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Why Good People Can't Get Jobs

One analyst says employers are looking for mythical "unicorns," not experienced workers over 50

posted by Richard Eisenberg, July 28, 2012 More by this author

mature woman interviewing for a job

Richard Eisenberg is the senior Web editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Assistant Managing Editor for the site. Follow him on Twitter @richeis315.


mature woman interviewing for a job
Ryan McVay | Photodisc | Thinkstock
Can't land a job despite persistent efforts?

Peter Cappelli, director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania, says: It's not you, it's them — the employers.
 
I think he's right. The way businesses are conducting job searches these days just might go a long way toward explaining why the U.S. unemployment rate seems stuck at around 8 percent overall (roughly 6 percent for Americans ages 45 to 64).
 
Skepticism About a U.S. Skills Gap
 
In his new book, Why Good People Can't Get Jobs, the Wharton management professor pooh-poohs corporate executives who complain they can't find good people to fill open jobs because America has a "skills gap." Just this week, The Wall Street Journal ran an article called "Small Firms Seek Skilled Workers But Can't Find Any."
 
(MORE: Why Aren't Older Americans Getting Hired?)
 
Cappelli maintains that the skills gap cited by employers and human resources directors is a myth, that there's no evidence to support it.

Two factors — both a matter of employer approach — stymie hiring:
 
1. Employers Are Chasing Fantasies
 
Cappelli argues that many businesses attempting to fill positions are out looking for "unicorns" — idealized candidates who don't exist — and rejecting perfectly appropriate candidates. "It's an excuse to just keep looking for someone they may never find," he says.
 
His favorite example? The company that had 25,000 applicants for a standard engineering position — but the staffing people insisted not one was qualified.

The only real candidates that employers seem willing to hire, says Cappelli, are people already doing the same job at one of the company's competitors.

"They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time," he writes. "To get a job, you have to have that job already."
 
Because of this attitude, if you're unemployed, you have a huge strike against you.

"Employers say they don't want to hire unemployed people because their skills are rusty. I don't think they're right," says Cappelli, who was codirector of the National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce during the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations.
 
2. Employers Are Hanging Back
 
Put bluntly, Cappelli thinks employers are also "not trying so hard" to hire.
 
He has the stat to prove it: The book's damning chart of "recruiting intensity per job vacancy" shows a huge drop-off in employer hiring activities since 2008, compared with 2001 through 2007, though there was also a recession in 2001.
 
(MORE: Laid Off at 60: What to Do Next)
 
Some businesses now avoid hiring full-timers for accounting reasons, says Cappelli.
 
"The way accounting systems are set up, a company is better off not hiring," he says. "Accounting systems don't like fixed costs, so companies prefer bringing people in on a contract basis."
 
Nacie Carson, author of The Finch Effect: The Five Strategies to Adapt and Thrive In Your Working Life, describes this phenomenon as "the Gig Economy." In her article on Next Avenue, "Redefine Your Career," Carson urges professionals to adapt to it by developing a "gig mind-set" and looking for short-term projects.

In the words of Stephen Sondheim's song "I'm Still Here," from Follies: You need to career from career to career.
 
Advice for Job Seekers
 
Given how hard it is to get hired, how can you increase your odds? Prevent employers' squirrelly tracking software from kicking out your resumé, says Cappelli.
 
"Companies use the software in place of human judgment and the programs reject good candidates," he explains. "If you're in your 50s or 60s, you've had a lot of work experience and your resumé needs to be specific about it or the software won't know. If you were a manager, say how many people you supervised and that you gave performance appraisals," says Cappelli.
 
He offers four more resumé tips:
 
Customize your resumé based on language used in the job description. If the description says CPA, make sure CPA is on your resumé and not Certified Public Accountant, a term the software might not recognize.
 
Put your work experience and skills in context. When the computerized resumé parsers look for key buzzwords, they also want to detect their usefulness. So go in depth about what you know and how long you've known it, Cappelli says.
 
Submit your resumé in text format. Tracking systems usually have an easier time reading Word documents than PDF files.
 
Include your postal address. This may seem silly, but Cappelli says your address is often how your resumé is filed. If you don't include it, you might not get considered at all. It's one more reason why good people don't get jobs.