A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 12, 2012

Hiring's Imagination Gap - and How to Close It

Millions of experienced and well-trained employees lose their jobs every year. Most of them endure jobs searches that take months or years - if they ever find full time employment again.

Meanwhile, the American higher education system is the envy of the world. Despite massive and chronic budget cuts it continues to churn out highly intelligent and skilled graduates. From China to Europe, non-US students clamor to be admitted - and over 750,000 attended college or university in the US during the past year, a number that is growing.

But employers continue to complain that they can not find enough qualified job applicants. What's going on here?

We would submit that the problem is not attitude or training or a skills mismatch on the part of the job seekers. It is, rather, a failure of imagination on the part of those doing the hiring. Call it The Imagination Gap.

Part of this failure is due to absurdly rigid qualification requirements. Instead of seeking intelligence, drive, proficiency in difficult academic curricula and evidence of commitment, current hiring searches demand specifics so detailed as to be unattainable by anyone who is not already holding that very same job.

This is driven in part by a perceived need for 'efficiency' in the hiring process as even staff departments like HR attempt to justify their existence via the False Business God of ROI (return on investment), a metric never designed to measure the effectiveness or impact or utility of processes like hiring.

A second challenge is the outsourcing of the hiring process to technology. Assigning hiring to an algorithm might save a few cents - and it certainly makes companies look 'modern' - but it eliminates the ability of people already working in the enterprise to identify those who may have the intangibles that ultimately drive business success.

A final problem is the reduction in training provided by organizations themselves. Training is an investment, but many companies have convinced themselves it's merely a cost, so in their desire to appear ruthlessly efficient, they insist that individuals come with their own training already paid for.

While there is some pragmatism built into all of these attitudinal approaches, the reality is that they are counter-productive when over-indulged. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Taking a well-educated, motivated and possibly experienced individual, then providing him or her with training in the organization's demands, needs and pathways may be far more effective than searching the internet for exactly the right mix of skills. In sports, it's called taking the Best Available Athlete (as opposed to one who plays a certain position).

We call the problem the Imagination Gap because it is caused more by a failure of ability to imagine how a talented individual might contribute than by any real lack of skill. As the following article points out, it is a problem with a solution - if organizations can summon the will and, yes, the imagination to embrace it. JL

Robert Goldfarb comments in the New York Times:
MANY newly minted college graduates are filled with anxiety, fearing that they won’t find decent jobs despite their knowledge and skills, and that they will never be free of tuition debt. At the same time, executives say they can’t find qualified applicants for a wide range of jobs. So, this fall, I talked to about a dozen C.E.O.’s in a variety of industries, along with more than 135 graduates, to try to get to the bottom of this paradox.

Instead of finding shared interests linking those who need work and those who need workers, I uncovered a serious divide that limits the success of both.

Every C.E.O. I met described recent graduates as lacking the skills and discipline required in today’s workplace. They complained that young employees deemed themselves entitled to promotion before mastering their assigned tasks. All concluded, in effect, “Let them grow up on someone else’s payroll.”

I replied that my interviews with young people showed that many had records of part-time jobs and excellent grades at selective schools that seemed to make them promising candidates. But executives countered that recent graduates had emerged from universities whose weakened requirements didn’t prepare them for the complex jobs that companies must now fill.

Recent graduates say they are equipped to add value to any employer who hires them. An economics graduate from the University of North Carolina told me: “I’m sick of the bashing our generation gets. I had a 3.6 G.P.A. in a demanding major. Everyone in my dorm knew it would be difficult to land a job, so we held study groups where people in different disciplines shared information. We invited alumni to tutor us in skills and office protocol employers value. All I ask is a chance to prove I’m as good as the best of any generation.”

It’s true that companies are actively seeking petroleum engineers, systems designers, supply-chain analysts and other graduates armed with “hard” skills. But those who majored in English, philosophy, history and other liberal arts subjects are far less likely to be offered an interview, much less a job.

At one time, employers recruited liberal arts graduates whose broad education shaped an inquiring mind and the ability to evaluate conflicting points of view. Their education also brought a freshness of vision that saw alternatives to outdated practices. Graduates entered corporate training programs armed mainly with potential, but soon absorbed business disciplines. Veteran employees seeing that growth didn’t laugh when a trainee suggested a different approach to a chronic problem.

Rotating through departments let young people showcase their abilities; the most promising were selected by managers eager to mentor them. Several C.E.O.’s I spoke with, including those most critical of recent graduates, had this type of training. Today, such programs are more likely to recruit those with immediately applicable skills that can be honed on the job. As one hiring manager told me: “We no longer have the luxury to hire bench strength. If an applicant isn’t ready to step into an open job we don’t hire them.”

But I’ve found many broadly educated employees to be quicker than technical staff members to develop the intuition that’s crucial on a work floor where gray — not black or white — is the dominant color. Many of the best general managers with whom I work as a consultant entered the workplace with broad educations and not with technical degrees. It was their intuition that helped them ascend — their ability to suspect a flaw even when data appeared correct, to read the mood of customers and employees, and to sense potential in a product others disdained.

EVEN the most technologically innovative companies benefit from having a balance of employees — most with technical degrees, others with broader educations. Valuable products and services emerge from the clash of ideas between analytical professionals and managers whose greatest strength is their intuitiveness.

Can’t someone who can conjugate French verbs, write statistically dense research papers and explicate the poetry of William Blake be trained in computer programming, supply-chain management and other skills valued by hiring managers? An entire generation hopes that C.E.O.’s somewhere believe that giving them an opportunity is the right — and the smart — thing to do.


Martin Anderson said...

As someone who does a lot of interviewing for a FTSE 250 company I think that both the companies and the graduates are at fault but I don't see both as being equally responsible.

Far too often you see companies with ridiculous requirements who are not prepared (or who cannot afford in this climate) to make an investment in their staff. Recruitment is handed over to HR rather than the department with the vacancy so there is an immediate drop in competence (HR cannot know everyone's business) and a retreat to keyword driven CV/profile selection to filter out 500 CVs per role.

But as for the candidates - "Recent graduates say they are equipped to add value to any employer who hires them." How do they know? This is a prime example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, they have little idea what is required in business. Combined with the weakening of standards at many universities and with the previously mentioned sense of entitlement it means that many graduates are just not attractive hires. Qualities like resilience, determination and self-directed behaviour are all too rare and no lack of imagination is responsible for that.

I think your best athlete analogy does not apply either. As an example, the chance of fining the "best athlete" that could be equally good for both marketing and software delivery is vanishingly small. The intersection of the skillsets is just too small. You want a generalist but within a specialisation and your analogy is just too simplistic.

Ultimately the issue is caused by both a lack of skills from graduates and a poor hiring process for them by the companies. Both need to improve for this to change.

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