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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Why I don't want to hear Democrats talking about a "skills gap"
Posted by Jill | 8:53 AM
It almost seems like part of a grand plan to keep future generations from the middle class, doesn't it? Claim that there's a massive skills gap that requires more education, then watch people pay through the noses to send themselves and their children to college, taking on massive debt in the process. Make those educational loans impossible to pay off, and you have an entire class of deadbeats with lousy credit ratings who have to take whatever shit you want to shovel out.

As the spouse of a truly crackerjack network support guy who is now in the "struggling to get even contract work" stage of his career, I've seen the laundry list of qualifications that companies put out first-hand. And as someone who was laid off in 2008 at the age of 53 and spent some time looking at ads for web developers, I've also seen it. Mr. Brilliant routinesly sees ads with laundry lists of over twenty "mandatory" qualifications, most of them completely unrelated. An ad might ask for someone with experience as a network administrator, desktop support specialist (ok so far), C# programmer (uh-oh), with experience with AJAX, Ruby on Rails, and ten years of experience with Drupal (which would mean you'd have to have started with Drupal at its inception). And oh yes, you also have to have experience in Web design, which means you also need to be a commercial artist with Photoshop, InDesign, and FinalCut Pro.

The person with these qualifications does not exist, but that doesn't stop HR departments from adhering to the If We Just Look Long Enough We'll Find This Perfect Person doctrine.

Peter Capelli, a Wharton School of Business professor, explains:
Employers are not looking to hire entry-level applicants right out of school. They want experienced candidates who can contribute immediately with no training or start-up time. That’s certainly understandable, but the only people who can do that are those who have done virtually the same job before, and that often requires a skill set that, in a rapidly changing world, may die out soon after it is perfected.

One of my favorite examples of the absurdity of this requirement was a job advertisement for a cotton candy machine operator – not a high-skill job – which required that applicants “demonstrate prior success in operating cotton candy machines.” The most perverse manifestation of this approach is the many employers who now refuse to take applicants from unemployed candidates, the rationale being that their skills must be getting rusty.

Another way to describe the above situation is that employers don’t want to provide any training for new hires — or even any time for candidates to get up to speed. A 2011 Accenture survey found that only 21% of U.S. employees had received any employer-provided formal training in the past five years. Does it make sense to keep vacancies unfilled for months to avoid having to give new hires with less-than-perfect skills time to get up to speed?

Employers further complicated the hiring process by piling on more and more job requirements, expecting that in a down market a perfect candidate will turn up if they just keep looking. One job seeker I interviewed in my own research described her experience trying to land “one post that has gone unfilled for nearly a year, asking the candidate to not only be the human resources expert but the marketing, publishing, project manager, accounting and finance expert. When I asked the employer if it was difficult to fill the position, the response was ‘yes but we want the right fit.’”

Another factor that contributes to the perception of a skills gap is that most employers now use software to handle job applications, adding rigidity to the process that screens out all but the theoretically perfect candidate. Most systems, for example, now ask potential applicants what wage they are seeking — and toss out those who put down a figure higher than the employer wants. That’s hardly a skill problem. Meanwhile, applicants are typically assessed almost entirely on prior experience and credentials, and a failure to meet any one of the requirements leads to elimination. One manager told me that in his company 25,000 applicants had applied for a standard engineering job, yet none were rated as qualified. How could that be? Just put in enough of these yes/no requirements and it becomes mathematically unlikely that anyone will get through.

Want to know how I got my current job after being laid off? One of my colleagues, who wasn't laid off, had a friend who worked for my current employer. She asked this person to look at the internal job board and see if there was anything there. The friend sent a job description, and I decided to apply.

I had to apply to one of the online job application systems that most employers use these days. I was completely unable to get my information into this system, which would not accept my salary as a valid entry. After about a half-dozen tries and near tears with frustration, I sent my resume to my colleague's friend, who got it to the hiring manager. The position I was applying for was already filled, but there was another for which the hiring manager wanted me to apply -- using that same online job application system.

Somehow I managed to get the application through, and I got the interview.

I remember two things about this interview: the number of times I answered "No....Nope...No, we had a guy who did that...No.....No, we didn't do that", and when I answered the global head of the group's question about where I wanted to be in five years "Still alive, still healthy, and still employed" -- since I'd figured out by this point that the whole enterprise was a waste of my time.

As it turned out, the group that I was applying to was being built almost from scratch, and to this day I believe that my main qualifications, despite what was on the jub description, was possessing a brain and a pulse.

This was August 2008 -- a month before the economy went through the crapper.

I visualize my experience sort of like those scenes you always see in Titanic documentaries of the engine room guy who gets out of the flooding watertight compartment just as the door is closing. But get out I did.

Of course once I started, I was pretty much on my own, and when I look back at the steep learning curve I had, I'm amazed that I made it at all, never mind scoring a promotion and some pretty nice raises over the next three years. But there's one indisputable fact: The reason I got this job was because I was able to bypass the automatic resume-rejecting submission services that companies use. The reason I was considered for this job was my employer's commitment to training. My own initiative is only responsible for me having done well at this job. Everything else was because I knew someone who knew someone.

There is no skills gap in this country. There is no shortage of people who are willing to learn and willing to work hard. There is, however, a prevailing attitude among those in a position to hire people that investing in people is a waste of money. There's a perception that there's no reward in investing in people. And that is why there's this constant race to the bottom, to ever-lower-wage-paying countries. There's no amount of education an individual can go into debt for that will change that.

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7 Comments:
Anonymous The Wifely Person said...
When I needed to jump ship at my last job, I happened to see a sign for my present company that said, "Open House." I went in, applied, got an interview and then managed to be offered a job even with my Sabbath and holy day observances. They put me through 6 weeks of crash travel school (no pun intended) and 12 years later, I'm still there, having been through several departments and now back to being just a front line agent and loving it. I turn off the computer and go home at night, not worrying about a thing. It's great.

However, we have many open reqs we can't fill. We can't find qualified agents despite a decent wage and very good benefits. Why? Don't get me started. Our HR people interview damn near anything that has any travel related experience, but still can't fill the jobs. Maybe it's time to go back to the open house theory because out of the 17 who finished in my class, 7 of us are still with the company a dozen years later.

Blogger Carol Ann said...
Since I've been with my current employer for 26 years, I don't how their online application process works, but if it's like the rest of HR, it sucks in a major way. Even 25 years ago, the best way to get a job at my university was to interview with the professor who had the opening, *then* fill out an application so he or she could then ask to see it.

The problem is that HR personnel don't understand the jobs they're trying to fill. They don't know that if you have experience using a particular instrument, you will easily be able to master a different but related instrument, or if have experience with one assay, you can certainly do another. Those things might not be true of janitorial staff (to its credit, my institution has in its employ some mentally disabled housekeepers, and it seems to do a good job supporting them) but it sure is true of people directly involved in biomedical research. So, yes, sometimes the problem is the employer itself, and sometimes it's simply the staggering incompetence of their HR department.

Blogger Bustednuckles said...
It's like the old saying, it's who you know.

For over thirty years, damn near every job I have ever had came through word of mouth from either friends or relatives.
I do not even have a resume.
My current job is no exception.

I do agree no employers these days want to even consider training anyone, it has all been on the job learning at this one with zero formal training.
I have also seen the outrageous expectations they want someone to fulfill, doing several unrelated tasks for the low wages that used to be compensation for one.

I feel pretty lucky I even have a job at fifty two and even having been there for eight months now, I still am technically employed by the placement agency, despite past assurances that I will soon be hired on where I actually work.
Yet another sign of the new paradigm of trying to find a permanent position.

Anonymous chrisinphx said...
Been reading your site for a few months, this is my first comment.
I'm in HR and it isn't any better! I totally agree with you regarding the resume software, it's all about the all mighty dollar. Automate what you can to save a few bucks. Looking at the resumes that arrive at most companies used to be a full time job on its own. Everyone wants to automate as much as they can to decrease head count. My company is very fortuane that that the economy hasnt hurt us at all, yet despite the major profits the only people seeing it are the ones with the corner offices. The employees don't matter anymore, there is no loyalty left anywhere.

Blogger BadTux said...
I'm one of those folks who actually got a job offer from a major Fortune 500 company. But, get this, the job offer came *before* I actually signed into HR's web site and filled out all the application work for the req. I got called by this middle manager, came in, did a couple of rounds of interviews, and got a job offer all before HR even knew I *existed*.

The process has become so deranged that frustrated middle managers have resorted to hiring their own private headhunters to go out and rustle the bushes looking for good people, at which point HR becomes involved only to rubber stamp things. What that means is that the traditional way you got a job -- respond to an ad (either online or in a physical paper) with a cover letter and resume -- is worthless now. You can apply to Big Company via their web site, but all that'll happen is that your resume will be round-filed. The way to get a job today is to post to an industry-specific jobs site (and to the Internet in general perhaps via a blog), network via a setup like LinkedIn, participate in industry events and spread your business card all around (yes, business cards still exist, though now mostly to tell folks your web site and email address!) etc., because corporate HR has become a non-option. Yet every job-seeking publication on the planet still says go thru HR. Inexplicable.

- Badtux the Employed Penguin

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Jill-

This is just one more aspect of the race to the bottom. The point is to build a large pool of highly-skilled people who are under- or un-employed, so that the employed live in fear of losing their jobs to the many qualified candidates out there, to put strong downward pressure on wages and expectations.

Most "work" in America is unnecessary - paper pushing, PR disseminating, useless product promoting. The necessary work of producing food, maintaining order and public safety, creating and maintaining housing, energy, transportation, is done by a small proportion of the population.

We have graduated - thanks to technology - into that future of the past when people "don't have to work" anymore because all the necessities are supplied by robots and a small cadre of folks who control them and keep them in repair.

But that future is too egalitarian, and leaves the mass of people with too much time to study, to think for themselves, to plan a better world. The Fascist powers can't allow that. They create crisis after crisis (or, as you note above, spectacle after spectacle) to distract people from what is right in front of them and maintain an artificial hierarchy in which they increasingly control everything.

The Student Debt scheme is the new "indentured servitude," as the "housing bubble' was a way to separate the rubes from their assets and make them more compliant and desperate for State support (and control!).

The Stock Market Churn, which makes "financiers" rich while doing nothing for the economy or the mass of people - in fact, tends to damage small investors, who are the "marks" in this game where the house always wins and the occasional winner is often a shill - while the consistent winners are those who have rigged the game in their own favor.

The Banana Republicans are intent on turning our country into Colombia or pre-Fidel Cuba. The puppet show of the War On Drugs™ - actually a War on Blacks, Hispanics and The Poor - has turned the country into a militarized prison state to prepare the way for further oppression to come.

I know I sound like a wild-eyed militia-man - but I'm not. I'm a patriotic middle-class American looking at the handwriting on the wall with a growing sense of horror.

(I'm posting this in two parts, as it apparently exceeds site-allowed limits. Part II is below)

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Jill -

Part II:

We finally elected our first black President, a man who had known poverty and discrimination, and what have we gotten? A toady for Wall Street and the moneyed special interests who doesn't stand up to the anti-democratic initiatives of the Republicans not because he hasn't got the backbone or because he's somehow "powerless," but because he wants the same things they want - more money and more power for himself and his rich friends.

The whole economic system is dysfunctional, from the administrative practices, where the "leaders" who brought the big banks to ruin still have their jobs and 7-figure salaries, to hiring, where talented recent college graduates battle displaced experienced skilled workers to beg for jobs at little above minimum wage.

If there is a way out, it has to be with a new grass-roots political organization, but at the moment the mass of the population is so stupified (in the most literal sense) by the media circus, so lulled into complacency on the one hand and so frightened on the other that they are being driven like sheep.

The Occupy Movement - or whatever may grow out of it - holds the most hope, but most people are so bamboozled that they are terrified of demanding change, equality and democracy. Just artificially deflate the artificially inflated price of gas by 10% and they are suddenly convinced that "everythings getting better!"


The message you send - and I send - "WTFU, America!" needs to keep being sent, but history argues that until the moment is right - whenever that may be - the message will not be heard.

Sadly, human history is mostly a record of cataclysms brought about by desperation. Hopefully some day we'll get by that. The current squeeze may be our opportunity to find an alternative way of evloving, and I hope we will seize it, but I'm not holding my breath, if you know what I mean...

Ned Depew