Is our Love of Passive Candidates Perpetuating the Skills Gap?

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gapThere is a “skills gap,” and it is the reason unemployment is still so high today. Maybe. It depends on who you ask.

The term “skills gap” refers to a strange phenomenon. As of last month, 10.5 million Americans were unemployed. Simultaneously, employers were looking to fill 4.0 million job openings. The math seems shady at best: how can there be more than twice as many available workers than there are available jobs? Many employers say they cannot find qualified candidates to fill these spots, and that the pool of available talent is sorely lacking in the necessary skills. Hence, we have the notion of a “skills gap”: people don’t have jobs because they don’t have the skills required to fill the open positions.

But a lot of people question the legitimacy of the supposed skills gap. Educator, author, blogger, and Ph.D. Katharine Hansen wonders if ATS programs have something to do with the skills gap, possibly filtering out qualified candidates according to oversimplified criteria. ATS platforms toss out roughly 75 percent of all resumes that run through them, and that’s a troublingly high number.

Similarly, Peter Cappelli, professor of management at The Wharton School and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, wrote for Time Magazine that employers often try to avoid training new hires, and so refuse to hire people without extensive previous experience.

It may very well be impossible to pin the existence of a perceived skills gap on any one factor, but I’d wager that Cappelli is on to something: employers are increasingly demanding that employees arrive as fully-formed experts in their fields, rather than giving them the chance to grow and learn on the job. This automatically disqualifies a significant portion of the unemployed: they may have the potential to perform a job perfectly, but employers don’t want to wait and see. They want to know right away.

A CareerBuilder survey conducted last year shows just how few employers are invested in grooming new talent: 80 percent of managers said they were at least somewhat concerned about the skills gap, but only 40 percent said they were trying to remedy the situation. That means that 60 percent of managers are sitting back and hoping that the skills gap remedies itself. Meanwhile, they’ll continue to demand unrealistic levels of expertise from even entry-level workers.

Which brings us to passive candidates: people who are already employed, but open to new job offers. Passive candidates have been all the rage in some recruiting circles, with Jobcast hyperbolically crowning them “the unicorns of recruiting”. But why do people love passive candidates so much? Again, we defer to Jobcast: “Ignoring those passive candidates doesn’t just diminish your talent pool, it also rules out higher caliber hires.”

That’s the appeal of passive candidates: they’re “higher caliber hires.” This is basically code for “they don’t need any training.” If you don’t want to expend resources on talent development, just hire someone from another company — they already trained him.

We’re constantly told that passive candidates are the candidates recruiters want. The blurb for recruiting expert Jim Stroud’s new book, “Content is the New Sourcing”, proclaims that passive candidates are “good talent” and “talent you desperately want to hire.” Meanwhile, LinkedIn’s “Talent Trends 2014” report urges HR teams to approach passive candidates: “Don’t be shy; you’re offering the perfect career for someone out there, and many candidates will be receptive to your outreach.”

All of this love for passive, pre-trained candidates leaves unemployed, actively seeking candidates out in the cold. But active candidates have a lot to offer: according to LinkedIn’s talent trends report — the same report that advocated hiring passive candidates — 91 percent of active candidates “actively seek information that helps [them] get better at [their] job,” whereas a smaller 86 percent of passive candidates seeks out such information. Which means that passive candidates may require less training at the start, but they’re also less likely to seek out future training to help them improve.

So maybe the issue is not that people are unemployed because they don’t have the right skills. Maybe the problem is that employers are not giving the unemployed the chance to learn the right skills. Maybe that’s how we end up with this seemingly perpetual skills gap: employers hire candidates who already have jobs, while candidates who need jobs never get a chance to demonstrate their potential.

By Matthew Kosinski