The “Skills” Gap Is Actually The “Employers Too Picky” Gap

Knowledge @ Wharton: You also say part of the problem is that companies aren’t paying market wages. They’re trying to low-ball the job market. But why should they pay market wages when they can get employees cheaply?
Cappelli: Well, the thing is they can’t—that’s what they’re claiming, right? There’s a survey done by Manpower that asks employers if they’re having trouble finding people to hire. In that survey, about 11 percent say the problem they’re having is they can’t get people to accept the jobs at the wages they’re paying. So 11 percent are saying we’re not paying enough. If 11 percent admit this, my guess is the real number is probably double that. We’re not very good at identifying problems that we create ourselves. That’s certainly part of it. You know, maybe you can’t blame them for trying. But if they’re not finding [employees], don’t call it a skills gap; don’t call it a skills mismatch—you’re just being cheap.

Peter Cappelli is the author of Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs, and he argues that the reason we keep reading about companies being unable to fill open positions isn’t because of terrible applicants, unskilled and wrong-skilled, but because companies are pretty terrible at hiring. One point in particular he refutes: That the jobs-applying workforce has a skills-mismatch with jobs openings. I find this heartening. Annoying, obviously, but heartening. The applicants are alright.

He blames this pervasiveness of the myth in part on anecdotal news features about the jobs situation:

“Employers, when they say they’ve got a skills gap, that there are no applicants out there who meet their needs, they are self-diagnosing the situation. What’s really happening is they’re just not able to hire, but you don’t know why that is, right? And the skills-gap story is their diagnosis. It’s basically saying there’s nobody out there, when in fact, it turns out it’s typically the case that employers’ requirements are crazy; they’re not paying enough, or their applicant screening is so rigid that nobody gets through.”

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21 Comments / Post A Comment

RocketSurgeon (#747)

My dude had a brush with this sort of thing. Last year, he applied to work in the finance side at the “What’s in your wallet?” credit card/banking company. They called him a couple days later to do a phone screening, and then they set up another phone interview with the hiring manager. They liked his resume, and he really did have a well-matched skill set.

But before they’d actually interview him, he had to take an online, timed reading comprehension and math assessment and pass with a certain score. The test was basically a condensed SAT, with maybe 6 multi-paragraph essays with 5 sets of comprehension questions and 35 math problems. Each had to be finished inside of like, 20 minutes, and the questions were tough. He prepped for a week with the sample questions, particularly for the essays, because they were difficult and English isn’t his first language. He has a PhD in Math and did well on the Math practice tests, so he wasn’t worried.

A couple days before the phone interview was scheduled, he sat down to take the tests. He ran out of time and didn’t finish the last ~5 questions of each, and missed a couple in addition. The next morning, a lady from HR called to cancel his interview because he didn’t meet the 85% or higher score required. They invited him to study – which no doubt was meant to include paying for an online “prep course” offered by another company (I’m sure there’s a kickback in there somewhere)- and to reapply in at least 6 months.

It was demoralizing for him to be so suited for a job but to have to go through that much work just to gain access to a phone interview, only to have it yanked away because he didn’t make the grade on a test designed to be difficult. I’m just glad he actually has a decent job and was applying for a change of pace rather than out of necessity, because otherwise it would have stung a lot more.

ThatJenn (#916)

@RocketSurgeon Ugh, pre-job testing makes me sad. One of my previous employers used a lot of pre-employment testing on a Windows 2000 machine (it had been upgraded from 3.1 in late 2009!). Prior to having computerized versions of the tests, they used to string people along for months with take-home tests.

I wish that I could (a) have them talk to all or several of my previous supervisors (or present recommendation letters from them) and/or (b) do a real sample task for them to show them what I can do (though I’m aware this can be a problematic hiring method, as there’s some incentive to never hire and have unpaid labor do all your work), because interviews and pre-hiring standardized tests are so bunk.

Meanwhile, a friend was just rejected from her dream job because she’d pared down a super-long resume to something more manageable, and cut three years of experience that she was never told the hiring manager was looking for. They hired someone with six months of experience in that area because that person had included it on their resume. The possibility of missing buzzwords or getting the emphasis wrong in your application materials is a scary thing!

Darkest_of_Dawn (#1,176)

@RocketSurgeon That sounds horrible! I don’t think I would ever have the galls to take that kind of a test for a job.

@ThatJenn What I hate is temp places that make you test on Word/Excel/Access in ancient versions, and you have to do things exactly their way or you lose points.

Like, I don’t remember where the fucking mail merge menu item was on Word 98, because I haven’t used it in over 10 years!

Then I murder the typing test and they try to give me data entry jobs.

RocketSurgeon (#747)

@ThatJenn That reminds me of my biggest interview flame-out. It was one of my first post-grad school interviews, for a junior-level job at a local government health office in London (where I did my grad degree). Not exactly a high-stakes, corporate position. They brought me in, put me in a room alone with a computer, told me I’d have one hour to write Excel macros to analyze data and prepare a presentation to give to the interview committee. I am actually a data analyst, but I’d never bother using Excel macros for the stuff they asked me to do- I hadn’t even learned much about them. There are better, more powerful programs and they clearly didn’t use them. So I didn’t know exactly what they wanted, cried about it alone in the computer room, only wrote a couple slides, and then had to go in front of the committee totally unprepared. They could have been merciful and just cut the interview short when it was clear I hadn’t done whatever they’d expected me to do, but no. All 4 of them grilled me for an hour. I nearly walked out.

In a way, I’m glad I had such an awful interview at age 23, because I feel like I’ll never do that poorly again. Now that I’m older and have more experience, I realize what a bad hiring process it really was.

lalaland (#437)

@stuffisthings I just experienced that! It was so weird – I just did it to see what it would be like, but I’m not sure I’d want to work for an employer who goes by that…

AnnieNilsson (#406)

@RocketSurgeon I can’t believe you went through that. Horrific.

I had buried all the interview testing anxiety from last year when my dude was on the market. For the job he ended up with, which is basically an administrative assistant in the music department of a community college, at the initial written test (there was later an oral test, then later a formal interview) there were 117 people, some of them with PhDs, taking this hundred question test where they had to do things like explain obscure musical nuance from the 16th-19th centuries, sight read, transcribe audio phrases, identify composers etc, but also prove they could balance books and make a schedule and supervise workers, and also catalogue a collection, use pro-tools etc etc. It was beyond overkill. Several people did walk out. Now that he has the job? He sits, he answers phones, he makes coffee, he placates disgruntled professors.

I mean, that’s a bit glib of me, and I don’t mean to disparage what he does, but in no way did it match the hiring process. They wanted some superman who could do all things related to music and admin. They got him, but it’s hard not to feel like the skills they hired him for are being sort of wasted :/

And, if that’s what it takes to get a level one admin job, what on earth do they look for higher up the chain?

Totally this. “Why can’t I find anyone with 15 years of experience who speaks nine languages for my $40,000 a year position?”

@stuffisthings Seriously. I work in DC, so it becomes even more extreme, to the point where employers are arguing that really, these obscenely overqualified and self-motivated people ought to be paying THEM for the privilege of an unpaid internship. The number of jobs that get downgraded to marginally-legal “internships” around here makes me see red. Your nonprofit status does not actually mean that you never need to spend money on your workforce.

A former colleague’s favorite mantra was “you gotta spend money to make money!” I think she was onto something.

@stuffisthings @bowtiesarecool Yessssss. I work in international development, so obviously I didn’t choose this career path for the big bucks. However, when I went through about 8+ months of job seeking, I grew increasingly frustrated with the OBVIOUS mismatch in what companies SAID they needed (Multiple languages! Field experience!) vs. what they ACTUALLY needed for the job (Ability to enter data into a database and also take notes.)

Eventually my friends and I made up a Mad Libs to make the process more entertaining and less soul-crushing: “Must speak [European language], [Middle Eastern Language], [African Language], and have experience translating [Yet another language]. Applicants must also have [number greater than 10] years experience in [noun] management overseas, preferably overseeing [type of minority] [type of health] programs in [language]-speaking [very specific region in the developing world]. Must be excellent at [type of data] entry, type [number] words/minute, and have experience organizing [type of mundane office activity]. Salary: $[number less than 30] thousand a year. [Type of benefit] not included.”

@dj pomegranate Ha! I work in the same field and did exactly the same thing.

Megano! (#124)

@stuffisthings I just applied for an internship (INTERNSHIP) that wanted 1-2 years of experience! And there are a lot of marketing jobs out there that want more than 5 years experience with social media, when a lot of it hasn’t even really been around that long!

@Megano! I’m tempted to put “10 years of experience with Facebook, YouTube” on my resume, just to see if anyone notices.

@dj pomegranate Incidentally: a lot of the time — but not always — when you see weirdly super-specific job postings, it’s because they have a specific candidate in mind but they are required to advertise the job publicly. This is really common with USAID and government contractors generally (so I hear.)

lalaland (#437)

@stuffisthings It is pretty common everywhere, it seems. We are required to at least post jobs internally for compliance purposes – except by the time we post, the managers have already decided on someone, the post is just for show.

julebsorry (#1,572)

It’s completely true. Personal example: my husband is a software engineer with a social media emphasis. So, his skills should be really in demand, right? And when job-hunting,recruiters called him daily with urgent job openings.

However, once he agreed to an interview, the madness began. Every single company required an initial phone interview, then an in-person interview, then a code test (often long, complex, and time-consuming), then an in-person code test where he’d be dinged for things like not using the same jargon that the interviewer used (but described the same concepts), and then, often, two or three more in-person interviews. And after all of that, he had at least 6 or 7 companies pass. It honestly seemed like they were trying to talk themselves out of hiring, or were holding out for some sort of unicorn candidate – after all, my husband met all the job requirements and got along with the company culture, so what was the problem?

My favorite example was my conservative uncle, who works for a tech company, bitching over Xmas how American employees are “lazy” and refuse to learn technical skills. He claimed his company NEEDED to hire H-1B workers, because they’d been trying to hire for several positions and found zero hire-able candidates in the US. So, my husband applied for one of his jobs, for which he was totally qualified, and even received a personal recommendation from my uncle. The HR department just plain never called him! We couldn’t believe it – a qualified applicant approached the company himself, offering to work there, and the company couldn’t even get it together to contact him for an interview.

Now, every time I hear phrases like “skills mismatch”, I roll my eyes – I think a MUCH bigger problem is timid, incompetent hiring managers.

lalaland (#437)

@julebsorry Yes, it really does seem like companies are holding out for the unicorn candidate – especially so when you look at job postings from months ago that they still haven’t filled. Clearly, those are never going to be filled.

All the jobs offers I have gotten, I heard back either the same day or the next day. The ones I haven’t…well, they’re probably still looking for that unicorn.

lalaland (#437)

I am fortunate to have a job right now, but I’ve been looking and it is bonkers.

My first interview a few months ago – they told me they loved me, wanted to hire me….BUT…apparently they interviewed without the requisition to hire. So after waiting 2 MONTHS, they told me that they ultimately did not get approval to hire, so sorry, keep in touch. What??

I just had another promising round of interviews with another company – everyone got back to me and said they’d get back this week, interview was great, etc.! And I followed up yesterday and it was, “we’ll get back to you in a week.” As you can tell, I’m still stinging.

And this is in finance on the private side, where companies actually have money, so I can only imagine how much worse it is for the government/public jobs.

kellyography (#250)

@lalaland I worked at a company like the one in your first interview. They are super poorly managed from overseas, and definitely just started interviewing people without HQ approval during my tenure there. I just can’t imagine managing a company that way.

Then you have your “oh the economy is so bad” interviews where either they want to hire you but can’t pay you even half of your current salary, or they interview you, love you, and then can’t hire you because of a company-wide hiring freeze.

ghechr (#596)

Yeah I think the skills gap is a crock, too. When we hire staff at my office (the only hiring decisions that I’m privy to), we would like to see legal experience but mostly we just need someone who we think is capable/curious enough to want to learn how to do it. It’s hard because it’s difficult to tell if someone’s a hard worker just on the basis of a resume and interview.

ImASadGiraffe (#982)

Just did an interview for a position with a BIG firm (think accounting, Big 4) who loved me during interview, said I had all the right skills, blah blah, then offered me $10k less than my current salary. And I’m in the public sector right now. I can’t believe anyone would work for what they offered, given the job description and duties required.

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