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Monthly archive for August 2017

M.I.T. Calls B.S. on Skills Gap

In the August 29, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we call out employers, politicians and analysts who bellyache about the skills gap.

Question

skills gapA few years ago you called out employers for their misguided crying about the talent shortage. (News Flash! HR Causes Talent Shortage!) Now the terminology has changed. Employers reject countless qualified job applicants (example: me) who don’t match 100% of the key words in a job description, bellyaching that we’re imperfect. Are we really just pathetic examples of a national skills gap? How can we fight this, uh, hiring incompetence?

Nick’s Reply

I’m not sure there’s a difference between the talent shortage and the skills gap. The terms are used interchangeably by unskilled personnel jockeys, employers, and untalented government wonks and elected dupes who haven’t had to look for a job recently.

Both these excuses for the national epidemic of hiring failure are bogus, but they’re easy for abused job seekers to swallow. It’s time to barf up the truth.

Wharton’s Peter Cappelli has long been sticking this conventional-wisdom pig with a fork, as noted in the article you mentioned. Now the M.I.T. Technology Review has stuck yet another bunch of facts into this “controversy” in The Myth of the Skills Gap, an article by Andrew Weaver at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Weaver is another voice calling B.S. on the cheap attacks leveled at America’s workforce.

Oh, yeah? Says who?

Just because HR executives blow their recruiting budgets on job boards, applicant tracking systems, and key-word databases doesn’t mean you have to behave stupidly, too. (See Reductionist Recruiting: A short history of why you can’t get hired.) Just because personnel jockeys and job-board marketing geniuses tell you there’s just one way to apply for a job doesn’t mean it’s so. I mean, we’re talking about people who unabashedly admit they can’t fill jobs!

Likewise, prisoners of the labor market who cry themselves to sleep without jobs or paychecks every night shouldn’t believe employers and HR experts. It’s not true that today’s workers don’t have skills worth hiring.

Weaver, who is an assistant professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations, writes that, “when we look closely at the data, this story doesn’t match the facts.” There’s nary a labor study, he points out, that even measures skills! So Weaver set about surveying employers about the skills they need, then asked whether they’re having trouble finding workers.

The skills gap is B.S.

Here are some of the surprises Weaver found.

  • Three-quarters of manufacturing plants surveyed complained they couldn’t hire skilled workers.
    But less than a quarter of them actually had job vacancies of three months or more.
  • IT departments complained of dramatic problems in filling help-desk jobs.
    But only 15% of IT help desks reported “extended vacancies in technician positions.”

So, where’s the lack of skills?

Weaver also found that the kinds of skills we’re told are sorely lacking are not really the problem.

  • Advocates for STEM education clamor for more workers with more “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills.”
    But Weaver’s data “show that employers looking for higher-level computer skills generally do not have a harder time filling job openings.”
  • Those who blame a skills gap also cite a lack of “soft skills” among younger workers — the ability to cooperate and to work on teams.
    But Weaver found the challenge for employers, even in manufacturing and help-desk jobs, is finding higher-level reading and writing skills.

The gap in conventional wisdom

Weaver and his fellow researchers focused their surveys on a narrow group of jobs (manufacturing and IT help-desk), but their findings seem to blow big holes in the conventional wisdom about many kinds of jobs. For example:

  • Top-level federal officials cry the workforce needs more computer programming skills.
    But programming isn’t what many jobs — even technical jobs — really require.
  • Lack of specific skills is the problem.
    But Weaver’s surveys suggest on-the-job experience and apprenticeship is what’s lacking.

Perhaps most stunning is a problem Weaver exposes in the ranks of economists and “labor-market experts” who drive public opinion and corporate hiring strategies: They “don’t know the exact mix or level of skills that particular occupations demand.” So why does anyone accept their declamations about skill gaps?

What’s the real problem?

Employers and labor-market experts, who aren’t even assessing or measuring skills, seem content to go along with the unsubstantiated contentions of “conservative tax cutters” and “liberal advocates of job training” that workers lack skills. That’s distracting everyone from a fact-based approach to managing the labor market and improving it. And it’s polarizing employers and workers.

Andrew Weaver’s findings dovetail with Peter Cappelli’s.

  • The problem isn’t with workers. The problem is employers “promoting unproductive hand-wringing and a blinkered focus on only the supply side of the labor market — that is, the workers.”
  • Employers are not cooperating with those who teach skills to workers; for example, colleges and other training institutions.
  • Employers are not investing adequately in employee training and development. “Only half of U.S. plants provide formal training to their production workers,” reports Weaver. Twenty years ago, 70-80% did.

Weaver closes with a warning:

“Misguided anxiety about skill gaps will lead us to ignore the need to improve coordination between workers and employers. It’s this bad coordination — not low-quality workers — that presents the real challenge.”

So, what should a job seeker do?

I publish only a small selection of questions, stories and complaints I receive from readers. The #1 issue I hear about: Frustration with employers who don’t seem to know what they want, who they need to hire, or what skills they really need in a worker. The fallout is confusing interviews, unexpected and questionable rejections, and enormous amounts of wasted time and energy.

The real skills problem seems to be this: Employers want skills, but they’re not willing to contribute to the skills pool or to pay for the skills they need. Meanwhile, employers pretend the problem is you — the workforce. So what’s a job seeker to do?

It’s not hard to navigate around the piles of b.s. in the jobs market. Let’s consider some strategies and tactics. These are just my thoughts and advice. The best advice is yet to come — so please post it.

Take control of your job search

“Based on your book I went into a job interview without the requisite experience but still won the job because I demonstrated that I understood the business objectives and challenges of the company and had a plan to achieve them! Thanks!”
-Sandeep Srivastava

From Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention, “How can I make up for lack of required experience?”, p. 8.

I think the strategy is easy, if we define the objective for ourselves rather than let the pundits and policy makers confuse us. The objective is finding and landing the right job.

Finding and landing the right job is not about appeasing the jobs processors. It’s about picking good employers and being ready to walk into a manager’s office and demonstrate, hands-down, how you’re going to do a job profitably for the employer and for you.

Such jobs are not in job boards or in key-word lists. Jobs are controlled by individual managers who need profitable work done. Go find the individual managers and get the facts directly. Go around HR. Ignore the recruiters. (See HR Managers: Do your job or get out.) Ask the manager: What’s the work? What’s the deliverable? What skills do you want and need?

Don’t buy the education that schools market. Don’t listen to the headlines or to the Department of Labor. Find out what skills the employer you want to work for needs, then design your own education accordingly. That’s right: Contact companies that make products you want to work on, get in touch with the managers of departments you want to work in, and ask them exactly what skills you should learn. Schools that lack close ties to industry don’t know what industry wants, so don’t trust their curricula — or their marketing!

Pick employers with a solid, documented record of training and developing their employees. Bypass the rest. You’ll save loads of time because researchers have shown that most employers stopped investing in their workers many years ago. Be selective. Invest your career only in companies that can show you they’ll invest in you.

Pick schools that have a documented record of close ties and cooperation with employers. Look for active internship and apprenticeship programs. Bypass schools that can’t demonstrate such relationships. If what you want is a good education and a good job on graduation, don’t compromise on this. Most of the biggest names in higher education fail this test. (See New Grads: How to get in the door without experience.)

Pick schools with great career offices. This will make your choices easy because most schools don’t offer solid career services. Go visit and meet with the counselors. Study their career programs and offerings. Ask for references — grads who are working and employers who hired them. A college that delivers courses in your area of study but fails to deliver education in how to get a job is delivering only half an education — and it will leave you with a fatal skills gap.

Is there a skills gap? How can the gap between capable workers and jobs be bridged? What will it take for employers, schools, and government to get together with the workforce to create a healthy job market? I’ve shared a few tips for job seekers — but the best is yet to come. Please post your suggestions about how to wrangle a job out of an employer whose hiring methods are full of gaps!

(Many thanks to long-time reader Nick Tang for tipping me off to Andrew Weaver’s article!)

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Where’s the college course about getting a job?

In the August 22, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader who works in a college says students need more than academic education. They deserve career education.

Question

Colleges need to do more to teach students how to negotiate, how to dress for success, and other life skills.

I currently work at a community college. To say that the majority of the student body is under-served is putting it mildly. They need a lot of help, much more than we can provide, but we are there to try to help them succeed.

collegeA few years ago, one of the student workers at the library was selected (her name was randomly drawn) to keep the clothes and accessories the Student Success Center and a women’s organization purchased for her as part of a dress-for-success workshop. She also got to have her hair done, and learned how to do her makeup. She was so thrilled and grateful, because she couldn’t afford to go to Kohl’s and spend $350.00 on a few new (professional) outfits for herself.

The problem is that for some jobs (I’m thinking business, not nursing) you have to look like a million bucks even if you can’t afford a designer suit, shoes, and handbag just for the interview. She was 30 and admitted that she didn’t know what was appropriate for interviews and even where to begin. The workshop taught her about interviews, including how to dress for them, and she found the class helpful, as do most of our students.

Do you think part of the purpose of every college is to give people the skills to get better jobs? I think that includes more than academic knowledge and technical skills. Where’s the college course about how to get a job?

Nick’s Reply

New grads are generally very unprepared for the challenge of getting a job. While colleges vie for position in magazines that rank them on the salaries of new graduates, the same schools deliver woefully inadequate career education.

College education

I’m a big believer in education for its own sake. Nothing we learn is ever wasted. The main purpose of a college education is not to get you a job. But I’ve come to believe that there’s no excuse for any college not to prepare every student and graduate for employment.

College just costs too much for most students not to be able to recoup their (or their parents’) investment in education. Colleges have an obligation to address their graduates’ need to work.

The program you’ve described is a great example of how a school adds an important benefit to education. But it also highlights the fact that this young woman essentially won a lottery, because it’s clear not all students at your school get the important benefits she won.

The bigger issue, of course, is why all schools don’t deliver the necessary preparation to all their students.

Bring jobs into every course

My proposal to colleges and universities is this: Dedicate one class meeting in every course a student takes to how the subject matter relates to a profession, a career, and a job. (See Colleges fail How.) Bring in guest speakers to discuss and explore how a course topic applies to their work — or to tell how it has influenced their jobs or careers and how it has contributed to their success.

Sure, many such presentations could be a stretch. How does a course in early American literature play out for a salesperson? How does a financial manager benefit from a course in cognitive psychology?

The challenge is to invite these guests to tell their stories and to draw connections, some of which might be direct (how a course in physics affects an engineer’s job in designing circuits), and some of which might be tenuous (imagine a lawyer talking about how Art History has played into her work.)

The challenge to make these connections is the point. The purpose is to help students see the myriad and often unusual ways a college education contributes to success at work. The ensuing dialogue would give students an enormous head start in understanding the world of work and jobs.

It’s the people, Stupid

There’s another benefit from such guest presentations that I’m shocked colleges have not figured out already — and that students and their parents have not demanded.

If colleges incorporated my suggestion into their curricula, at the end of four years a student who takes the roughly 40 courses to earn 120 semester credits necessary for a degree will have met around 40 people who do 40 different jobs in 40 companies in an enormous number of industries.

It’s of course up to the student to ask these guests questions, to get to know them, to stay in touch with some — and to form mentoring relationships with at least a few.

When the time comes to apply and interview for jobs, every college senior will have a professional network the likes of which is unheard of today. (For more suggestions about how students can start networking effectively, see College Students: Start job search freshman year.)

Make it part of the job of all educators

Would this be such a difficult undertaking for any college? I’ve heard professors argue it’s not their job to relate a course to the world of work, and that they just don’t have the class time to waste on such curriculum content.

Then, whose job is it? (See Your college owes you a job.)

Preparing students for jobs is not a frivolous enterprise for colleges and universities. The ivory-tower cynics in education should consider that the more successful their alumni are and the more they earn, the better they’ll reflect their alma maters, and the more likely they will be to give back. (Where do you think all those guest speakers will come from?)

Being prepared for work and being well-educated go hand in hand.

What are your ideas for colleges to better prepare students for jobs? What incentives (or pressure) would encourage schools to deliver career education that pays off for everyone?

If you’re an educator, do you think my suggestion of an extra class meeting is nuts?

If you’re an employer, what level of readiness for work do you see in new grads? What are your suggestions for colleges?

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Library Vacation beats Internet when job hunting

In the August 15, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wants to know why I say your local library is a better job hunting tool than the Internet.

libraryQuestion

I purchased and read two of your books, How To Work With Headhunters and How Can I Change Careers? You have a great business here. Kudos to you!

I have a question about your coaching regarding “The Library Vacation” in How Can I Change Careers? (pp. 15-22). You advise actually going to libraries to explore job and career possibilities. Given that technology and the Internet have changed significantly since you wrote your book, do you still recommend going to a library versus working on the Internet to explore careers, employers and jobs? Thanks in advance!

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for your kind words and for purchasing my books.

The Library Vacation is a thoughtful, deliberate method for exploring careers, industries, jobs and employers that flies over all the popular, automated, high-speed, mindless Internet surfing that passes for job hunting today.

For those who don’t know anything about The Library Vacation, I’ll quickly summarize. The idea is that changing careers (or employers or jobs) should not be restricted by what job boards, employers and search engines serve up to you. Your field of exploration should be wider and deeper. I think you can get that only at a good library.

We’ll talk more about The Library Vacation in a minute, but first I think it’s important to step back and look at the Internet as a jobs resource from a higher vantage point.

Lose the brainwashing

library

The dumbest way to try and find a job is on Internet job boards. You might as well stick your hand in the ocean and try to catch a fish. Yes, it’s that dumb. The job boards promise one thing: The jobs are all in there. So are all the fish. Good luck.

Having access to all jobs and employers is meaningless.If it worked, you wouldn’t be reading this. Or fretting. Or getting depressed. Or wondering why all those jobs you keep applying for — jobs you’re perfect for! — keep slipping through your fingers like so many molecules of water.

The Internet is a great source of information about careers, employers and jobs. But it’s mere brainwashing and marketing that have trained you to trust it’s the best way to find the right job for you. It’s not — not by a longshot!

In How Can I Change Careers? there’s a section titled “The Library Vacation” where I offer this message:

“[Your job] search has to be self-directed. In other words, you’ll never find what you’re looking for if you let someone else point you toward what they think you’re looking for.” (p. 15)

The Library Vacation

Here’s the simple idea:

“Take at least three days off and spend them at the library. (A week is better.) Go into the periodical stacks. Forget about job hunting or careers. (This is the vacation part.) Read whatever you feel like. At first, you’ll start with magazines like People, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, foreign newspapers and so on. Then you’ll start checking out various specialty and industry-related periodicals. Just read stuff that attracts you… As you follow your gut, you’ll start to see trends in the sorts of industries and product areas you’re reading about. That will tell you something: This might be your path.” (p. 16)

Does that sound retro? Low-tech? Too cumbersome? Too time-consuming? Well, how’s online job hunting doing for you?

Even with all the resources the Net offers, I still advise people to visit a good library for a Library Vacation. There are several reasons.

Wandering in the library is good

Serendipity is a big — and very important — part of exploring careers and jobs. In the library you’ll find industry and professional publications you’d never search for because you don’t know they exist. Those publications will lead you to industries, products, companies and people you’ll never find online because you didn’t search for them. Your wandering eyes will turn up surprises that only your hunches can exploit.

When we’re looking for a career opportunity, wandering is the point! Algorithms limit us. Libraries set us loose.

Most important, unlike that ocean of job postings, the library will reveal problems and challenges those industries and companies face. And therein lies the opportunity for you to step in and be the solution.

Reference librarians beat Google

Libraries have a precious resource you can’t find online – a real, live reference librarian. I’ll take one reference librarian over 10 search engines or algorithms any day. (See Get thee to a reference librarian.) They’re the real semantic processors! They actually understand you, and they ask good questions no algorithm can, to help you explore in productive directions.

I still pick up the phone and call my local library reference desk for certain kinds of research. Those librarians are really good at what they do. And they ask good questions to help me explore and drill down into an industry, company or professional community more intelligently. Google can’t do that. And job boards don’t even try.

Get up, get out!

There’s one big reason for going to the library that’s lost amidst the “convenience” of the Internet. It’s just good to get out!

For the same reason it’s good to aimlessly scan the stacks of publications in a library, it’s good to sit in a comfy chair and leaf through a series of surprising publications that catch your eye.

The point is not to find what you’re looking for. It’s to find something new that you were not looking for. The same is true when you’re networking among people (rather than information collections).

To understand this better, check out Duncan Watts’ excellent book, Six Degrees: The science of a connected age. Like some of my books, it’s a few years old — but it’s “evergreen” and the ideas will always be incredibly valuable. Watts talks about how the value of a network connection goes up the farther on the periphery of a network you go – simply because the odds are higher that you will find an unknown, unexpected, untried node of high value. When we stay too close to home, we encounter mostly our friends – whether they’re people or publications. Likewise, when we rely on algorithms, we are stuck with only limited search results.

Get motivated!

While the Internet promises results, the library delivers vistas you never considered exploring. The library lets you stumble into unanticipated connections. When your brain exploits these connections, you get a rush of adrenaline at your success — and this in turn motivates you to drive harder toward your new objectives. For my money, the library is the best way to track down the job that you will then stop at nothing to win.

I wouldn’t be in business without the Internet. I love it. But it’s not the only, or even best, tool for certain kinds of research: Highly motivated exploring.

I hope you find something helpful in what I’ve said. By no means do I think you should not use the Net to explore. But get up, get out, go bump into the unexpected at a good library. Lounge in a chair with something good to skim, new possibilities to alight on – and let your mind wander away from the glow of a display.

And tell the reference librarians you meet that I sent you.

Find something that drives you

There’s more to this, of course. The Library Vacation is just the first step. It helps you identify your goal — a new career, employer or job that you become incredibly motivated to win. It also emphasizes the freedom you need to change your mind:

“The only rule is that you must drive your interest until it dies, or until it gets you to your destination.” (p. 22)

What do you do when you find the job you want? How Can I Change Careers? shows you how to walk into the hiring manager’s office and demonstrate, hands down, why you’re the most profitable hire.

Do you use your local library to explore industries, companies, products and jobs? What trade-offs do you see with the Internet? What constraints does each research tool impose? How should this reader use both?

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Why does he get more pay than me?

In the August 8, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader becomes disgruntled upon learning a co-worker at the same job gets more pay.

Question

more pay

I recently started a new job, and there is one other person here who does what I do. He was hired about six months before me. While he was helping me get settled, he showed me his annual benefits enrollment form as an example. It had his salary pasted all over it, and I was dismayed to find out that he makes 30% more than I do.

We have the same job, the same responsibilities, and my initial assessment is that my skills and background are stronger than his. (He did have a contracting relationship with the company for some time before he was hired.)

It’s been very demoralizing to learn this so soon after starting this job, which is otherwise a good situation for me. Is there any way to handle this, besides going out and finding another job? It’s hard to be happy and effective at work knowing someone else who does the same things you do earns so much more. Thanks!

Nick’s Reply

There’s a parable in the Bible that’s useful here. Two farm hands hoeing a row of beans stop for a break. Abe mutters, “I can’t believe I work this hard for $5 an hour.” Isaac is stunned. “$5 an hour? I get only $3 an hour!”

Later, Isaac goes to the boss. “How come you pay Abe more than you pay me?” The boss arches an eyebrow. “What did I offer you to do this job?” Isaac answers, “$3 an hour.” The boss leans toward him a little closer. “What do I pay you to do this job?” Isaac shrugs his shoulders, “$3 an hour.”

“So, I’m a man of my word,” says the boss.

Why more pay?

You have no idea why the boss pays your buddy more than he pays you. But there may be many reasons. For example:

  • Your buddy may have been hired on a career track you’re not aware of and he may have skills you don’t have that the boss will need later.
  • Your buddy may have been better at negotiating his deal than you were. (Need to beef up your negotiating skills? Here’s some help.)
  • Maybe the company can’t afford to pay more now.
  • Or, it may be easier to find workers today than it was six months ago.

The list of possibilities goes on. The point is, you accepted a certain deal, and your boss is honoring it. Don’t leap to a conclusion about this.

Justify more pay

My guess is your boss isn’t going to pay you more just because you want more. You’re going to have to justify your request, and it won’t help to compare yourself to someone else. Demonstrate your own value. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.)

When the time comes for your first performance and salary review, I suggest you prepare for it like this:

  • Outline what you think will be the three biggest challenges, problems, hurdles or objectives in your job next year.
  • Then, list three things you will do to tackle them. This should include significant detail, but don’t overdo it.
  • Finally, explain how your approach to doing the work will be profitable (or beneficial) to the company.

This approach will help you justify your value — and the extra money you want — to your boss.

What’s fair depends on the facts

In the meantime, consider how presumptuous it would be to ask your boss for more pay, right after you accepted the deal you did. I’m not going to get into the ethics of hiring the exact same kinds of people for the exact same kinds of jobs at different rates of pay, because I have no idea whether everything is equal. Do you?

Be careful: Value isn’t as obvious as you might think. Your co-worker may be more valuable to your employer than you are. While you may be getting treated unfairly, you just as well may not have all the facts to make that judgment.

(My good buddy Suzanne Lucas, aka The EvilHRLady, offers some strong advice about equal pay practices in 5 Ways Smart People Are Solving Income Inequality.)

You made the deal

I believe employers should pay equitably and people should be paid what they’re worth — but value is relative depending on the needs of the employer. You may indeed be worth more than you’re being paid, but you made the deal.

Could you have made a case for more pay? If yes, then this is on you. But consider that negotiations will come around again at review time. I suggest that you focus on the issues we’ve discussed — issues that might not seem so obvious — and that you respect the deal you made until the time is right to renegotiate it. It doesn’t sound like the salary was unsatisfactory when you accepted it. (Needless to say, you always have the option to quit.)

My advice is to take this one step at a time, and be careful not to disturb your good relationship with your co-worker. He’s hardly to blame. Focus on what the boss knows about your value, and make it your job to clarify that.

Finally, my apologies to the Bible for mangling a good parable.

(Ever wonder how asking for a promotion and a raise are similar to interviewing for a new job or a new career? The challenge is almost exactly the same — it’s about how to deliver more value to get more money and a better position. To learn more about how to make yourself stand out in front of your manager — or the boss you want to work for — check out How Can I Change Careers?)

Should you suck it up when you accept a deal that suddenly appears less desirable? For how long? And, how can you fix it? If you’ve been in this situation before, tell us how you handled it. What can this reader do now?

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