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Why Companies Don't Hire Good People

Updated on December 21, 2012

Debunking the Skills Gap Myth. . .

Anyone who has quickly browsed the job boards can easily come to the following conclusion: Employers don't want someone who CAN do the job; they want someone who has already done the exact same job.

This doesn't represent a skills mismatch, but an expectation mismatch. This creates a catch-22 situation for anyone who has skills, but not the precise ones for a particular job. Perhaps it's a case of laziness, but employers truly expect a person to be perfectly tailored for a position going in. What's overlooked is the person who has the skills and aptitudes to learn the job may have equal or better chances. Would you throw away the chance of having a great employee because while he knows software X, Y; he doesn't yet know software Z? Would you instead opt for an average employee just because he knows software X, Y and Z? When it comes to making such decisions, employers by default are taking the second option. They would rather hire average grade where everything matches; rather than excellent grade that needs some fine tuning. And if they can't find anybody that perfectly matches the parameters, they cry "skills shortage!"

It's a very limited and narrow way of hiring and evaluating character. If we're truly entering a "knowledge economy," I'm a tad confused in regards to the hiring process that seems to view humans as disposable car parts. Hiring is more than just a matchmaker game where you view your company as an automobile that only accepts parts from certain models. When you lose an employee, you can't expect to fully tailor a job application to their exact skills/personality/experience and expect to get an exact replica shipped to you by next week. Sorry, your employees are not mufflers; managers would do a lot to help themselves if they viewed their company as more than just a giant machine. However, I sadly don't expect that to change any time soon, as managers love their metrics. There's no metrics involved in evaluating character, however there is plenty of metrics to go around in asking the question does person meet conditions X, Y and Z? We can blame narrowly minded business schools for creating such a mess. . .

The biggest overall problems are an overreliance on technology and an unwillingness to spend time or money on training. Prospective employees find it very difficult to get hired because they are likely up against a computer algorithm. This computer program scans their resume and is looking for very specific terms, qualifications and experience. If their resume doesn't include those specific terms, their resume is discarded. The search terms are only as good as the hiring manager (or possibly human resources manager) who selected the terms to search for in the first place.

In many cases, when you apply for a given position the employer doesn't even ask you for a resume, instead they want you to fill in a "skills inventory" within their database. Essentially, they're bypassing the formalities of sending in a resume, and asking you to list all your skills accordingly. You are then subjected immediately to the screening process. Normally how this software works (and I've experienced this first hand when applying to any major chartered bank within Canada) is they ask you to simply list 12 of your top skills in chronological order (from highest competency to lowest competency) from all the skills in their pre-selected database. Basically, you are to describe yourself as nothing more than a grocery list. There's nothing in the program that allows you to explain the circumstances and experiences you have in acquiring the said skills. There's nothing allowing you to explain your level of competence. Only the relative level of competence weighted against your own skills, which is counter-productive. The only variable that exists is when you select a certain skill, you must "insert years of experience" doing the said skill, which is subjective and confusing.

To give an example of how laughable this process is for the job seeker, one of the "skills" I was allowed to select is "English." Now what exactly do they mean by English? Just speaking the language? In that case, would I put down the number of years’ experience I have in English as my current age subtracted by one? Are they asking if I have a Bachelor's in English (insert 4 years’ experience), Masters (insert 6 years’ experience) or PhD (insert 8 years’ experience)? Are they asking if I made any publications in English, and therefore I need to insert the total number of years spent working on these publications? And since when is the time spent doing an activity any indication of competency? I have a lot of experience doing racquet ball because I enjoy it, but I'll be one of the first to admit I suck at it. Excuse my lack of political correctness here, but I must ask, what is the point in having English as one of the listed skills in a primarily English speaking country? Shouldn't it be assumed that all of your candidates can speak English?

Another example of such a skill from the list that I could choose is JavaScript. So for years’ experience do I insert when I first started to learn JavaScript at age 16 to the age I am today? Do I insert the actual amount of time I have spent throughout my life coding JavaScript and somehow come up with an estimate? Do I insert just the years of work experience I have doing JavaScript? Do I insert the years I have doing official academic experience and work experience doing JavaScript? Thankfully, there isn't a section in the skill list where I can explain I haven't done any JavaScript for the past six years, because cheap corporations like the one here who use a robot to hire people have long since outsourced such work to India. See what I mean? This truly is an inaccurate way to measure people's abilities, yet every single major chartered bank in Canada utilizes this silly software. I wouldn't be surprised to learn if such software fails to match any of the candidates for the position. Employers will then subsequently yell "skills shortage," followed by a quick visit to the government office begging for help!

Employers who are unwilling to spend money on training are another matter. The cumbersome situation gets much more complicated as the many individual actors acting in exactly the same way have inadvertently made the entire economy as a whole less efficient. Because employers want someone who is a drop-in fit, they don't want someone straight from college who has knowledge of theory but no actual work experience. Therefore most employers want someone who has "3-5 years" work experience in the field. Often the position is a narrowly defined field (maybe not just a profession but a particular specialist subset of that profession), so anyone who does meet those requirements is expensive to hire as everyone is looking for that same narrow range of experience. While that perfect employee is being searched for the position remains open. Often, the position remains open for so long that actually hiring someone without prior experience and training them would have taken less time than waiting for the perfect employee with prior experience.

When the position is left vacant for a long period of time, it's not uncommon for future positions to get even more ludicrous in terms of expectations. What often happens is an elite employee is asked to fill in the gap by doing two jobs at once. This employee finds themselves in an awkward position of doing their own specialist subset job, along with another that may be completely unrelated. Perhaps they are even jumping between departments. This said employee then gets burned out and quits, putting further stress on everyone else. To make matters worse, our management team still hasn't clued in, and now they list the job description of what the former employee did that was completely developed in house due to circumstance. To add further screening to the mix, let's add "need Bachelor's degree" as a requirement, because we can't actually define the type of Bachelor's degree needed because our former worker was actually working simultaneously two unrelated professions. From the outside looking in, our perspective job seeker is left scratching their head. So you want me to be a secretary and computer programmer at the same time along with an undefined Bachelor's degree? The process only serves to repeat itself - we have a death spiral in expectations that's difficult to break.

The irony is that the only way these companies can get their dream candidate is to poach from one and another. The unemployed remain unemployed, after all, how can an unemployed person perfectly match these algorithms? They can't. . . The situation has become so bad that now employers are simply asking that people who are unemployed to not even bother applying.

A lot of employers ascertain that education is the problem. They claim that colleges are turning out graduates who don't know enough and are therefore unemployable. I for one don't buy this pathetic argument. For the past decade when employers list the qualities in employees they are most concerned about, it's "soft skills" such as the ability to work with others, punctuality, accountability, problem-solving skills and work ethic. None of the following are taught in college, nor should colleges be expected to teach such matters. College is where people go to get technical training in a field. The students shouldn't be belittled by being under a constant barrage of psychiatric evaluations in a bizarre attempt to figure out what exactly these abstract terms mean. No offense, but such whining about young people has been documented since the time of Socrates. What employers are truly saying when they throw around these impossible to define buzzwords is "I don't like how young people look and act different than me." It's a culture war that has nothing to do with academia. It's discrimination - and it's garbage.

Last but not least, the wages are completely out of alignment with the job descriptions. I just came across an advertisement in my local paper where the job involved possibly moving to a hostile area half way across the world for $35,000 a year. Of course they sold the job as if you were taking a vacation! I'm sure this company will play the same all too familiar musical whiny choirs how they can't find skilled people to fill their positions!

For those who are wondering, I have a job, I can't help but to feel for the people searching for work in this spaghetti economy. If you're an experienced worker already in your given organization, try a fun little exercise. Apply to one of your company's entry level positions with your current resume and see if the software passes you. You may be amused with the results, let's just say my friend gave it an honest attempt, and the software failed him despite working in that position already within the company for six years.

-Donovan D. Westhaver


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