Employers Need to Stop Whining About the Skills Gap

Oh, spare me! Every day someone sends me an article talking about how employers are wringing their hands because can't find employees with the skills they need. Let's take a look at that little word at the end of the last sentence: need. Do employers really need all the skills they ask for in job applicants? Employers say "I want someone with twenty years of SEO experience," and because no one applies for the job, they see a mission-threatening skills gap. That's complete baloney.

Not that long ago, we expected to train our new recruits on the job. We didn't think there was anything strange about hiring a kid right out of high school or college (or hiring someone with experience in another field) and training that person on our processes and our business. We grew our own talent from seed crop, you might say. Nowadays, employers shudder at the idea that a person might need more than the barest amount of training before getting up and running on the job. Here's an example.

I spoke at an event for tech startup CEOs, and a guy in the audience asked "Where are all the Ruby on Rails developers?" "They are all over," I said, "but there are not enough of them. You can train your own developers. You can hire people who program in other languages, or you can train people to program in general. Tech companies have been doing that for decades. How much Ruby experience do you need?"

"We need someone with six months of experience," said the guy. "How long have you had the job open?" I asked. "Ten months," he told me. Get the picture? If the guy would have stepped up and hired someone to start training ten months ago, he wouldn't have a problem now. That person could have learned how to code on the job while helping with other things in the meantime. American business has worked this way for decades.

Many of the people my age who are now complaining about Skills Gaps started their careers as entry-level trainees without a jot of experience in anything beyond babysitting or mowing lawns. Employers don't want to pay for that training now. It doesn't feel like a good investment to them. That's okay - they can pat themselves on the back for their frugality while their competitors get products out the door faster and steal their customers.

Costs that employers create without incurring are called externalities, and training of employees is a perfect example. If people show up ready to work almost independently, the company saves money. But hey - somebody trained that employee, at some point. That's a cost the employee's current company didn't bear. If no one's willing to pay to train the workforce, the whole talent farm fails. Can't a forward-looking CEO see that in order to grow or sustain a business over the long haul, you have to invest in your fledgling talent as much as in R & D or operational improvement?

I understand that laid-off autoworkers need re-training in PC repair and medical billing and coding and so on. There are legitimate and significant training needs across big swaths of the population. But most of what employers call the Skills Gap is in my view a fraud, and an insult to working people when so many smart and capable folks are out of work. Employers could train people to do those jobs. They just don't think they should have to.

I'm talking about people with 20 or 25 years of experience, who've led teams and run factories and accomplished tremendous things in other functions and industries. I talk to these folks every day, and they are ready to work. There are jobs open at every large employer in the country, and the job requirements are laughably absurd. "Must possess expert user knowledge of [our own company's proprietary software]" reads a typical ad. Are you SERIOUS? Everyone who has that experience already worked for you at one time or another. And you don't have their contact info? You have to reach them through Monster.com? Companies run so badly don't deserve to have smart people apply to work for them.

Have you read a job ad lately? Employers pad those things with twelve or fifteen wish-list items that represent nothing more than presumption and sloth. WHY does this Senior Marketing Analyst job require fifteen years of marketing experience? Aren't you, wise VP of Marketing, sharp enough to to train a person with fewer years of formal experience (or none) how to do the job?

When I was a corporate HR VP, managers used to bring me delusional job specs all the time. "Oh my darling," I would say, "we can talk about this job opening and the imaginary superhero applicant you've created in your mind, but you have to pull the needle out of your arm first." A manager who had walked into the company a year before with exactly no data communications experience would fill up a job spec with twenty must-have requirements, all ultra-specific buzzwords and acronyms.

"I don't understand," I'd say. "You came in here a year ago with none of this stuff, but now you've listed all these obscure certifications as essential job requirements. How did you do the job yourself, without them?"

"I'm really smart," would be the reply. "Oh, okay," I learned to say, "so you want me to find someone with all these bullets points on his resume, who isn't smart?"

Managers want job applicants to be able to fly and see through walls. Managers want what they want, but as my husband's friends used to say on the southwest side of Chicago, "People in Hell want ice water." HR people are right in the middle of this issue, because they can educate hiring managers about what 'essential job requirements' really are. In fact, if they care about talent and about telling the truth to delusional people, they have no choice but to hold the line on goofy job specifications.

We can teach the amazing people who are job-hunting across the country to do what we need them to do in our shops. Any talent gap we perceive is of our own making, and we are more than smart enough to solve it. We can do it, but we have to be willing to give up the wheeze "It's so hard to find good help" to get there.