How Real is the Skills Gap?
INTERVIEW EDGE • SEP 2014
Peter Cappelli, a management professor at The Wharton School and a keynote speaker at HR West 2014, is best known for his book, "Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Myth of the Skills Gap." Based on columns Cappelli wrote for the Wall Street Journal, the book debunks the notion that American workers are poorly educated and lack the skills needed for today's jobs.
Instead, Cappelli argues that there are plenty of qualified workers. The problem is that companies fail to hire them. By paying low wages, refusing to train new hires and relying on applicant tracking software, employers routinely overlook top candidates.
Cappelli is especially critical of the electronic screening process, noting, "We’re trying to push automation too far. We do need to screen all these applicants, but trying to get rid of people altogether means that we’re relying on the machines to make the decisions. But human judgment is still pretty important."
Even when human judgment does come into play – during the interview for instance – it's often wrong. Cappelli points out that most hiring managers have trouble identifying skills not directly associated with education or experience – something we've focused on for years.
What's more, employers aren't looking for translatable skills; they're looking for skills that are a perfect match for the job they're trying to fill. The days of training and apprenticeship are gone. Employers want workers who have done the equivalent job at the same type of company so they can "hit the ground running." Cappelli calls this the 'Home Depot' version of hiring, where employees are treated like so many interchangeable parts – a practice that shortchanges talented workers and, according to Cappelli, creates an "artificial job shortage."
Cappelli is not a lone voice in the wilderness. His ideas have been championed by, among others, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman.
Many knowledgeable people, including Shereef Bishay, a former head software developer at Microsoft, argue there isn't a skills gap but rather a training gap, especially in certain industries. Both statistics and real-world experience say they're right. Only 21 percent of workers surveyed in 2011 say they received any training in the last five years. And when industry and community colleges team up to provide specialized training programs, the results are uniformly positive.
Cappelli and others in his camp have some good suggestions for changing the "skills gap" model. So do we. Here are some of the techniques we teach our clients in our Effective Interviewing!® seminars:
1. Rely less on software to screen candidates.
As Cappelli points out, "The software really isn't very good; it's a series of 'yes' and 'no' questions and all they really assess is prior experience and what school you went to and what job you had…The software can’t imagine all the ways people can be qualified." The solution? Beef up your HR department, broaden your screening and interview more people.
2. Use competency-based behavioral interviewing techniques.
Ask focused questions to help uncover competencies not found on the resume, such as being a good listener, a quick study, adaptable, personable and hardworking. Also look for competencies that help assess long-term potential and cultural fit to reduce expensive and time-consuming turnover.
3. Ask effective follow-up questions to verify the authenticity of candidate responses.
In the past, we've described how some candidates have learned to game the system by buying fake resumes and references or hacking interview questions. That's why a thorough, probing, non-confrontational interview is essential.
As Cappelli points out: "The people who can game the system, make it through the application process, and the people who don't know how to game the system, you never see them. Is that really who you want to be hiring? People who can game the system? I suppose it tells you something about people, but it doesn't tell you much about who has the requisite skills."
4. Be open to training candidates.
When skills are lacking, look for quick studies and continuous learners. And keep in mind that even tech candidates with current skills will need to learn new skills in the future. At the same time, we recognize that some highly specialized fields require skills that may need not be easily taught or quickly learned.
For the most part, we agree with Cappelli and other "skills gap" deniers. We think there is a lot of great talent out there and using the right screening and interview techniques is one of the best ways to find and keep it.