the futile search for the goldilocks employee

June 25, 2012

unemployed lego clone trooper

Say you’re an employer in today’s economy and you’ve reached a point when you need to hire more people to meet customer demand. Considering the high unemployment rates and the most educated workforce on a quest to either get hired or advance their careers, the absolutely last thing you could complain about would be a lack of potential employees, right? Surely there must be plenty of people you can hire, many of them with the kind of skills you can use and out of a job through no fault of their own. And yet, the biggest complaint that some 52% of businesses constantly voice is a supposed lack of employable candidates with the right skills, and this complaint sent many a politician and activist looking for a solution to an educational crisis. But a new book by Peter Cappelli, an expert in management at one of the nation’s top business schools, lays out a case that it’s not the potential employees that are the problem, it’s the employers’ unrealistic expectations and a stunning lack of vision and imagination that are to blame for their hiring shortfalls. And it’s a strong case…

We all know people who have impossibly high standards for a romantic partner. We’ve all met the guy whose insistence that he will only date professional, doe-eyed underwear models with doctorates in particle physics from an Ivy League institution had us rolling our eyes. And we’ve all heard the girl whose dreams of a perfect, tall but not too tall and handsome but not too handsome modern day knight in shining armor made us doubt she’d ever even manage to have a relationship. Cappelli argues that from what he’s seen, many companies today behave just like those characters, seeking only the perfect employee and refusing to either train a new generation of workers, or raise the wages to attract the employees of their dreams. And since they either want an employee who’s been doing the exact job for which they’re hiring for at least three years at a competitor, or will train someone overseas how to do the same job for half the pay, they either end up competing over a very small number of people working for their competitors or hiring for the short term while plowing cash into new overseas ventures that can quickly become a massive liability due to many, many factors. This is not a gap in skills or a deficiency in education on the workers’ part, concludes Cappelli. It’s bad management.

And there’s more. There’s an ongoing boom in vocational schools and medical and tech related fields, so the supposed massive shortage of STEM workers may well be overblown, and we actually do have just enough scientists and engineers out there. However, employers are refusing to pay them adequately and expect them to have not just work experience in the field, but a very specific kind of work experience. Forget the much talked about “transferrable skills” from past careers. No one wants to hear about them. Even worse, while you might be the golden candidate now because you’re applying for the same job at company after company, you’ll have trouble moving up the career ladder because those hiring you want you to keep doing the same job that you’re doing now, not advance into new roles. Or your job could fall out of favor and you’ll find yourself unemployed in short order, and you’re likely to stay unemployed because employers are now often discarding resumes from those who lost their jobs, often assuming that if you were a good employee, you would still have your job, and if you don’t, this means that you simply weren’t valuable or good enough to keep. How do you combat such an obsessive, all-consuming myopia? And why do we allow the employers who refuse to hire anyone but dream candidates get away with blaming the workers for not living up to their wildest hopes and dreams?

What if we were to continue to follow this game of musical jobs? Employment wouldn’t grow much without an occasional economic bubble to prop up job creation, workers would constantly have to change careers in the attempt to keep up with the latest fad, amassing degree after degree and mountains of debt gambling on the latest major they undertake paying off into a job, wages would remain stagnant, and employers would still be complaining about a lack of qualified candidates, using the term “qualified” as a synonym for “perfect in every single way.” They’ll keep outsourcing, creating economic bubbles elsewhere and spending billions on efforts to manage the liabilities of sending work thousands of miles away to a group of people they barely know, in a country that will more often than not employ protectionist measures that allow former subcontractors to build their own versions of the companies that once employed them with their bosses-turned-competitors footing the bill for their creation and growth. This is an unstable, unsustainable trajectory, but unfortunately, it seems to be the trajectory we’re following, assuming that the market knows best even when it never did…

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Share on StumbleUpon
  • Brett

    I can understand some of the reluctance to train skilled workers at these companies. They’re all afraid that they’ll plow money into training a new group of employees, only to have those employees baited away by a competitor.

  • Why should I, as a high level manager or ceo, waste money training and or paying workers? That might not look good on the quarterly report. Whatever benefits the short term bottom line can get funneled right into my pocket. Is it bad for the long term business? Who cares! Neither me nor the investors will still be here when stock price plummets, and if we are… check out former Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli, who walked away with 210 million bucks after driving the hardware giant around like a sophomore in Ft. Lauderdale for 7 years.

    Besides, if we start paying people more then that might drive up inflation, and the bond markets will have us all for breakfast if we don’t stomp on inflation.


    A friend of mine without a degree got a job making a hundred grand a year doing a job that is usually filled by an engineer. The company saves money by training intelligent people to the exact skills needed to do a specific job. Other companies have loyalty clauses that require you to pay back training cost if you leave their employment for before a minimum specified time. The problem is most companies run their employment pool so lean to maximize profits that any disruption like someone quiting puts them in a panic to fill that position–NOW! No time to train. Probably why temp services are popular. Kinda a try’em before ya buy’em deal.

  • Thanks for discussing this topic much better than I could do it myself. I’ve noticed this same transition myself over the past few years. But, no one seems to see what it is – a sense of entitlement, especially by mega-corporate employers.

    If you ask me, employers seem to view employees as burdensome liabilities instead of seeing them as profitable assets these days. Employers make a profit on each and every employee they hire. No one hires employees to lose money.

    But yet, for some unknown reason, employers (and their HR minions) have this sense of entitlement that employees owe them their souls for hiring them and allowing employers to profit from their efforts. We’re helping them achieve their goals, but yet they hold us in contempt like we’re taking something away from them. It makes no sense what-so-ever.

  • The term for what management wants to hire is “Purple Squirrels”. They want to hire someone that has top of the line expertise in multiple programming languages and platforms with 4 years of experience with a specific software package that has only been out for three years and hire them at a newbie level out of college. If they found the programmer that wrote the application they might have enough experience to be hired.

    Having been out of work for the past three years.Frustration sets in when I see work I could do in my sleep restricted by a degree requirement. It seems that the experience new hires have as a baseline that used to drive employers choices is depreciated.

    As Lou states from a CEO perspective short term goals rule the job market.

    I thought getting patents would open up doors in the job search but having 6 patents in the mobile area hasn’t helped at all.