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Obsession for the Perfect Worker Fading in Tight US Job Market

Jan. 26, 2018
‘The talent is here. You are just looking through the wrong or outdated lens. The most successful companies will be those who are able to identify people with transferable skills."

American companies might need to embrace the unconventional career path of Mitch McNeal if they expect to find talent in today’s hot labor market.

McNeal parlayed skills developed as a basketball tournament organizer into a job as a land liaison for the oil and gas industry, and then as an acquisitions and business development specialist for a large non-profit company. Yet his successful bob and weave through the labor market is all too rare, as most employers are reluctant to hire a candidate whose resume isn’t a perfect fit full of industry buzzwords.

This is a problem because, at 4.1% last month, U.S. unemployment is at the lowest level since 2000 and companies from Dallas to Denver are struggling to find the right workers. In some cases this is constraining growth, the Federal Reserve reported last week.

Corporate America’s search for an exact match is “the number-one problem with hiring in our country,” said Daniel Morgan, a recruiter in Birmingham, Ala., who owns an Express Employment Professionals franchise. “Most companies get caught up on precise experience to a specific job,” he said, adding: “Companies fail to see a person for their abilities and transferable skills.”

U.S. employers got used to abundant and cheap labor following the 2007-2009 recession. Unemployment peaked at 10% in October 2009, and didn’t return to the lows of the previous business cycle until last year. Firms still remain reluctant to boost pay or train employees with less-than-perfect credentials, though recruiters say that may have to change amid a jobless rate that’s set to dip further.

McNeal’s ability to transition his skills into a completely different line of work provides a lesson to those employers.

He started out by expanding three-on-three basketball tournaments to 15 states with thousands of athletes -- a job requiring exacting organizational abilities and social dexterity. Later, those skills were a nice fit for an oil and gas company that hired McNeal to secure agreements with local landholders for pipeline rights-of-way.

Employers that overlook such transferable skills may have to leave an open position vacant. Their reluctance to hire also prevents workers from getting the bump in pay that often accompanies a job change. Vacancies are near the highest levels seen since the government started measuring the data in 2000.

Leaving a vacancy unfilled can lead to deteriorating staff morale, rising overtime and a loss of talent, said Paul McDonald, a senior executive director at human resources consultants Robert Half International, Inc. A move to look at transferable skills “is gaining popularity,” albeit slowly, he said. “The more pain an organization feels, the more willingness to hire individuals with 50%, 60%, 70%  of the skills and train up.”

The Fed has noticed that employers are starting to change their outlook and strategy. In its Beige Book economic report published Jan. 17, based on anecdotal information from its 12 regional banks, the term “shortage” is used 20 times in reference to the jobs market. The Atlanta Fed said firms were responding by broadening the search for candidates and doing more training.

Johanna Mikkola, co-founder of Wyncode, a Miami coding school, said she often tries to convince large corporations that the so-called “skills shortage” is a matter of definition. Companies like hers are churning out students with the information technology skills that companies say they desperately need. But the job market is so absurdly specified that she has seen job listings requiring years of experience in a computer language that is relatively new. Some of Wyncode’s best students have unexpected backgrounds: athletes and musicians tend to do well in the discipline.

“One thing I’m constantly saying is, ‘The talent is here. You are just looking through the wrong or outdated lens,’” she said. “The most successful companies will be those who are able to identify” people with transferable skills.

But as Bryon Linnehan’s story shows, employers do pay a lot of attention to transferable skills when hiring military veterans. Linnehan was stationed in South Korea and Iraq, working as a military police officer and in intelligence. After leaving the Army, he worked for a military contractor, but at a career event at Barclays Plc in New York, a recruiter told him he would be a good fit for compliance work.

“She was looking for a skill set to analyze information, and to put together lots of different sources of data to form a picture,” said Linnehan, now a vice president at the bank. “Which is what exactly I had been doing.”

Military service is a kind of credential that conveys something about leadership, communication and teamwork, said Adam Enbar, co-founder and CEO of the Flatiron School in New York, which also teaches people how to write computer code. Degrees from top schools are proxies for skills, he said, but that doesn’t tell the whole story about a person.

“We want to live in a world where none of this matters, where your credential just falls away. Just evaluate them for who they are,” Enbar said. “We are in the business of trying to convince companies to try and do this.”

By Craig Torres and Jordan Yadoo

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