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Don't Fall Into the "Skills Gap" Trap

The business media is continually reporting the unemployment rate is falling. In early August, the rate fell to around 4.3 percent. The demand for employees is high, and yet many people – particularly the long-term unemployed – are having a very hard time finding work, and some employers are finding it difficult to fill open positions – at least with the “right” people.

Sarah Sipek, writing for Career Builder reports that, “According to a recent CareerBuilder survey, the old adage may just be true. Nearly 68 percent of U.S. employers who said they were increasing their number of full-time, permanent employees in the first quarter of 2017 currently have open positions they can’t fill. The problem isn’t just a lack of candidates – it’s a lack of qualified talent.”

Yes, the dreaded skills gap: the difference between the skills and employer is seeking for a given position and the skills the applicants have to offer. The skills gap has been blamed by many for the difficulty in matching job-seekers and short-staffed employers. But is this gap real or is the true culprit unrealistic expectations from employers?

Employers and human resource professionals typically have an “ideal employee” in mind when they put out a job posting: “20 years of experience doing exactly what we need with spectacular results.” If a friend or relative told you they were looking for a fun job, with great pay and benefits that exactly fits your interests and offers a great work/life balance, you’d probably either laugh or gently suggest that they might have to settle for something less than their dream job. The same is true for employers.

While we certainly can’t fault hiring managers for having high hopes, they may be doing themselves a disservice if those high hopes translate into unreasonably high expectations. The reality is that with a low unemployment rate, it’s a sellers’ market in terms of employment. Employers should anticipate that they might not find an applicant that meets all of the requirements of their job posting. And they shouldn’t drag out the job search indefinitely until finding their unicorn, because this means the key job function they are hiring for will go unfilled.

This doesn’t mean that employers need to accept perpetual disappointment. But it does mean that they should take employee development efforts very seriously. The less-than-qualified new hire could turn into an all-star after a couple years of mentorship and on-the-job training. Or that well-respected manager from Department A with a firm grasp of the mission and values of the company as a whole could be molded into a high-performing director in Department B.

The challenge facing hiring managers, HR professionals and business owners when it comes to staffing their organizations with quality employees is very real. However, before throwing up their hands and blaming their woes on the “skills gap,” they should consider how realistic their expectations are and start considering creative alternatives to finding an out-of-the-box perfect employee. After all, employee development is a primary function of the roles of the people doing the hiring.

Here's another reason to avoid falling into the “skills gap” trap: doing so can fuel unconscious bias that may cause you to overlook key potential among specific groups of employees who may be under-represented in your workforce. Instead of bemoaning the gaps, think about what you might be able to do to fill them—and create loyal, long-term employees in the process. Be inclusive!

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