The Job Monopoly: How companies keep pay low

In the January 23, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, we take a look at the job monopoly that keeps a lid on pay.

Question

job monopolyYou’ve probably already read this on Slate. Three economists conducted a study that asks, Why Is It So Hard for Americans to Get a Decent Raise? (The paper is only in draft form so Slate includes no link to it.) I think your readers might have some interesting things to say about whether there’s a job monopoly that controls their pay.

Here are the key points:

  • “Workers’ pay may be lagging because the U.S. is suffering from a shortage of employers.”
  • “A lack of competition among employers gives businesses outsize power over workers, including the ability to tamp down on pay.”

In other words, in areas where there are only one or two companies posting a certain kind of job (e.g., delivery van drivers in Selma, Alabama), pay for those jobs has stagnated or declined. They call this monopsony. Like a monopolist that controls prices because it controls supply of a product or service, a monopsonist company controls pay unfairly because it controls the supply of certain jobs.

But I think it’s far worse. (You’ve already touched on this before in your article Consulting: Welcome to the cluster-f*ck economy.) I wonder if those economists are taking into account all those “consulting firms” — middlemen who provide, say, most of the computer programmers to several employers in an area — that create further aggregation of hiring entities who would otherwise be competitive.

What do you say about this? What does everyone on Ask The Headhunter think about it?

Nick’s Reply

Wow, that’s one cool new word for our vocabulary: Monopsonist. It opens up a whole new world of worry!

Consulting firms and the job monopoly

I don’t think there’s any question that a handful of “consulting firms” that funnel workers to lots of companies in a particular industry, field or discipline constitute a job monopoly that kills competitive pay. I suspect your insightful guess is correct: The consulting industry is aggregating jobs and labor, thereby controlling — and depressing — pay. It wouldn’t surprise me if those economists totally miss the consulting-firm factor. (See Will a consulting firm pay me what I’m worth?)

The economists should ask workers who get their jobs via these aggregators, what is the difference between what a consulting firms pays them, and what the firm charges an employer for them. That’s never disclosed, and that’s the dirty little secret of the corporate world — and our economy. (We’ve looked at another topic that economists seem to view with blinders on: What the Federal Reserve doesn’t know about recruiters.)

But there are other issues and questions, too.

While I could ruminate for pages about what this means to workers and job seekers, and to our economy, I’m going to respect your request and roll this out to our community, in the form of a bunch of questions the article raises for me. Let’s see how everyone views this — and what questions and answers they’ve got.

I strongly suggest that everyone reading this column stop right here, and please read the Slate article before proceeding. It’s a worthy read — and I think it’ll get up your ire after it raises your eyebrows!

Are the data legit?

The Slate article by Jordan Weissmann raises a lot of questions, and not least of them is one about methodology.

  • The economists’ data set comes from CareerBuilder, “which publishes about one-third of all online job ads in the country.” Talk about an aggregator! What assumptions are those economists making about the validity and reliability of a major job board’s data, which comprises job listings that we all know are corrupt in more ways than we can count? (E.g., duplicate jobs, out of date jobs, fake jobs, composite jobs, inaccurate job descriptions, and so on.)

Questions about monopolistic pay practices

Nonetheless, the study raises provocative questions whether or not the data are legit.

  • In what other ways do employers monopolize a job market?
  • How do employers that are rolling in new-found profits explain this quote from the article?

“Since 1979, inflation-adjusted hourly pay is up just 3.41 percent for the middle 20 percent of Americans while labor’s overall share of national income has declined sharply since the early 2000s.”

  • What other employment practices “[cut] into labor’s share of the economy?”

Questions about anti-trust

  • Should the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission investigate monopsony like it routinely investigates monopoly?

“Then there’s antitrust… This paper’s findings suggest that Washington needs to think more carefully about how mergers can impact the job market.”

Questions about minimum wage policy

  • Does the following assertion turn our entire political debate about wages on its ear?

“Take the minimum wage. The classic argument against increasing the pay floor is that it will kill jobs by making hiring more costly than it’s worth. But in a monopsony-afflicted world where companies can artificially depress wages, a higher minimum shouldn’t hurt employment, because it will just force employers to pay workers more in line with the value they produce.”

Is hiring no longer competitive?

Weissmann closes on this point:

“We’re living in an era of industry consolidation. That’s not going away in the foreseeable future. And workers can’t ask for fair pay if there aren’t enough businesses out there competing to hire.”

I’ll bring it back around to the insight (offered by the reader who kindly brought all this to our attention) about “consulting firms.” (I put that in quotation marks because most of these firms don’t consult at all — they merely rent workers for profit.)

  • To what extent does consolidation of hiring by a relatively small number of body shops (I think body shops is the more accurate moniker) result in manipulation of pay?

And who’s going to do anything about it?

Okay, folks: Have at it! Is there a growing monopoly on jobs that affects pay? How does it work? What do you think about all this? What questions do you have that we can all try to tackle?

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Want the job? Tell the manager you want to get married!

In the January 9, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader who is “killing the interviews” still can’t get a job offer. What’s the secret? 

Question

Interviews I had for the last three jobs I applied for all went great. I got compliments from the hiring managers, all the team members who interviewed me, and even from HR. Especially from HR! On two of the jobs the HR managers told me they were going to recommend I be hired. So what’s the problem? I’ve gotten no offers from any of these employers!

I know I’m killing the interviews. I follow all your main tips. I show how I’ll do the work. I talk about how I’ll add to profitability. I ask for live problems to show how I’d handle them. But nada. I walk out of those meetings all pumped, but no offers! What am I missing?

jobNick’s Reply

This is easy. You’ve already done the hard parts.

Make it clear you want the job.

I’m going to explain this straight from my book, Ask The Headhunter: Reinventing the interview to win the job. (The book is out of print, but I’m working on a new edition. Many of the concepts and methods in that book can be found in the Fearless Job Hunting books.)

All too often, a candidate for a job leaves the interview convinced he (or she, of course) did well. He wants the job and thinks the interviewer knows it. But he has not explicitly expressed his commitment. This can be a fatal mistake.

The interviewer knows you want the job only if you say you want the job.

It doesn’t matter what comments you successfully “slipped into the conversation” to make him think you want the job. You have to tell him.

Tell the manager you want to get married.

Let me try to explain this another way. My wife would never have accepted my marriage proposal if I hadn’t come out and explicitly told her, “I love you.” Similarly, I would never hire someone who didn’t specifically come out and tell me he wanted to work with me. That they love me. We all need to hear a commitment.

Make the commitment.

The manager needs to hear it.

Keep in mind that until a company makes you an offer, the ball is not in your court. You have no real decision to make until an offer is presented to you. Completing an interview without letting the interviewer know you want an offer is like playing basketball without ever taking a shot at the basket. You can’t just dribble and pass. You have to shoot.

If you would consider an offer from the company, you must say so.

The manager doesn’t expect you’ll accept an offer on the spot. But she would like to know how motivated you are to do the work and to work together. Most interviewers will never ask you. They want you to take the initiative and tell them.

If you want to hear a job offer, make a commitment at the end of the interview. If you want the job (assuming the offer is right), say so — because other good candidates won’t bother.

How to Say It

Look the manager directly in the eye and maintain eye contact as you say this:

“I want this job. I hope I have convinced you that I can do it, and do it well. I want to work on your team. I would seriously consider an offer from you.”

Remember, this doesn’t mean that you have to accept an offer if it’s made. The offer must be as attractive as the job. (See Job Offer Too Low? Here’s how to ask for more.) This is a crucial distinction. The commitment you have made is to the work, the manager and the job, not to any particular salary or other employment terms. Everything else still needs to be discussed. (See Negotiate a better job offer by saying YES.)

It is perfectly legitimate to turn down an offer for a job you really want, if the offer isn’t acceptable and you can’t negotiate a mutually acceptable deal.

Stand Out: Say the words.

If you’re killing the interviews like you say you are, you’re way ahead of the game. But if then the employer doesn’t make you an offer, something’s missing: You failed to offer the commitment that distinguishes a capable candidate from a motivated one. (If you’re a job seeker who doesn’t stand out, learn how to Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition)).

Should you win that offer by telling the employer you want to get married? Of course not. Just say you want to work together — that you want the job!

At the end of the job interview, what do you say to close the deal? Does it work? Is it as good as a marriage proposal?

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Ask The Headhunter Secrets in a Nutshell

In the December 19, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wants the short version of secrets to landing a job. Okay… here we go!

secretsQuestion

I’ve been reading Ask The Headhunter all year long. I read The Basics, but as a year-end favor, would you please summarize the Ask The Headhunter secrets and highlight some of the most important parts? Help me understand the main differences between ATH and the traditional approach to job hunting? Thanks and happy holidays!

Nick’s Reply

Anyone who’s been around Ask The Headhunter for a while knows this question often comes up around December. But there are no secrets! The ATH strategy is spread across this website, in the free weekly e-mail newsletter (This is the 700th edition! Please subscribe!) and in my PDF books. But I’ll try to summarize by sharing some of my tips, in the form of reprints straight from the books.

I’ve selected sections that should be helpful by themselves, and I hope they get you off on the right foot. If you’d like more details that are beyond the scope of this column, please check the links.

Here’s Ask The Headhunter in a nutshell:

You want secrets? Find the right job!

1. The best way to find a good job opportunity is to go hang out with people who do the work you want to do — people who are very good at it. Insiders are the first to know about good opportunities, but they only tell other insiders.

To get into an inside circle of people, you must earn your way. It takes time. You can’t fake it, and that’s good, because who wants to promote (or hire) the unknown? Here’s how the distinction works.

From How Can I Change Careers?, pp. 27-28, “A Good Network Is A Circle of Friends”:

Don’t speculate for a job
The way most people network for a job smacks of day trading in the stock market. The networker has no interest in the people or companies she’s “investing” in. She just wants a quick profit. She skims the surface of an industry or profession, trying to find easy contacts that might pay off quickly.

When you encounter an opportunistic networker, you’ll find that she listens carefully to the useful information you give her, but once you’re done helping, she’s not interested in you any more. She might drop some tidbits your way, but don’t expect her to remember you next week.

Invest in relationships
Contrast this to someone who reads about your company and calls to discuss how you applied new methods to produce new results. She’s interested in your work and stays in touch with you, perhaps sending an article about a related topic after you’ve talked. She’s investing in a potentially valuable relationship.

This initial contact might prompt you one day to call your newfound friend for advice, or to visit her company’s booth at the next trade show and introduce yourself. Maybe it never goes beyond that or maybe one day you’ll work together. The point is, after a time you become familiar to one another. You become members of one another’s circle. You’ll help one another because you’re friends, not “because it will pay off later.”

The methods in How Can I Change Careers? are not just for career changers — they are for anyone changing jobs that wants to stand out to a hiring manager as the profitable hire.

Get the interview… but there are no secrets!

2. The best way to get a job interview is to be referred by someone the manager trusts. Between 40-70% of jobs are filled that way. Yet people and employers fail to capitalize on this simple employment channel. They pretend there’s some better system — like job boards (or secrets). That’s bunk. There is nothing more powerful than a respected peer putting her good name on the line to recommend you. Deals close faster when the quality of information is high and the source of information is trusted. That’s why it takes forever to get a response when you apply “blind” to a job posting.

How can you get interviews via the insiders who have the power to recommend you? I once gave some advice to a U.S. Army veteran who had just returned home from overseas duty and wanted to start a career in the home building industry. This method works in virtually any line of work.

From Fearless Job Hunting – Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition), pp. 15-16, “How to make great personal contacts”:

Pick the two or three best builders in your area; ones you’d really like to work for. They may not be the biggest, but they should be the ones you have a real affinity for. Find out who finances their projects. This is pretty easy — the name of the bank is often posted at the work site.

Then go visit the bank. Ask which vice president handles the relationship with your target company. Then sit down and explain that you are evaluating various companies in your town because you want to make a career investment… After you make your brief statement, let the banker talk. You will get a picture of the entire building industry in your area. Your goal, at the end of the meeting, is to make a judgment about which companies are the best. Ask the banker if he could recommend someone for you to talk with at each company. Then, ask permission to use his name when you contact them. This is how you pursue companies rather than just jobs.

So, don’t just send a resume. Figure out who the company’s customers, vendors, consultants and bankers are — and talk to them. It’s how smart business people do smart business with a company: by talking to people that the company trusts.

Stand and deliver

3. The best way to do well in an interview is to walk in and demonstrate to the manager how you will do the job profitably for him and for you. Everything else is stuff, nonsense and a bureaucratic waste of time. Don’t believe me? Ask any good manager, “Would you rather talk to 10 job applicants, or meet just one person who explains how she will boost your company’s profitability?” I have no doubt what the answer is.

The idea of showing how you’ll pay off to an employer intimidates some people. But it’s really simple, once you get out of the mindset of the job applicant and start thinking like a business person.

From Fearless Job Hunting – Book 6: The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire,
pp. 8-9, “How can I demonstrate my value?”

Estimate your impact to the bottom line If the work you do is overhead and mostly affects costs: Do you shave two minutes off each customer service call you handle? Have you figured out a way to get projects done 20% faster? Multiply this by the hourly wage or by the salary. The savings are just one part of the profit you contribute. Get the idea? I’m simplifying, but few of your competitors will offer any estimates at all. This gives you a good, honest story to tell the employer about how you will contribute to the success of the business. It gives you an edge.

If the job affects revenue, try to quantify the impact. Your estimate may not be accurate, simply because you don’t have all the relevant information at your fingertips, but you must be able to defend your calculations. Run it by someone you trust who knows the business, then present it to your boss or to your prospective boss. You can even present your estimates in the interview, and ask the employer how you might make them more accurate. This can be a very effective ice breaker.

If you can’t demonstrate how you will contribute to the bottom line, then be honest with yourself: Why should the employer hire you? Or, why should your employer keep you?

Employers don’t pay for interview skills. They pay for your work skills. The rare job candidate is ready to discuss how he or she will do the job profitably. That’s who stands out, and it’s who gets hired.

Profit from headhunters

4. The best way to get a headhunter’s help is to manage your interaction for mutual profit from the start. Hang up on the unsavory charlatans and work only with headhunters who treat you with respect from the start.

If you’re not sure how to qualify a headhunter, when the headhunter calls you, here’s how to say it:

From How to Work with Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you, p. 30, one of 34 How to Say It tips:

How to Say It
“If we work together, you will check my references and learn a lot about me so you can judge me. But likewise, I need to know about you, too. I’d be putting my career in your hands. Would you please share a few references? I will of course keep the names you provide confidential, just as I expect you will keep the names I give you.”

Don’t waste time with headhunters who don’t demonstrate high standards of behavior. Sharing references is test #1.

Then, instead of “pitching” yourself to the headhunter, be still and listen patiently to understand the headhunter’s objective. Proceed only if you really believe you’re a match. Then show why you’re the headhunter’s #1 candidate by outlining how you will do the job profitably for his client. Headhunters adopt candidates who make the headhunter’s job easier, and who help the headhunter fill the assignment quickly. (Coda: If you follow suggestions 1-3 carefully, you won’t need to rely on a headhunter. But if you’re lucky enough to be recruited, you need to know How to Work with Headhunters.)

That’s Ask The Headhunter in a nutshell.

Why ATH works

You ask what is the main difference between ATH and the traditional approach. It’s pretty simple. The traditional approach is “shotgun.” You blast away at companies with your resume and wait to hear from someone you don’t know who doesn’t know you. Lotsa luck. (ATH regulars know that I never actually wish anyone luck, because I don’t believe in it. I believe in doing the hard work required to succeed.)

ATH is a carefully targeted approach. You must select the companies and jobs you want. It takes a lot of preparation to accomplish the simple task in item (3).

Please read my lips:

  • There are no shortcuts.
  • No one can do it for you. (Nope, not even headhunters, not even job boards, not even algorithms created by database jockeys.)
  • If you aren’t prepared to do it right, then you have no business applying for the job, and the manager would be a fool to hire you.

How to be the stand-out candidate

I’ll leave you with a scenario that illustrates why the traditional methods don’t work well. You walk up to a manager. You hand her your resume — your credentials, your experience, your accomplishments, your keywords, your carefully crafted “marketing piece.” Now, what are you really saying to that manager?

“Here. Read this. Then you go figure out what the heck to do with me.”

Managers stink at figuring that out. You have to explain it to them, if you expect to stand out and to get hired. Do you really expect someone to decipher your resume and figure out what to do with you? America’s entire employment system fails you every day because it’s based on that passive mindset.

The job candidate who uses the Ask The Headhunter approach keeps the resume in his pocket and says to the manager, “Let me show you what I’m going to do to make your business more successful and more profitable.” Then he outlines his plan — without giving away too much.

That’s who you’re competing with, whether he learned this approach from me or whether it’s just his common sense. Long-time ATH subscriber Ray Stoddard puts it like this:

“The great news about your recommendations is that they work. The good news for those of us who use them is that few people are really willing to implement what you recommend, giving those of us who do an edge.”


In the meantime, if you’re working on your job search, check out these resources:
The Basics
The Q&A Archive
I hope Ask The Headhunter helped you get an edge in 2017. The newsletter and the website will be on hiatus for two weeks while I take a vacation! See you with the next edition on January 9! Meanwhile, here’s wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays (no matter what you celebrate or where you celebrate it), and a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year!


How have you used the ATH methods to land the job you want, or to hire exceptional employees? What other methods of your own have worked well for you? (Did anything you did shock, awe or surprise an employer?)

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3 Anti-Behavioral Interview Questions to Ask Job Candidates

In the December 12, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a manager gets fed up with behavioral interview  questions and wants to know how to really judge a job applicant. 

Question

behavioral interview

My HR department insists I use a list of 30 Essential Behavioral Interview Questions published by LinkedIn when I meet with job applicants. These are the questions 1,300 hiring managers said they use.

The questions are canned and don’t reveal whether a candidate could do the job if I hired them. It feels silly to ask these questions because it’s like dancing around the REAL question — whether the person can do the job! What do I care how they handled a difficult situation at their last job, when they have no idea what a really difficult situation is at my company?

I haven’t gotten busted yet, but I’m one hiring manager who doesn’t use the behavioral questions. Maybe there’s something I don’t get. Do you advocate using them and, if you do, please explain the benefits.

Nick’s Reply

I don’t use behavioral interview questions. Like you, I think the practice is silly — and it’s frankly lame because, as you suggest, it’s like “dancing around the real question.” Behavioral interviews are indirect assessments that create more guesswork instead of enabling a manager to directly assess whether an applicant can do the work.

You don’t say how you interview and assess job candidates, but you hint that you focus your interviews on a direct assessment of whether the person can do the job you need to fill.

If we could all hire only great people who perform to their max, we’d all be rich. But choosing and managing new hires is a dicey proposition. I’ll warn you that my approach to interviewing job applicants will result in some of them canceling the interviews you schedule. No worries — it’ll just save you time.

The problem with behavioral interview questions

Loads of candidate assessment methods have come and gone through the decades. My own approach as a headhunter is to get one key question answered before I go on to other assessments.

Can the candidate demonstrate that he or she can actually do the job?

Surprisingly, that’s left out of most job interviews. Instead of getting a demonstration, most employers do an indirect assessment. They ask job applicants the popular set of “behavioral interview” questions, hoping they can read between the lines of a person’s answers about how they handled certain situations in the past. (Job seekers: See The Basics.)

If your HR requires you to use behavioral interviews, I agree that not getting busted for not using them should be your goal!

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3 Anti-Behavioral Interview Questions

Here’s my take on some of the lame questions LinkedIn suggests — and 3 anti-behavioral interview alternatives that actually nudge candidates to demonstrate how they’ll do the work. These are direct assessments because you’ll be talking about your team, your work, your job — not about some hypothetical situation that you don’t even know the applicant is telling the truth about.

Behavioral Question #1:

“Tell me about the biggest change that you have had to deal with. How did you adapt to that change?”

My anti version:

“We hit a challenge with the project you’ll be working on if we hire you. [Describe the problem or challenge in detail.] How would you approach that?”

That’s is a discussion about real change. You can of course ask the applicant about similar issues they’ve faced at other jobs. But if you focus on specific issues you’re facing, you’ll quickly learn not just how the person approaches work; you’ll learn a lot about problem-solving abilities that are relevant to you.

Behavioral Question #2:

“Tell me about a time in the last week when you’ve been satisfied, energized, and productive at work. What were you doing?”

My anti version:

Don’t ask a question. Invite the applicant to spend a couple of hours with your team in a live work meeting about a live project. Sit in on the meeting, but don’t say anything. Watch and listen. My guess is you’ll learn most of what you need to know about the candidate’s style and motivation, and it’ll be relevant to your setting, not someone else’s.

Behavioral Question #3:

“Describe a time when you volunteered to expand your knowledge at work, as opposed to being directed to do so.”

My anti version:

“Now that we’ve discussed the deliverables we’d expect from you on this job, please list the three relevant areas where you’d need to expand your knowledge. This is not a loaded question — I expect you’ll be learning as you go. Then outline how you’d get that knowledge and what you’d need from me to help you do it.”

I’m sure you see the difference in the questions. Though it may be interesting, I don’t care so much how you handled something at your last job. After all, I’m not hiring you for your past performance. I want a demonstration of how you’ll do this job for me.

Behavioral interview answers can be faked

Like other canned interview questions, clever candidates can study any of a number of books that list loads of typical behavioral interview questions. If you ask, “Tell me about a time when…”, you have no idea whether the experience the candidate discusses is real or from a book.

When you ask the questions I suggest, the applicant has to deal with a real-life situation from your business. You get to see how they’d handle a problem or challenge in the present or in the future. I can’t confirm what an applicant did in the past, so let’s talk shop on my turf, about the work I need done.

Learn more about the Working Interview in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 6, The Interview: Be The Profitable Hire, “How can I demonstrate my value?” pp. 8-9.

The book includes “How to do a Working Interview,” “What’s your business plan for this job?” and 10 other methods to show you’re the profitable hire — plus 8 How to Say It tips.

How to cull out the weak applicants

Now I’ll leave you with an unexpected suggestion to get the most out of your interviews. Let a candidate know in advance what you’re going to ask about.

Surprise every candidate. Call them in advance of your interview. (If they’re worth a face-to-face meeting, they’re worth calling first!) Outline the work, projects and challenges you want them to discuss with you and your team when they arrive. Let them prepare, just like you expect your employees prepare when you give them an assignment.

Heck, help them prepare. You want them to succeed, right? The best candidates will show up ready to rumble. (Check this article I wrote for CMO.com: Why You Should Treat Job Applicants Like Consultants.)

If you’re a job seeker, be ready for this kind of job interview! You cannot fake it, but you can Prove you deserve a higher job offer.
Those who don’t want to do the preparation such a “working interview” requires will cancel their interviews. They’re the weak candidates.

Like I said, that saves you time.

The best candidates will be prepared, ready to rumble, and excited about talking shop with you and your team. You’ll actually see their behavior in your real-life work setting!

Do behavioral interviews work? Or are they just another trick that prevents a manager and job applicant from getting to really know one another? If you’re a manager, how do you directly assess someone’s ability to do the work during a job interview?

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No college degree, no promotion?

In the October 31, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a successful manager pays the price of working for an employer who values a college degree more than the employee’s proven abilities.

Question

I have a great job in a fantastic company. Well, it’s fantastic except for HR.

college degreeI am an information technology (IT) manager with approximately 25 years experience. I lead a fantastic team. I have been a manager for many years here, I love my job, have never had a performance issue and, in fact, my team scores as the highest-engaged in the organization. I write industry articles and I am respected in my field.

While I am the only manager that reports directly to a C-Suite leader, my peers are at the director level. We (my boss and I) have been told time and time again that I cannot be promoted to director because I do not have a degree. I do the same work and have the same level of responsibility as my director peers, but without a degree they will not allow me to rise above manager.

I am basically a director without a proper title. Does this fall under any sort of discrimination? What can I do about it? I would love to go back to school but I am currently putting my own kids through college.

It is frustrating to think that I would have to leave a job and company I truly love just to further my career.

Nick’s Reply

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this story. It’s a distressing commentary on corporate management. Unless someone has explained to you what the material value of a degree is to the director-level jobs, the company is risking losing one of its most productive people for what seems to be an arbitrary reason.

How much is a college degree worth?

Check out what one reader did, in No College Degree, No Problem. The article discusses some tips from two of my PDF books that might be helpful in demonstrating your value to your employer.
I would stop there, but you said something that possibly reveals a more insidious problem. You do the same work as the directors, but you’re only a manager. I’m guessing you’re also paid less than the directors. Is it possible your lack of a degree is being used as an excuse to avoid paying you a director-level salary? How much is that degree worth in salary? Is there a way you could compensate for the degree that your company might find acceptable?

I’m not a lawyer so I can’t comment on discrimination or legalities. It might be worth investing a few bucks in a good employment attorney for an opinion and guidance. My guess is that their advice might depend on whether the degree requirement is levied on all employees or just on you — and on whether you’re paid less than others for the same work.

The EvilHRLady

To get another perspective, I turned to my good buddy Suzanne Lucas, who writes the outstanding (and contrarian) EvilHRLady column for Inc. magazine. She’s one of the few HR gurus I respect and trust — her insights and advice cut through the bureaucracy every time. She’s not a lawyer, either, but she’s got more experience with HR compliance than I do. Here’s her reaction to what I told her about your situation:

“There’s nothing illegal about discriminating against someone who lacks a college degree, but there is a whole lot of stupid involved. If you’ve got years of experience that prove your capabilities, then what does it matter what you did between the ages of 18 and 22?

“That said, I’d advise you to do a degree. I tend to recommend Western Governors University for situations like this. Not because I think you need to learn these things but because companies are super hung up on the idea that everyone needs a degree.”

A whole lot of stupid about a college degree

Suzanne and I agree: Your employer has a whole lot of stupid going on.

But we’re both pragmatists, and that’s why I also agree with her prescription. You need to decide what’s important to you, and figure out how to achieve it. If your company is dead-set against promoting you without a degree, your next step is to find good companies that will commit to your career growth without the need for a degree. Or you have to get a degree.

You must decide which route to take.

The ROI of a college degree

I think I’d take one more shot at convincing your management that you deserve to be a director without a degree. Run this by your boss first, but then request a meeting with the president or CEO of your company. Negotiate. Respectfully make your case about how you can deliver the ROI expected of a director — but do not threaten to quit. Explain that you understand the policy, but that you wanted to ask whether they’d make an exception after qualifying you in some other way for a director’s job. If you’re told No, shake hands, smile, and go back to work.

Then decide what to do.

If you decide a degree is a solution, you may not have to wait until your kids finish college. Be smart about it. Get a degree from an accredited distance-learning college that doesn’t cost as much as a traditional school. (See Can I earn a degree from the School of Hard Knocks?) In other words, calculate the return on investment (ROI). You may find it’s positive and worth the investment.

Find an accredited distance-learning school

While I trust Suzanne’s guidance, I don’t know the school she recommends. One of my favorite distance schools is New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State University. (I have no affiliation with TESU.) It’s a publicly funded, accredited state school. Do your own research. Consider trying a degree program. Just make sure it’s accredited and that any credits you earn are transferable.

Here’s what you might not know. The cost of a degree may be less than you think. Likewise the investment of time. And the ROI may be better than you’d guess. I learned these tips long ago from my friends at Thomas Edison:

  • You can test out of many required courses by virtue of your knowledge and experience.
  • This saves you money, and it can cut down the time to a degree dramatically.
  • You can even complete much of the coursework and then transfer your credits to a better-known bricks-and-mortar school if it means something to you to have a sheepskin from a “name” school. (I wouldn’t worry about that.)

Don’t rule out the degree too quickly because of cost. There’s probably a similar state-funded college where you live.

Solve the problem

Your problem is not lack of a degree. Your problem is that you can’t get the kind of job and title you want. So focus on how to do that. Talking to your management one more time is important — don’t make any assumptions. Then choose.

The risk you face if you leave your job to go to another company without a degree is that you may face the same problem. Like Suzanne Lucas, I think your company’s policy may be counter-productive. But I don’t control employers. And you can control only yourself.

I wish you the best.

An even bigger problem

pumpkins

Because we love to have in-your-face discussions about heavy-duty issues here, I’d like to point readers to an article in the Washington Post: Wanted for any job: A bachelor’s degree. Is that smart? (Heads up: The Post requires a paid subscription to read more than a limited number of free articles.) Here’s the controversy:

“Look closely at most job advertisements these days and you’ll notice an interesting, if not disturbing, trend: Most of them require a four-year college degree.

“Economists refer to this phenomenon as ‘degree inflation,’ and it is spreading across all kinds of industries and jobs. Among the positions never requiring a college degree in the past that are quickly adding that to the list of desired requirements: dental hygienists, photographers, claims adjusters, freight agents and chemical equipment operators.”

Hmmm. WTF?

When do college degrees really matter? Have employers gone bonkers? Are the economists right — is there real degree inflation? Okay, folks — it’s time to pile on!

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Mom wants a new career

In the October 17, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a successful mom wants to be a successful job seeker.

Question

I’m a mature woman and I have to reinvent myself after a midlife divorce. I spent my prime years raising seven wonderful children. I home schooled my children over 20 years. I developed many skills that cross over into the work force: Organization, Punctuality, Customer Service, Training/Teaching, Computer Skills, Microsoft Word and Outlook, and more.

I have worked in a research analyst job for almost two years now and have gained vast office skills. The company I work for has very little room for growth without a two-year college degree. I can’t afford college. I am barely getting by on my meager salary. What can I do?

Nick’s Reply

mom

My compliments for raising seven great children! Getting the right job has much in common with what you’ve done, but today’s job market tells you to find a job by splattering your resume on the wall like spaghetti and waiting for some employer to figure out what to do with your myriad skills.

The truth is, employers are largely incapable of choosing hires effectively via resumes. This failure is the true source of the so-called “talent shortage” employers complain about. (See News Flash! HR Causes Talent Shortage!) They need your skills. They just aren’t good at understanding what you can do for them, so you have to mother them through it.

Mom credentials vs. needs assessment

Consider what would have happened if you handed your kids a multi-page list of all your knowledge, skills and credentials and asked them what they wanted you to teach them during home schooling — and whether they should “hire” you as their teacher.

That’s what happens when you hand an employer your resume. It really doesn’t help to enumerate all your qualifications and qualities. It’s simply too much for the employer to process.

More likely, when you stepped up to educate your kids, you assessed what they needed to learn, then you organized your skills (your “resume”) to satisfy those needs. That’s why you succeeded so marvelously. You based it all on your accurate assessment of what your kids needed.

Make choices first

You must do the same to find the right job: Assess what a particular employer needs before you decide which of your many credentials and skills to present. Employers say they want a comprehensive resume, but any good headhunter will tell you that the less you tell the employer at this juncture, the better — as long as the information you provide is 100% on the mark. (See Resume Blasphemy.)

First, select a handful of companies you’d like to work for. Pick the best ones that make products (or deliver services) you’d like to work on. Then set about to discovering what they need to be more successful, just as you assessed your children’s needs.

This takes careful thought and a lot of research and work, and considerable time. There’s no way to rush this. The alternative is to splatter your resume all over the job boards and wait even longer for some random employer’s algorithms to pluck your resume from thousands of others.

By choosing companies first, you take control of how well you can address their needs. There is simply no way to thoughtfully address the specific needs of 100 companies you find on a job board. So don’t apply for jobs that way.

Be A Wise Mom: Understand a manager’s specific needs

Do not rely on a company’s job postings. They’re produced by over-worked personnel managers, not by the managers who need to hire someone. Job postings are one of the biggest rackets in America today. They hinder hiring; they don’t help it. They ask for ridiculously extensive credentials, skills and experience — and for the latest buzzwords HR has heard about.

  • As a good mom, I’ll bet you ignored many requests for in-ground swimming pools, puppies, and the latest toy heavily promoted on TV. You determined what would make a material difference in your kids’ lives and invested wisely in that.
  • Did you know how to teach your kids every necessary topic when you started? Of course not. They’d never have “hired” you for lack of such skills! But you learned as you went along and figured out how to tackle each necessary task. If your kids had to hire you based on your skills, they’d never have hired you!

That employer needs a wise mom who sees past ephemeral wish lists. It needs someone who can see the desired outcomes. You must rely on personal conversations with the actual managers who would hire you — and on people who work with them — so you can assess what they really need in a worker. Only then can you possibly produce a brief plan showing how you’d do the work profitably for the manager. Your plan will of course include some notes about what tools, training and learning curve you’ll need.

Doing the job vs. doing the keywords

Having all the perfect skills won’t get you hired. The manager will hire you because you’ve demonstrated that you know how to assess his or her needs, and how to address them honestly and effectively. That is, you can demonstrate that you can do this job — and that you can learn quickly as you go.

The trouble is, personnel managers and “applicant tracking systems” which analyze your “keywords” are incapable of assessing your ability to do a job. That’s why people get rejected out of hand again and again and again.

You must go around the personnel managers and hiring systems to find the manager. Don’t enumerate the keywords requested in the job posting. Show how you’ll do the work the manager needs done. Have a conversation. Talk the manager through it like you talk your kids through a scraped knee. What any manager really wants is for you to make the pain go away. But first you have to have a heart-to-heart to learn where it really hurts. That kind of talk beats a “job interview” about your resume any day!

Some tips

Here are a few core Ask The Headhunter articles to help you get started:

Ask The Headhunter in A Nutshell: The short course

Pursue Companies, Not Jobs

Resume Blasphemy

Employment In America: WTF is going on?

You’ll find hundreds more helpful how-to articles on this website, all for free. (I also offer a few PDF books that organize my advice around specific topics.)

You raised seven wonderful children. You can find one great job. But you won’t find it by broadcasting all your skills and waiting for one company to “find” you.

Start by picking a good company, learning what a specific manager needs, and then organizing your skills into a short document (or presentation) that shows how you will do what the manager needs. Don’t expect any manager or employer to “process” all your credentials and figure out “what to do with you.” Most managers aren’t very good at playing Mom.

I wish you the best.

What advice would you give this mom, who clearly has considerable skills but little experience in the workforce? If you’ve made the transition from raising a family to getting a “regular” job, how’d you do it? What problems did you face? What obstacles did you overcome?

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Job Assessment Tests: Don’t jump through hoops

In the October 3, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader doesn’t like doing assessment tests for employers who put no skin in the game.

Question

I really enjoy your direct and honest feedback to job hunters each week. I’d like to get your thoughts on jobs that make you do “assessment tests” to prove you are qualified.

assessment testsI do not work in the tech field where I know these are common. I’ve worked in marketing for 15 years, won awards, and worked for some top-name businesses. But recently I have encountered many recruiters that want you to prove your worth.

My favorite was for a company in the San Francisco Bay Area that needs to fill a marketing and web content position. Two hours before the phone interview, the marketing director sends me an e-mail saying that I need to prove my research skills and she will send me a question 10 minutes before our interview time. I have to research the question and have it submitted before the interview.

I was ready to walk but did it just to see if I could. (I succeeded). After the talk, I was unimpressed with her abilities and withdrew my application.

Recently, during my first in-person interview for another job, I was asked to write a five-page press release by the next day. I politely told the manager that my extensive work experience speaks for itself and I would be happy to send links to my previous press releases. She said that wasn’t good enough and I said, “I’m withdrawing my application.”

As you can tell, I’m ready to walk away from imposing situations like this that, for the most part, waste your time. What is the proper way to say “no” to these assessments? Thanks!

Nick’s Reply

My compliments for walking away from these kinds of abusive hurdles. Such employers undoubtedly think what they’re doing is a clever “pre-assessment” of job applicants. That is, they want to assess whether it’s worth their time to meet and assess you. They lay the burden on you, while they avoid putting their own skin in the game.

My guess is they add this step because some HR consulting firm charged them a bundle for “best methods” in recruiting. But there’s nothing “best” about abusing the job candidates those same employers complain are in short supply! Talk about trying to appeal to a candidate!

Assessment tests are often bogus

For an in-depth look at this topic, see Dr. Erica Klein’s Employment Tests: Get The Edge.
Job assessment tests come in many flavors. Tests and assessments can be useful tools for employers and job seekers. But more often than not, they’re misused. Some assessment methods are transparently ridiculous and unreasonable — and they’re not assessments at all. They’re bogus.

I think the way you’re dealing with unreasonable demands is just fine. And I don’t think anything you say to employers or recruiters is going to make them stop insisting that you jump through hoops, participate in totally one-sided “interviews,” and do free work. These employers have established a policy and a process. You’re not likely to change any of it. But it may be fun to make a point to them — a point that may hit home after they lose lots of good job applicants to their competitors.

I love your story about the marketing director. I wonder if she instructs her company’s salespeople to pre-assess potential customers by making them submit a five-page statement about “Why I’m worthy to listen to your sales pitch.”

But you asked me how to say no to these “assessments.”

How to Say It

When you’re asked to jump through hoops that you think are unreasonable, be ready to respond. Here are my suggestions about how to say it, ranked by snarkiness. Decide how far you want to go.

Meet or beat it.

“I’d be happy to invest my time to meet with you so we can determine whether we should work together. If there’s serious mutual interest, I’d be glad to show you how I’d to the job profitably. But without a corresponding investment of time from a serious employer, it’s just not prudent for me to do what’s essentially a one-sided assessment. I’m currently in discussions with three other employers and I expect to choose one in the next X days. If you’d like to meet to explore working together, I’d be glad to come in on one of these dates and times: [list 2 or 3 dates]. If those are not convenient, please suggest some others and I will look forward to talking shop.”

That’s pretty assertive, but so’s an employer’s demand that you do work before just a phone interview. I’m a big believer in showing how you’ll do the work to win the job — in a face-to-face meeting. But if the employer isn’t investing its own time and effort, it’s presumptuous of them to expect you to do so.

Pay me to do your job.

Sometimes it helps to put a price on what the employer is demanding:

“Just as I’m sure you don’t charge prospective customers to do a sales call, or to provide product samples for their evaluation, I don’t charge for interview meetings or samples of my work. I’d be more than happy to meet with you. But if you want me to work solo while you attend to other matters, my hourly rate is $X. If you’re willing to invest a couple of hours of your time, I’ll invest mine, too — no charge.”

I’ll do it if you’ll do it.

Sometimes it helps to put the shoe on the employer’s foot. You’ll win only the most honorable fans with this, but please understand that this is the shoe the employer is trying to get you to walk miles in:

“Attached is a psychological assessment test to be completed by the manager I’d be working for if your company were to hire me. If you’ll please have him or her complete it, to help me ensure I’d be working for a properly qualified manager, then I’d be glad to take your assessment, too. Since you already have my resume, kindly forward a copy of the manager’s resume so I can review it. Since time is of the essence, please be aware that I’m at the offer stage with two of your leading competitors.”

I don’t do tricks.

This one’s pretty snarky but, hey, would you go on a blind date with someone who’s not going to show up?

“An interview is called that because inter- means between, mutually, reciprocally, together — not one-sided. I’m looking for a good employer, and that means one that respects me enough to invest time together and reciprocally. I don’t jump for treats. Do you really have so many great candidates that you can afford to ask them all to do tricks before you’ll interview them? I’m ready to interview you if you’re ready to interview me.”

You’re not worth my trouble.

This one requires no explanation.

Talk to the hand.

Why do they do this?

You know such jump-through-the-hoop job assessments are inappropriate and usually offensive. So do I. Why don’t employers know it?

It’s pretty simple. These are employers that don’t know how to recruit job candidates. They want you to do the work, preferably with no investment on their part. These employers want you to incur costs before they do. They want you to pay for hiring managers’ (and HR’s) ineptitude. They’re all telling you one thing: “You don’t want to work here because we have no idea how to hire.”

What are the most ridiculous or offensive assessment tests you’ve been asked to jump through? How have you responded? Is there a way to say no that keeps you in the running? If you’re an employer, how do you justify asking candidates to perform — before you invest any time in them? (That’s not a loaded question. We’d really like to know.)

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Consulting: Should I trade my fledgling business for a real job?

In the September 26, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks whether it’s worth trading a budding consulting business for a “real” job.

Question

consultingI’m an avid follower and have found Ask The Headhunter positively inspirational. I especially enjoy pushing back on senior executives for their lame hiring practices and nonsensical rejection methods.

Anyway, here’s my situation. I set up my own consulting practice while job hunting. It’s been 15 months and the business is growing, but I’m also finally getting close to a job offer. The role is in my field of expertise and it’s as full-time internal consultant for a huge multinational.

I’m toying with the idea of pitching an outsourcing (consulting) arrangement for my firm in place of taking the job they’re interviewing me for. It makes sense as they would gain extra manpower, and I know we could do a better job for the same cost. But I’m concerned this proposition might derail the process. What do you think?

Nick’s Reply

Ask The Headhunter is largely about helping people get jobs, because few people are capable of doing what you’re doing – starting and running their own little business.

I make no bones about preferring to see people run their own show rather than get a job, but it’s not for everyone. Neither option is very secure, and when you work for yourself you usually come to realize you work for a slave driver who’s often a jerk. (Believe me, I know!)

But when things go perilously wrong in either scenario – having a job or a business – it’s only when you’re your own boss that you get to make the critical choices. You always have the chance to right the ship.

There’s a twist on this “job vs. self-employment” issue that some readers might like to consider: Want a job? Threaten to start a business!
Only you can judge whether suggesting a consulting arrangement will jeopardize the hiring process in this case. Because your question seems to be about making a choice, I’m not going to get into how you might make your pitch to this company. I’m going to offer some thoughts about how to approach the choice.

Consulting yourself

It sounds like you have some employees in your little firm, and you may be willing to let them all go. But regardless, I think  the bigger question to ask yourself is, Does it really matter if turning your interviews into a sales presentation does derail the hiring process?

This leads to more good questions. So start consulting yourself:

  • If you pitch a consulting option to the employer that turns them off, can you replace the lost job opportunity with other new clients?
  • Even if you try to switch this to a consulting gig and fail, will you learn enough from the experience to make you a better salesman the next time you try?
  • Can you afford to give up this job opportunity and continue what you’re doing on your own? That is, do you need the kind of security a job offers more than the benefits your own business provides?
  • Is this job opportunity worth giving up the progress you’ve made with your own biz?

What’s the risk?

You’re worried about the risk of losing a job offer which, by the way, you did not say is a sure thing. All I see is an expected bump in the road for someone who is growing a little consulting business.

It’s hard to shake the idea that you need a job. If you accept a job offer, will you be able to shake thoughts of what you might have accomplished with your own business?

I offer you no advice. I just don’t know enough about you and, besides, this is a choice you must make. If you need the salary and “security” a job offers, I’m the last guy to criticize you if you decide to accept it.

Songwriter Paul Williams wrote during the Viet Nam War that, “Peace is just the impossibly high first step.” So is taking any risk if you have a worthy goal.

I wish you the best, and I’d love to know what you decide and how it turns out. Thanks for your kind words about  Ask The Headhunter!

Have you traded a job to start your own business? What questions would you tell this reader to ask? Has anyone out there made the move to start a business, and then gone back to a regular job? What did you learn that might be instructive for this reader?

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Revealing my salary earned me a lower job offer!

In the September 12, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader succumbs to an employer’s demand for his salary information and pays for not keeping his mouth shut.

Question

salaryNick, I need your help. I’m in a very tough spot with salary negotiations. HR told me the salary range for the position ($65K-$70K) on the phone before our interviews. They also asked for my salary expectations, and I told them $65K-70K. So we had the interviews knowing we were all on the same page. Or so I thought.

After the first interview, I was contacted by the HR rep and was explicitly told that I would need to provide my current salary or we would not be able to proceed further with the process. So I reluctantly gave my salary away ($53K, which will be $55K in five months when my annual merit kicks in).

After the second interview, which I knocked out the park, they made an offer. It was only $60K. On the phone, I told the HR rep that there is no deal but I would like to continue to try to negotiate the best compensation package, and we will revisit the offer in a couple days.

What do you suggest I do here? I don’t want to turn away more money, but they are $5K-$10K below my expectations. Is my only recourse to risk the offer as a whole? Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

You ought to charge them $5,000 for helping them negotiate a lower salary, because that’s what you did. Congrats on getting an offer, but I agree with you – you ruined your negotiating position by strengthening theirs.

Never, ever, ever disclose your current salary to an employer. (See Keep Your Salary Under Wraps.) They will use it to put a cap on any offer they make to you. Now you’re stuck.

You must decide one thing: What’s going to make you walk away from this deal? That is, what’s the least amount of money you’ll accept and still be happy?

They may offer you a bit more, or they may stand pat. If they raise the offer, my guess is it will be by one or two thousand dollars, to make you feel you won a concession. But that’s no concession. It’s still lower than the range they agreed to. They will still save money, and you’ll lose money. You have already made a concession, by considering less than the top of your range ($70K). The kicker here is that both parties plainly agreed to the same salary range before proceeding with interviews.

They screwed you.

What they did is bait-and-switch. They agreed to one thing but switched to something else. They screwed you. Now you must recover or walk away.

Once you decide what is the minimum acceptable offer is, the rest is easy – even if it’s not a happy thing. You cannot negotiate unless you know in advance what will make you walk away. Then you tell them this:

How to Say It
“I can do this job profitably for you, and I want to join your team. I make that commitment. But I told you very clearly when you asked me what salary range I would require: $65K-$70K. And you told me your range was the same. On that basis, I did the interviews with you. If you can meet the range you committed to and that I asked for, I’m ready to accept.”

The rest is up to them. Just be ready – they may say $60K is as high as they’ll go. Are you ready to walk away? If you agree to the $60K at this point, be prepared for lower-than-promised raises in the future, and other broken promises. These people have made it clear from the outset that they say one thing but do another.

The offer is based on your salary.

“HR logic” about salary goes like this. If you make $A, you don’t deserve more than about $A + X%, where X is some small percentage. Why does HR do this? Here’s what one HR executive wrote to me in response to my advice that job applicants should never disclose their salary to employers:

“Employers want your salary information because they believe that if you apply for a job that starts at $50,000, but you made $30,000 in the same sort of job at your last company, they’d be overpaying. They’d want the opportunity to buy you for $35,000 to start, saving them $15,000.

“The HR person who does that gets many kudos for their shopping moxie from their boss, and gets to keep their job and go on many more shopping trips.

“I’ve been a vice president of HR, a recruiter, a labor negotiator and a candidate, so I know from which I speak… I am so dismayed that someone pays you to hand out this kind of information.”

[Excerpted from Keep Your Salary Under Wraps]

If they try to “explain” that their offer is based on your old salary, your response can be only one thing if you want to negotiate with strength.

Tell them to go pound salt.

If HR gets pushy or threatens to “end the process,” tell them I said they should go pound salt. Your salary is none of their business. Will they tell you their salary?

Here’s what an Ask The Headhunter reader posted recently on LinkedIn:

“To anyone who wants to maintain their salary history confidential in a way which no prospective employer can hold against you, I utilized Nick’s technique at one point in my career and was very successful — including getting the job I was interviewing for. Nick has a foolproof technique on how to address previous salaries which actually makes the company respect the candidate.”

Here’s what another said:

“The hiring manager more or less offered me the position on the spot and indicated a salary range that is roughly 40-50% more than I make now. Your two biggest lessons (at least for me) at work in the flesh: (1) Never divulge my current salary, and (2) Talk about what I will do, not what I’ve done.”

You can decide for yourself how to proceed. Here’s my advice:

How to Say It
“My old salary is irrelevant. I told you my required range and we agreed to do interviews based on that. Will you make an offer in the range we agreed on?”

Once you decide your position, the rest is up to them. If they insist on judging your value on what your last employer paid you, it’s their loss, not yours. Move on. This is a company that admits it doesn’t know how to judge value for itself, or that cheats.

But please – this is your decision, not mine. If you decide $60K is good enough, then do what you think is right for you, not what I think is right. Only you have all the facts about your life and needs. I’d never criticize you.

Also keep this in mind: You killed the interviews. You impressed them. You pulled it off. Don’t let their negotiating tactics make you question your attitude, behavior, or worth. Do you think you can impress another employer? My guess is you can. But you must make that judgment for yourself.

We have of course discussed this topic many times before. See Goodbye to low-ball salary offers and Salary History: Can you afford to say NO?

How do you negotiate? Do you disclose your salary? What should this reader have done, and do next?

Coming next week

In the next edition, we’ll discuss a topic that may have headhunters (and their clients!) up in arms: Why a headhunter should never disclose her candidate’s salary to her client.

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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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