Can’t Find Talent?You Must Be Kidding!

Lately I have heard a rash of corporate recruiters exclaim, “Where have all the good candidates gone? There are no good people to be found.”

Every time I hear that it makes me wonder, sometimes out loud, did they all suddenly get killed by the plague or transported to Mars? After all, just a few short years ago, 2002 through 2005, people were desperate for a job and quality applicants were abundant. Honestly, what happened to all of that quality talent companies were picking through in recent years?

The answer, of course, is that the talent hasn’t disappeared, but neither have the expectations of many unqualified corporate recruiters who believe the best talent is going to walk through the virtual door and present themselves. In reality, there is just as much talent available in almost every industry as there was just four years ago. The primary difference is that in today’s global economic climate, the talent has become the hunted, versus the hunter.

Professional recruiters understand this; they have lived it time and time again over the course of the last two decades. When unemployment rates are very low, candidates don’t need to stand in virtual lines. They have options courting them with red carpets and champagne.

The talent is still out there, still available, but in a different place, one that requires you to exert a little more effort to get to. Unlike in years past, top talent is relatively happy, reasonably well paid, presented with lots of options, and working across town at your competitor.

In Times of Low Unemployment, Your Industry is Your Farm Team

Like many, you have probably heard that there is a shortage of talent. This statement would be true if you were managing the macro-level economic engine of a state or country, but luckily, you are not. The plain and simple truth is that for any single firm there is an abundance of qualified talent available. However, accessing that talent requires that you use the rest of your industry as your “farm team.”

Like in professional sports, talent farm teams are full of pre-qualified, well-trained professionals waiting to be upgraded. In great economic times, it is truly survival of the fittest. To survive and thrive, you will have no choice but to take top talent away from those firms that cannot compete.

While it may be true that recruiting specific talent for access to trade secrets or to harm the business practices of another organization intentionally may constitute a crime, recruiting talent away from another organization to fill a legitimate business need is both legal and ethical. Failing to recruit talent, on the other hand, would be a breach of ethical behavior between you and your employer.

While ethics is the most vocal argument heard, it is not the biggest barrier to farming talent from other organizations. That honor goes to a resistance by recruiters who only now how to recruit the “easy way,” such as processing the inbound response to advertisements, corporate career sites, job boards, job fairs, and walk ins. Because such recruiters are not well-skilled in direct sourcing, they jump on the most visible bandwagon as an effort to mask their true reason for not recruiting the best talent available.

This isn’t just their fault. Somewhere along the timeline of history, our culture made it more taboo to admit that you don’t know how to do something than refusing to do it and lying about why. Organizations have been “stealing” customers and employees from each other for centuries. Third-party recruiters make an excellent living primarily by removing employees from one firm and convincing them to go to another that offers them a better situation.

The ‘Can’t Find Talent’ Excuse is Weak

It is possible that everyone who claims this issue missed the fact that the Information Age came and went, as did the knowledge economy. During both of those economic phases, information propagated at exponential rates and the true value in society migrated away from tangible processing to intangible collection, aggregation, mining, and distribution of information. Stating that you can’t find talent is tantamount to admitting you are ill-equipped to recruit in today’s market conditions.

In the most successful recruiting organizations, the back-office portions of the recruiting life-cycle have transformed into advanced information processing units, purchasing information, aggregating it, mining it, and producing targeted talent inventories. Science fiction it is not; it is a well-refined process used by sales professionals to capture desirable market share for decades.

For senior professionals in the recruiting function to not know about large relevant information stores or how to leverage the information should be embarrassing given that most entry-level marketing professionals know how. Finding the names and occupations of almost everyone of working age in the civilized world has become easy. Who among us doesn’t carry a credit card, have a mortgage, subscribe to a magazine, belong to professional association, or search on the Internet?

Salespeople identify potential customers by purchasing “sales leads” and you can use the same approach if you want to identify individuals within a profession, region, or even salary range (yes even salaries are in databases). Privacy advocates constantly complain about how easy it is to access even the most personal data about individuals, yet recruiters can’t find the basic information to contact professionals in any particular job category. If your firm’s recruiters can’t find all the candidates you need, give them better tools or get better recruiters. It’s just that simple.

Difficulty in Attracting Candidates

Over the course of the last decade, a number of technological innovations in recruiting made it easy for the ideal job to become the hunted, with the applicant as the hunter. While this did wonders for the efficiency of recruiting, it decimated the skill set of the average corporate recruiter who in just a few short years became nothing more than a process administrator. In the economic boom of the 90s, such tools were popular, so even though the unemployment rate was low, talent was playing the field.

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Then came the bust in 2001/2002, and applications poured in, often in volumes organizations were ill-prepared to handle. However, this time around the same market conditions are not applicable. Recruiting technologies are not new, a good portion of the labor force isn’t using them, and applicants aren’t lining up to be treated like crap by organization after organization.

Unfortunately, most employment functions haven’t changed their approach, and as a result, they are losing candidates to the more innovative and aggressive competition. During the current period of low unemployment, you must use multiple approaches to proactively seek out people that are no longer looking for you.

Shift resources toward “low unemployment” tools that are more effective in attracting currently employed individuals. Those tools include employment branding, proactive employee referrals, recruiting at professional events, targeting boomerangs, professional networks, and yes, even resource-intensive direct sourcing.

Difficulty in Finding Top Talent

In the war for talent, you can’t gain a competitive advantage and win if you use the same tools as the competitor. By using the traditional suite of approaches, your firm will struggle to gain a competitive advantage, because competing firms will likely use the exact same traditional tools and approaches.

Supplement your recruiting toolkit with unique tools like contests, billboards, movie placements, videogames, non-recruiting/professional events, new media (i.e., YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Second Life, etc.) that are designed primarily to find and convince the “next generation” as well as the content, employed top performer.

Further complicating matters is that many corporate recruiters only know how to recruit the “U.S.” way. In fact, there is a great deal of talent (who often also speak English) in countries like India, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Canada, Scotland, Ireland, and South Africa. The problem is that most recruiters don’t know how to recruit outside the borders of their own country. Making matters worse, managers and companies refuse to let professional-level workers work remotely from their own country.

The Power Has Shifted

When unemployment is low and filling jobs becomes more difficult, the power shifts to applicants. Now that the power has shifted, today’s applicants expect recruiting to go from a “graceless process” to one that treats applicants more like customers.

Managers need to treat top candidates like free agents, and treat all applicants like customers. You must do extensive market research into identifying what these “customers” will and won’t accept in their individual job-switch criteria. Offers must include flexibility in where and when they work, how they will be managed, and other individual needs. If you do not “mass personalize” your offers, you’ll lose the war!

Final Thoughts

I frequently hear recruiters whine about the difficulty of finding talent and the shortage of talent. I also find that many supply the “shortage argument” as an excuse to managers as to why their firm is not successful in recruiting.

To me, all it really says is that they have failed to adapt and grow as the unemployment rate and the power and expectations of candidates have changed. The very best recruiters have stepped forward and begun using new tools while others use the same exact search pattern for every job they attempt to fill.

To me, recruiting is a lot like looking for water. Use a different approach when it’s raining than you would use in times of drought. It’s not that there is a shortage of talent; it’s just that many recruiters are using “high unemployment strategies” and tools in a low unemployment world! It’s that simple. The future of recruiting is clear. In a business world that changes at lightning speed, recruiters and recruiting managers have no choice. They must change at least as fast as the overall business changes!

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



5 Comments on “Can’t Find Talent?You Must Be Kidding!

  1. Dr. Sullivan,

    Interesting article to say the least. One important factor, which was not mentioned, is the availability of the current talent. I am able to find talent, in many ways you suggested. However, luring those people away from jobs that frankly pay better, have more vacation time, and better benefits, is the struggle I have faced in the current market. I work in an area where wages are low, standard of living is moderate, and is cold in the winter. We still have to pay high gas prices, housing does not come cheap, and pay $10.00 to have a decent lunch. However, companies are still paying their employees like it is the mid 90’s. In my opinion, every company should pay an equal wage, for equal work, no matter what part of the country you live in.

  2. Great points. Just to add onto that:
    1. Recruiters/sourcers need to work harder. In abundant times, salespeople (for example) become order takers. In lean times, only the really good salespeople continue to find and develop orders. Good recruiters/sourcers will continue to find talent regardless.
    2. As mentioned, employees will not stand to be ‘treated like crap’ organization after organization. The good managers/companies with solid reputations will continue to attract quality candidates. Blogs and connections can really help in the process of attracting or detracting candidates.
    3. For smaller businesses, a review of the employee base may be in order. The phrase ‘A players will work for A players’ is very true. If you have mediocre management or workers, it will be difficult to attract and moreover retain the high performers and trailblazers.
    4. As other articles highlighted, ‘define talent’ – what is talent in the context of the particular organization? One person’s definition may differ from company to company. Define, target, and attract!
    5. Memory is strong. For those companies who treated people badly, did not respond to follow ups, or were arrogant – guess what you have now!

    The talent is still there, maybe it is time for an organizational assessment of why it isn’t coming.


  3. ‘Whole-heartedly agree with the article. We are tracking source of hire every quarter as a sort of market indicator on what is working for us AND doing a bottom’s up review on resources every fiscal year (not just to justify specific items/amounts, but to stay with/ahead of the competition for talent).

    This past year we’ve cut our job board vendors by half, added a sourcing role in the team, and taken some risks in new advertisement tactics.

    It certainly isn’t easy, but the challenges are invigorating.

    Don’t survive, thrive.

  4. I thought your article was superb on ERE. I am a prior-enlisted Naval Academy graduate that came out after 14 years of service scared to death and did not know what career to pursue, interviewed for 8 months at military job fairs, using search firms, and posted resumes to the wind. Luckily, I was one of the few than landed a career with a great company, a fortune most-admired company in fact, and worked my way to become a Director of Talent Management, attending those same fairs, national industry conferences, and college career fairs to place the best of the best. I now reside with Jeff Kaye?s team as the National Marketing Manager for his Military Specialty Practice and have one simple answer for those that have the statement of, ?Where has the best talent gone?? ? The MILITARY!! The Military is already the sole bridge between Gen X and the Baby Boomers that now sit at the Director/VP/Chief level. The quote below did a great job of spelling that out. Three statistics within this past week have struck me ? 72% of our youth between 17 and 24 fail to meet entrance requirements to the military; on 6/24, the USMC will start providing bonuses of up to $80k for re-enlistment; and the DoN has convinced Congress to bend the old rules and are allowing bonuses of more than 6 figures to keep the hard-skilled talent such as Nuclear Engineers. That all leads me to the statement to add to your article of holy cow, Corporate America had better get onboard because the companies that have found their way to front-row seats and head-of-the-line pickings of this Talent will continue to pull away from the others.

    BusinessWeek?s April 2007 issue career section stated that it?s ?time to call in the military.? Author Kurt Ronn went on to explain that the ?War for talent is on.? I?m sure few in the recruiting world would disagree with him. With 250,000 men and women entering the civilian workforce each year, talent is the word that should be focused upon. It?s now as simple as this. Companies who invest in establishing and improving pipelines of talent coming from the military will enjoy long term advantages over competition. Staffing has become and will continue to be a clear differentiator separating great companies from struggling ones. Military recruiting, like any other long term strategy, requires a holistic approach.

    Philip M. Dana (USNA ’98) | National Marketing Manager – Military Specialty Practice | direct 972.265.5200 | mobile 817.689.1481

    Kaye/Bassman International Corp. | 4965 Preston Park Blvd. | Fourth Floor | Plano, TX 75093
    main 972.931.5242 | fax 972.931.9683 | |

    Ranked#1 ‘Largest Retained Executive Search Firm’ by The Dallas Business Journal
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