If you consistently struggle to find the right candidates for your company’s open positions, it could be because you’re looking for candidates who are so perfectly qualified and so perfectly experienced that they don’t actually exist. Like a “purple squirrel.”
Managing Director of University Ventures and author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College Ryan Craig recently addressed this topic in an article on Forbes.com. He’s an insightful commentator on the intersection between education, hiring, innovation, and technology. And in his latest piece, he’s hit on a big obstacle to hiring. Employers who are looking for purple squirrels by demanding too much from job seekers.
Overstuffed Job Descriptions
Over the past decade or two, job postings have begun to burst at the seams with the number of required skills, experience, and qualifications. Craig explains the problem succinctly: “Incorporating every conceivable qualification in job descriptions helps explain nearly 7 million unfilled jobs while tens of millions of talented and motivated workers—particularly new and recent graduates—struggle with underemployment.”
One recent study found that 61% of full-time, entry-level job postings required 3+ years of experience. That same study calculated that the rate of required-experience inflation is rising by 2.8% every year. Extrapolate that over a few years, and you can see how job descriptions have become bloated and unwieldy.
Why Are Job Descriptions So Crammed?
- The Influence of the Great Recession. A recent study showed that, during the Great Recession of 2007 – 2009, job postings saw an 18% increase in education requirements and a 25% in experience requirements. Why? Because unemployment rose and employers could afford to be demanding. But even after unemployment rates fell, employers kept cramming more stuff into their job postings. Another outcome: more and more jobs now require a college degree, even if they didn’t only a few years ago.
- The Rise of Digital Job Postings. Online postings, for those with the resources, can be easy to manage. Which means employers can post novel-length job descriptions and keep them open for months while they wait (in vain) for the perfect candidates. However, most hiring managers don’t know how to effectively use job-posting sites, and don’t get us started on the AI and algorithms that can be discriminatory and/or auto-pass qualified candidates who aren’t using enough “key words.”
- Lack of Ability to Measure Key Skills. Increasingly, employers are realizing that so-called “soft skills” really are essential skills—the kind of abilities that apply in any job. But they’re notoriously hard to measure. So the college degree has become a stand-in for those skills.
- The Disappearance of Corporate Training. Over the past few decades, American corporations have undertaken a relentless effort to cut costs. One of the things on the chopping block? Training programs. A survey from a few years ago found that while 80% of entry-level hires expected their new employer to offer formal training, less than half of those companies did so.
- Employer Inexperience. Particularly at small or midsized companies, the HR department (if there is one at all) may be staffed by people who don’t have much experience writing job descriptions. Even at large companies with robust HR functions, they may struggle to understand the technical and “soft” skills that are required for every role. When they don’t know what skills to feature, they throw them all in.
- Employer Fears and Pressures. Many employers worry that if they don’t cast a wide net, they’ll never land the right candidate. So they include every possible skill. Others fall victim to groupthink – they get in a room with coworkers, dream up an impossible wish list, and then convince themselves the job requires every last skill. Others sink money into recruiting fees or other hiring costs and then figure that—to get their money’s worth—they’d better get absolutely everything from their candidate. And still others forget that their current best performers had to learn things on the job and weren’t perfect candidates when they were hired.
Unfortunately, this is a big issue that impacts both sides of the hiring equation.
On the Employer Side…
- Jobs are Harder to Fill. This is an obvious one. When you stuff your job postings with every possible requirement, you’re fishing in a much smaller pond.
- Companies Pay More for Talent. A recent study by the Harvard Business School found that for many middle-skill jobs, there is no significant performance difference between workers who have college degrees and those who don’t. But degree holders can command a higher wage – so by demanding college degrees, even for roles where they’re not necessary, employers are forcing themselves to pay more. Similarly, by demanding ever higher amounts of skills—skills that fetch a higher wage—employers are costing themselves unnecessarily.
- Higher Turnover. In that same Harvard study, researchers found that college graduates are more likely to leave a role where a degree isn’t really necessary.
On the Worker Side…
- Getting Screened Out. Thousands of employers use software to screen job applications, looking for specific skills. And because the skills in job descriptions are inflated, there is a huge talent pool that is invisible to employers.
- Pressure to Earn Expensive Credentials. As employer demands rise, workers feel they have no choice but to earn college degrees or obtain other pricey credentials and certifications—often taking on huge debts in the process.
- A 2018 study found that 43% of new college grads were underemployed in their first job—earning an average of $10,000 less than grads who find employment appropriate for their qualifications. And this wage gap compounds year after year—leaving many workers stuck in a rut of lower-paying, lower-prestige jobs.
There’s Gotta Be a Better Way…. Right?
Clearly, employers need help (a) figuring out what their jobs really require, and (b) finding candidates who may not have every skill right now, but who have big potential. In his Forbes article, Ryan Craig advises employers to engage with partners who combine skills training and staffing—training job seekers and placing them in roles on a probationary basis so that employers can “try before they buy.” (Avenica’s model is similar to this).
Ultimately, there won’t be one solution but many. Employers need to rediscover the value of employee training programs. AT&T is already doing this, committing more than $1 billion to retrain workers over the next several years. Employers need to rediscover the potential in their job candidates—hiring for the person, not the resume. And they need to re-examine the way they write job descriptions to focus on the skills and abilities that truly matter.
Through conversation, high-impact coaching, and best-in-class support, we translate and meet the needs of our client partners by identifying and transforming potential into high-performing professionals. At Avenica, we are working from the inside out to embrace diverse thought and perspectives while actively working to dismantle systems of oppression and implicit bias. With a deeply-held belief in human potential, we transform lives and enable organizations to achieve new heights.