Lisa Katz| Crain’s Detroit Blog

It’s a phrase that applies to the classic Paul Newman movie, “Cool Hand Luke,” and is sited in turn in the Guns N’ Roses song, “Civil War.” It also happens to be one of the culprits behind Southeast Michigan’s skills gap.

I received an impassioned call last week from a woman who has been following the Working Smarter blog and many of the state’s efforts to help employers find the talent they need for success. She made it clear that she had worked closely with more than one candidate frustrated in their job search. I could tell, because she was able to express in a brief conversation just about every vent that I have heard in working with Michigan Works! Agencies, community based organizations, and others charged with helping place workers into jobs, including plenty of jobseekers themselves:

  • Employers are looking for purple squirrels and unicorns, idealized, magical employees that simply do not exist.
  • Many of the most touted talent development and placement efforts focus on young people and recent (or soon-to-be) grads. What about currently dislocated or older workers?
  • Employers are seeking people with experience, but in their particular industry. What about workers with great backgrounds but from different industries?
  • Many organizations do not need workers with advanced credentials, or sometimes even a bachelor degree, yet they screen out perfectly qualified or capable individuals who do not have those credentials.

She relayed a personal story about one organization that was looking for someone with her exact background. As she approached the tail end of the interview process, she learned that the company was actually looking for an unpaid volunteer but had never posted anything about salary (or lack thereof) in the job description. She relayed many other anecdotes about workers who had a vast majority of the skills, background and abilities that employers were seeking but were not a 100 percent match, so they were excluded from the process.

I have heard such stories repeated over and over, and I have been quick to point out that there is much legitimacy to the idea that REAL skill gaps exist in our region, and we must work to overcome them. The solutions are varied and include (but are not limited to) encouraging more young people to pursue education and training in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM); ensuring that colleges and universities offer the right curriculum so that future workers or those retooling their skills are properly prepared for jobs in our region; educating future and current jobseekers about employer demand for key occupations so they can focus their job search and preparation accordingly; making sure that workers gain desired experience in the fields in which they hope to work (employers very typically want 1-4 years of experience in their “entry level” hires and much more as responsibilities increase); and the list goes on.

But my caller was right. Some really simple fixes could help employers find the best fits for their companies. One of those is to simply do a better job of putting posting their job descriptions. For example, looking at online job postings for Southeast Michigan from May through August 2013, WIN found that:

  • 83.5 percent of did not identify salary requirements. Of those that do indicate salary levels, 40% offered a range above $50,000 and 42 percent less than $35,000.
  • 81 percent did not specify desired licenses, certifications, or certificates, such as industry-specific certifications.
  • 57 percent did not specify desired experience levels. For the postings that specify experience, 11 percent want more than 7 years and 8 percent seek less than 1 year of experience.
  • 41 percent did not identify desired education levels. Most of those jobs with unknown educational levels include heavy truck drivers, salespersons, software developers for applications, food service workers, and cashiers.

Certainly, sometimes excluding such information allows employers to cast a wider net, but it also makes it harder for workers to know if they are the right fit for the job. The result is employers overwhelmed with many unqualified candidates and workers with high hopes who have no hope of landing the posted job.

There are other common practices that also stand in the way of a successful “love connection” between jobseeker and employer. For example:

  • Anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent of employers in our region actually post their jobs online, and the vast majority of jobseekers rely on technology to find their jobs. That means that employers who do not post online area automatically narrowing their candidate search, especially if they need to target younger demographics. (Meanwhile, candidates who do not have an e-mail account are automatically limiting employers’ abilities to reach out to them.)
  • I have been in several meetings where a company executive says that they do not really care about a particular qualification, but the company HR department is required to follow different screening requirements.
  • In some cases résumé screeners are not technical experts in their fields (and sometimes the screeners are literally undiscerning software programs), so they pass over candidates who do not meet exact key words, missing out on workers whom others might prove to be logical candidates.
  • Many companies pass up potential hires who are very close to their posting but do not meet certain technical or other skill requirements. Rather than consider training to bring the worker up to speed (or letting the worker know what they could do on their own to fill the gaps), they pass on the individual entirely, choosing to keep a posting open longer than what might have been necessary.
  • I have heard from many workers who crave feedback from their interviews so that they can take the information and try to improve their résumés, communication or technical skills, etc. But companies can face numerous liability issues if they put such information in writing, and there are too many time (and emotional) constraints on HR managers who simply cannot provide such feedback verbally.

Some of the challenges I have cited prove to be quite challenging to address, but others are simple fixes, like being much more deliberate in producing quality job postings, posting them online, and considering how training could support a possible hire. (Heads up: Michigan Works! Agencies sometimes help defray the cost of on-the-job training for workers who meet certain requirements, or a community college could offer a custom, cost-effective training solution. Companies interested in such opportunities can reach out to WIN, who will put them in touch with the right folks who can explain.)

My friendly caller was right: There are many contributors to the region’s skills gap. Poor communication should not be one of them. It is [past] time to take deliberate action to remove this low-hanging fruit from the tree.

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