Are Employers Overlooking the Very Solution to Their Talent Shortages?

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For months, the business press — particularly in recruiting and employment circles — has focused its attention on the ongoing Great Resignation . Amidst theworst talent shortage in 10 years , employers are justifiably fixated on the threat of massive turnover, making it even more of a challenge to get back up to pre-pandemic speed.

But what if the Great Resignation is only half the story? What if our prevailing talent narrative obscures the solution to our hiring woes in the employment market ? 

According to recent research, companies are — intentionally or not — overlooking a rich vein of millions of capable candidates. If organizations put more effort into engaging those workers, they might close the talent gap for good.

Meet the Hidden Workers

Coined by a team of researchers at Harvard Business School (HBS) and Accenture in the 2021 report “Hidden Workers: Untapped Talent,”  the term “hidden workers” refers to the sizeable contingent of the U.S. labor force — an estimated 27 million people — who want to work but can’t find jobs. The HBS/Accenture report breaks these workers down into three categories:

  • Missing hours: These are people who currently work part-time but would rather take on full-time work.
  • Missing from work: These people have been unemployed for long periods, but they are actively looking for jobs.
  • Missing from the workforce: These people are unemployed and have given up actively seeking new jobs, but they’d be willing to work if the right offer came along.

The hidden workforce is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it predates the pandemic. According to the “Hidden Workers” report, many currently hidden workers say it was just as hard to find work before COVID-19 as it is today.

Employers have been ignoring these eager candidates for years — much to their detriment. HBS and Accenture found that organizations that hire hidden workers are 36 percent less likely to be affected by talent shortages.

Why, then, have companies chronically overlooked this large talent pool? Two main factors are likely at work.

1) Everybody Loves a Passive Candidate

Recruiting and talent acquisition professionals have always taken a particular interest in passive candidates. This isn’t the first time the unquestioned preference for the currently employed has played a role in driving talent shortages. In the years following the Great Recession, the love of passive candidates  helped perpetuate a similarly vexing skills gap.

It’s little wonder, then, that the tale of the Great Resignation took off. It’s a narrative that focuses squarely on passive candidates, both in terms of luring them away from the competition and convincing them to stay with your company.

It’s worth stressing that the Great Resignation is genuine and very likely to ratchet up in the coming months. The Recruiter Index®,’s monthly survey of recruiters and HR pros in the U.S.,clocked an increase in candidate sentiment last month , which indicates that talent is growing increasingly interested in new job opportunities. The Recruiter Index® has also recorded a steady rise in backfill roles, accounting for 50 percent of recruiters’ open jobs, compared to 44 percent in August and 40 percent in July. 

Turnover is picking up, and employers do need to invest in retention. But by letting the Great Resignation hog the spotlight, recruiters and talent acquisition leaders are again allowing their love of passive candidates to eclipse important talent sources.

2) Inflexible Recruitment Technology and Processes

Given the extra attention paid to candidates who are already employed, it makes sense that standard recruiting processes are almost intentionally designed to let hidden workers fall through the cracks.

Organizations have long relied on applicant tracking systems (ATSs) as the first line of defense in filtering out unqualified candidates. Yet, as the HBS/Accenture report notes, these systems rely on formal credentials like degrees as a proxy for determining candidate capability. As a result, these systems automatically reject hidden workers who may have honed their skills through nontraditional career paths. That includes many people of color: Research shows that white professionals  are more likely to have had access to formal educational credentials than their counterparts from other demographic backgrounds. So the ATSs are also dealing blows to our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

And here’s the kicker: Traditional recruiting processes don’t even reflect the realities of contemporary careers. As the “Hidden Workers” report notes, technology and the economic landscape now change so fast that “the evolution in job content has outstripped the capacity of traditional skills providers, such as education systems and other workforce intermediaries, to adapt.” In other words, employees now do most of their learning on the job and through informal channels. Our inflexible recruitment practices don’t just overlook hidden talent — they overlook some of the best talent around, period.

Start With Technology to Reach Hidden Workers

Breaking up the recruitment industry’s years-long love affair with passive candidates will require a massive culture shift. That’s a transformation worth pursuing, but it won’t lead to immediate results — and companies need recruitment help today.

The best place to start, then, is with inflexible recruiting practices, especially technology. Outdated ATSs are, after all, one of the major gatekeepers standing between companies and hidden workers. Traditional ATSs rely on keyword filters to prequalify candidates. Still, all that tells you is whether a word appears on a candidate’s resume or not. Recruiters need a more robust screening technology that better suits today’s learn-on-the-job talent model.

Video resumes are a straightforward way to make up for the shortcomings of ATSs, as this technology allows candidates from nontraditional career paths to more effectively showcase their skills. Recruiters should also avail themselves of the latest advances in artificial intelligence. A new crop of AI-enabled candidate sourcing software tools  has made the ATSs of old obsolete. These solutions offer a much more robust way to prequalify candidates, trading keywords for contextual searches that assess candidate fit along multiple axes.  

Hidden Workers, Hidden Recruiters

It’s not just our software tools that could stand to be more agile. The way we find, engage, and build recruitment and talent acquisition teams is also needlessly inflexible. Much in the same way that many candidates who want to work are hidden by inflexible recruiting practices, many recruiters who could help us find our next great hires are hidden by traditional talent acquisition models.

Your in-house corporate talent acquisition team may be brilliant, but they’re limited in both capacity and expertise. That’s the nature of any static team: It can only accomplish what its members have the resources and know-how to do. Contracting a third-party agency can help, but at that point, you’re just adding one static team to another.

For a more flexible mode of engaging recruiters, it’s worth considering the on-demand recruitment model, which has been gaining prominence in recent years. The on-demand model allows a company to engage recruiters of varying specialties and scale up or down as needed. That makes it much easier to hunt down those hidden candidates: By engaging recruiters whose specializations complement the blindspots of your existing team, you can cast a much wider net. And built-in scalability means you don’t have to increase your talent acquisition team to do it permanently.

Employers don’t have to be at the mercy of the Great Resignation. Even if turnover does rise, there’s a whole hidden talent pool out there. To reach it, all we need to do is update our hiring technology and embrace a more nimble approach to recruiting in multiple senses of the word.

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By Matthew Kosinski