employment

How employers make it hard to find good workers

Oct. 22, 2012 at 7:14 AM ET

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If I make my resume eight pages long, and include 100 keywords, maybe I'll get noticed!

There are about 12 million unemployed people in the United States, and yet many employers will tell you that one of the biggest problems they face is finding qualified workers.

That's sure to leave many Americans - and particularly unemployed Americans - scratching their heads.

Researchers will tell you the gripe actually has merit in some fields, such as highly skilled manufacturing.

But as the job market slowly recovers, many also are pointing their fingers back at employers, who they say have become overly choosy and too reliant on technology that won't always spot the best candidate.

Rusty Rueff, a career and workplace expert for the company information website Glassdoor, calls it the “arrogance of supply.”

“(Employers have) become pickier and pickier and pickier, and what’s happened is all the technology has allowed you to become even more stringent, to a fault in some cases,” Rueff said.

Anyone who's looked for a job in the past few years knows exactly what kind of technology Rueff is talking about. Most companies now rely on automated systems that scan resumes for keywords, automatically weeding out people who don't list a certain education level or an experience with very specific technologies.

The resume scanners do have benefits for both employers and jobseekers, however.

In such a tight job market, some companies may get 1,000 applications for a single job opening, said John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University. The prospect of actually reading all those resumes is mind-numbing, and a computer that screens applicants is preferable to even more haphazard systems.

Sullivan said he's known of managers who only looked at resumes that came in on colored paper, or rejected those he didn't believe were stapled correctly. By comparison, scanning for keywords is much more precise.

Still, even Sullivan admits that submitting your resume electronically is virtually useless unless you know how to work the system and find other ways to get an edge.

“We call it the black hole,” he said.

To get noticed these days, Sullivan said he recommends that people write pages-long resumes that include virtually every keyword in the job description. But even then, he says, you may never get flagged unless you can use your networking skills to connect with the hiring manager in another way.

That's because automated screening systems won't necessarily spot even the best candidate, and not all managers are checking them thoroughly.

Brandi Britton, district president for the temporary services and recruitment firm OfficeTeam, said it’s all too common for outside recruiters to identify a candidate, only to find that the candidate applied through the company's system but then fell through the cracks.

“Companies need processes to keep track of their applicants, but sometimes those processes are what’s preventing them from finding (candidates) in the first place,” Britton said.

It's especially tough for people who have the bigger uphill battle of convincing an employer they can do a job even though they may not have one of those keyword requirements, like a college degree.

Russ Wichelman, 60, has been looking for work since last November, when he lost his job as a engineering and programming manager for a manufacturing company.

Although he has 30 years of experience in the field, Wichelman fears he isn’t being considered for some jobs because automated resume screeners are often looking for a college degree. That’s something the Royse City, Texas, resident doesn’t have.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m qualified or not. It’s like, the degree. If (you) don’t got it, they aren’t talking to you,” he said.

In the past, Wichelman said he would often physically go to the potential employer to fill out an application and hopefully get a foot in the door. But these days, he said, even that doesn’t help.

“Now I go to places and they say, ‘No, you have to go online and such and such a website and apply on there,'” he said.

Ioana Elena Marinescu, assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago, has for several years been working with the jobs site CareerBuilder.

One thing that surprised her is that jobseekers typically apply for employment that does fit their skills. That could debunk the idea that many people are flooding the system with resumes in the hopes of getting a hit.

Still, she said, that doesn’t mean that employers and employees are doing a great job finding each other.

One issue is that companies - knowing the unemployment rate is so high - may write a job description that is so detailed and arduous that almost no one would be qualified for the job. She said CareerBuilder actually offers a tool that can show a company whether anyone in their system could match the qualifications, to help avoid that problem.

“Some employers seem to feel that because the labor market is the way it is, all of a sudden they can be super demanding,” Marinescu said.

For example, an employer may think they need to find an employee who has a whole bunch of skills, such as knowledge of several programming languages. In reality, they might have an easier time finding an employee if they focused on just one of those programming skills, and planned to train the worker in the others.

But many employers these days see training as a last resort, believing that they shouldn't have to spend money on training when there are so many unemployed people out there who are desperate for a job.

That means the onus is on jobseekers to either train themselves or to work hard to convince the employer that they can learn fast.

Matt Youngquist, president of the Bellevue, Wash.-based consulting firm Career Horizons, said employers these days are much like consumers: They want things cheap, quick and perfect.

“They want someone who can come in on day one and produce results with very little or no training, and there are not many candidates who can do that,” Youngquist said.

The tight job market also has made employers demanding in other ways. Britton said companies also risk losing candidates because they are taking so long to decide who to hire. Many applicants are now subjected to multiple interviews, tests and screens - and the best ones may move on before the company has made a decision.

Another barrier: Salaries. Britton said many employers think they can offer lower salaries because of the weak economy, but that can backfire in fields where workers are in higher demand.

“There is a bit of an unrealistic idea of what an employer can get for what they sometimes want to pay,” she said.

Researchers say there are some good explanations for the problem. In the past five years, many people who worked in fields like construction or manufacturing have lost their jobs, while fields like health care have seen some of the strongest growth. It’s no surprise that it’s tough for someone with a background in construction to get a job as a nurse.

Although they may gripe about employer practices, experts say the truth is that it’s still a buyer’s market. That means employers have little incentive to change their practices, and jobseekers need to learn to adapt.

Youngquist, the career coach, recommends that jobseekers have multiple resumes that are tailored to specific jobs, so they are more likely to make it through electronic screens. They also may need to be flexible about things like salary and hours, especially if they are currently unemployed.

But, he said, jobseekers also need to realize that they should be spending less time on the resume and more time on the good, old-fashioned networking that is so often the key to landing a job.

For many people, that means becoming more of an extrovert and a sales person than they are naturally comfortable with.

“Talent is only half the battle,” he said. “Self-promotion is the other half."

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