or run adverts, and see if someone exceptional turns up. 
  2. Is this linked to the wider productivity puzzle? Many firms say they lack the capacity to take on more work without extra resource, but this might well arise from organisational and process inefficiencies that management struggles to identify or solve.
  3. When companies say that they can’t find the skills, are they really talking about employability. These aren’t a list of skills to be ticked off a CV, but instead we are talking about a range of values, attitudes, abilities, desires, social awareness and intellectuality that we are looking for people to exhibit. Many of these are picked up once working, or are adapted by the surroundings and culture of the organisation. It isn’t easy to find them.
  4. Maybe we need to redefine what we mean by skill. The recent BBC series Britain’s Hardest Workers bought a game show element to minimum wage work that is deemed to be lower skill. A mixture of manual labourers and knowledge workers undertook low pay tasks and failed to perform to expected standards. After each activity – whether it was sifting through waste, producing food or making small car parts – we were told that these tasks were actually quite highly skilled. That they were stressful, demanding and pressurised. They needed people who were fast, accurate, consistent, technology savvy, focused and determined. None of this sounds particularly low skill, nor that it should be rewarded with below subsistence pay. In fact, if I listed these descriptions on a job ad you might reasonably conclude that I was looking for someone on a fairly high salary to undertake a fairly senior and responsible role

 

*Some sectors – one obvious example is healthcare – do have a gap between the people available and those we need. How we bridge that gap is a different debate and one that I think is not well served by being lumped it in with general skill shortage narrative

Do We Really Have Skill Shortages?

Do we really have major skill shortages? Are they a myth? Or do we have a problem with recruitment? No recruiter would ever get fired because there’s a skill shortage, so do the individual circumstances around each shortage go unscrutinised?

OECD research finds that the UK has comparatively light skill shortages:

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I’ve recently written up some research on the STEM skill shortage for recruitment group Serocor, who specialise in technical recruitment. The STEM sectors are often used as the poster boy for the UK’s skill shortage problem, so seem a good place to start.

2011 data from the ONS showed that of new STEM graduates that year only 16% were working in core STEM jobs in core STEM sectors. A surprisingly large 66% were working in a non-core STEM job in a non-core STEM sector. Whilst not anything new, it was a worsening situation – in 2001 the proportion working outside STEM was 52% so the pool of grads working in STEM jobs and sectors was decreasing. As UKCES concluded in their November 2013 report:

“Mismatches between supply and demand for Core STEM appear to be more about lack of suitably qualified candidates rather than a numerical shortage of STEM degree holders”

This situation starts from graduation, with only 1 in 6 gaining suitable experience, and seems to be increasing. Do we really need more STEM graduates then? Possibly not. The subject of ‘leakage’ was looked at in 2015 SKOPE research on engineering graduates. The training given in technical and scientific areas, allied to a broad understanding of mathematics, makes STEM graduates attractive to a wide range of employers – many in sectors that are thought to be more attractive to work in than core STEM sectors. Increasing the number of graduates is likely to increase this leakage:

“The evidence produced on these initial flows confirms that public policy would be ill-advised to proceed assuming that the response to reported shortages of supply of engineering graduates in a particular subsector, where substantiated, must be to try to increase the numbers on the relevant engineering higher education courses. It should rather be to find ways of helping any sectors genuinely concerned about shortages to take much more seriously the need to significantly increase the attractiveness of their work to engineering students, and in particular to those in the last and penultimate years of their courses.”

In other words increasing the number of graduates won’t necessarily increase the future talent pool. Some more 2015 research, conducted for the European Commission, on STEM graduate shortages in the EU, also found UK employers being a bit choosy:

“In particular in the UK, there is evidence that the expansion of higher education has resulted in a growing employer differentiation between different ‘types’ of graduates, and with employers’ putting a higher premium on graduates from the traditional prestigious universities. This could explain why so many UK STEM graduates end up in relatively low paid service sector jobs with limited opportunities to deploy their STEM knowledge and skills. There is some evidence that the notion of ‘employability’ has a much wider meaning, and therefore cannot be reduced to a list of skills that can be ticked off in curricula if covered. A UK study concludes (Hinchcliffe 2011) that employers place value on a wider range of dispositions and abilities, including graduates’ values, social awareness and generic intellectuality — dispositions that can be nurtured within HE and further developed in the workplace”

Amongst their conclusions they noted a drop in investment in training “acute reported shortages are likely caused by under-investments in training of the existing STEM professionals, as there has been a general drop in investments in continuing education and training since the (financial) crisis” but also that shortages were partly caused through:

  • Growing employer expectations regarding the quality of the match
  • Entry barriers for STEM graduates who do not have labour market experience
  • Risk of under-employment of non-native STEM graduates
  • Insufficient absorptive capacity in SMEs to make productive use of the skills of STEM graduates, making the SMEs a less attractive employment and career destination
  • Career guidance oriented towards the public sector and large corporations.

The Serocor research I referenced earlier found an interesting mismatch in the way jobs were marketed. Hiring companies seemed to think that technical candidates looked for a good reward package and promotion potential, whereas the candidates themselves prioritised interesting projects to enhance skills, a good working culture and opportunities for flexible working. When I wrote about recruitment challenges for charities last year it became apparent that the problem was less about skills not existing and more about identifying and attracting the specific skills needed, moving away from a reactive approach.

So far I’ve written about STEM candidates, but believe that most of these findings apply to other sectors. The indication from the research quoted earlier was that graduates in any discipline who aren’t seen as immediately ’employable’ end up in other sectors and in lower skilled work.  This leads to a much smaller pool of talent when employers want someone with 3 or 4 years relevant work experience.

Any business struggling with unfilled vacancies has to redefine the problem. Some of the things to think about are:

  • What exact skills are we short of?
  • Can we afford to hold out for someone who ticks every box?
  • How about investing in training or apprenticeships?
  • Have we got people already here who could move across and perform this role with some training or encouragement?
  • Are we marketing the positions correctly?
  • Do we know what target candidates actually look for when they change job and are we offering it?
  • What collaborative ways are there to bring skills in?
  • Is the job design right – can we re-design it to turn un-fillable roles in to smaller constituent parts that we can staff?
  • How can we do workforce planning better to anticipate future shortages?