Does Our Own Mindset Cause the Talent Shortage?

photo_classroomEven in this recession, everyone I speak with is moaning about not being able to find the quality candidates they think they need. Maybe they have caused their own problem by narrowly defining jobs, by using yesterday’s criteria to solve today’s problems, and by a lack of imagination.

We (hiring managers, executives, HR folks, and recruiters) set up expectations and define jobs based on what is traditional. We work from habit and past experience. This is not necessarily bad, but may not match our current needs or the available supply.

Some of us say that we cannot find qualified C# programmers, for example, when we all know that there are very few people with good skills in this area. We are left with choices: hunt like crazy on the Internet and elsewhere to find someone we can influence to leave their current position, wait to find a disgruntled one, or decide to do something different. Something different might be to rethink the job entirely so that it more closely matches someone we already know is available. It might be to increase the supply by developing training programs or taking on apprentices. It might be to merge the job with another one. There are lots of possibilities beyond just doing what we have always done.

Many emerging jobs require a new perspective, rather than an entirely new skill set. An interior designer could easily do the new job of home stager — someone who decorates your house prior to selling it — but for a much lower price. Many skills for jobs in the healthcare arena can be learned quickly, but are all based on a common set of skills around patient care, communication, and appreciation for and understanding of technology. The real challenge is perspective, attitude, and sometimes the willingness to work for less.

Developing People is a Requirement for Success

I spent many years working in the semiconductor industry when it faced a labor shortage of skilled process engineers and equipment operators. We eventually devised training programs that took basic electrical engineers and developed them into capable process engineers quickly. IBM trained thousands of programmers throughout the 1960s and 1970s to meet its own huge needs. At the same time, IBM and other companies quietly worked with academic institutions to develop today’s academic computer curricula.

This training and development does not have to be of the same type that a person would receive at an ordinary academic institution. In most every case, corporate training can concentrate on skills that are needed right now and forego the theoretical, the basics, and the nice-to-have-but-not-critical things. Whether or not a person goes back at some point to get those basics remains a question, but I believe that efficient training can address the labor shortage issue quickly.

In both world wars, the U.S. Armed Forces reverted to intensive training programs to fill critical positions. They have learned that this can be as efficient a process as having a huge standing army.

The trick is in accepting that there is a responsibility on the part of employers to develop the people they need. Employers should be willing to provide the training and development for the jobs they have a need to get done. Waiting for the school system or the government to do your job for you has never been a very good strategy.

We Need to Expand the Labor Pool

Many available people are older or retired and have skills that have become obsolete or are not needed right now. However, these people could be retrained for some of the open positions if we took a different attitude. Unfortunately most of us, or most of our employers anyway, would rather spend money on search fees, agency fees, administrative overhead, and advertising rather than on intensively training people with decent basic skills. Granted, we cannot train people for every job because many of them do require experience, or time in the saddle, as they say, in order to be successful. However, I think we could significantly lessen the labor shortage if we were willing to be a bit wider in our job expectations and definitions.

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This is why I constantly argue for integrated staffing and development because I believe their functions are inextricably intertwined. It is very difficult to do one without doing the other. If we are to look at recruiting as a process, we are going to have to incorporate development into our staffing thinking and staffing into our training thinking.

Whether this is done through merging departments or whether it is done simply through good collaboration doesn’t really matter. What is critical is that there is a dialogue between the two functions. If you work in a small company where there are no separate training and recruiting functions, then this becomes even easier for you to do.

You need to always think whether an open position is better trained for or hired for. Is it a job that would be impossible to train someone for in a reasonable period of time, or is it a job that someone could be trained to do fairly quickly?

When management and recruiters both develop a broader understanding of the issues and step up to the fact that in many cases skilled people are just not available at a reasonable cost, then developing people becomes sensible and cost effective.

There are no labor shortages or surpluses — there are just shortages of imagination and an unwillingness to accept responsibility for filling our own needs.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


21 Comments on “Does Our Own Mindset Cause the Talent Shortage?

  1. Excellent piece about how training could make all the difference in the world. Rather than have companies cry about no available US workers and sending the work overseas,why not help out people in this country with training for specific jobs. I guess it’s cheaper and no real commitment if you just get a group from another country to do the work and, if they don’t work out, go get another group. I live in CT and there are 2 fairly large employers within about 20 minutes from my house who are breaking their necks trying to send more and more jobs overseas. These are engineering jobs and manufacturing jobs that are going to be disappearing. So, fairly soon, there should be a lot of C# developers on the street, people with lots of experience.

    Just a little bitter that some companies view employees like you would view a glass a water, something you don’t really think about.

  2. Great article, I don’t think anyone could have said it better. Kathy, I agree with you – it really gets under my skin to know about the thousands of jobs being sent overseas, when we have candidates here who could be trained.
    It’s funny that companies will spend millions on re-tooling or retro-fitting their own factories, but when it comes to spending a few dollars or time on retraining a candidate, they choose the route of outsourcing.
    I would personally like to see the “aprenticeship” come back into the picture, not enough of those type of positions out there, but plenty of people to fill them. IBM benefited in a big way by training their own people.

  3. Thanks Kevin… “doing something different” is the key.. I don’t know much, but I know this, what we have been doing in recent years does not work or we would not be in the situation we are in globally… Agree?

    The Corps/People that come out on top, are the adaptable ones, the ones as Kevin talks about “doing something different”…..

    I sat in on the FUTURE of TALENT (FOT) webinar yesterday and was fascinated and excited about the future of talent/business/recruiting..

    Run (dont walk) to follow anything Kevin is doing in terms of speaking, blogs, events, etc. He is without question a “VISIONARY” or “SUBJECT MATTER EXPERT” and has earned these distinctions..

    Until we connect/engage again soon, EnJOY your weekend!


  4. As a job seeker, I totally agree that employers/hirers are too narrow in the requirements for positions.

    IMO, I am a very good/experienced programmer/analyst, but if I don’t have skills in ALL of the utilities or languages they are seeking, I am not even considered…even if it would not take any time at all to learn or come up to speed with these skills.

    I have seen some jobs I have applied to months ago, still posted, unfilled, when I could have been hired, trained, and working up to speed by now…go figure!

    Another area is Education. I do not have a Bachelor’s degree…I did not complete by BA due to full time employment that took priority.
    Some employers insist on having that piece of paper, even though I have over 20 years experience. Granted there are many who allow experience to account for education, but there are some good jobs I am excluded from applying to, just because I do not posses the piece of paper for a BA.

  5. Developing employees is not only a quick and cost-effective way to fill positions, but its a great selling point to applicants. Its always a plus telling someone that they are replacing a person that was promoted to a new position because we educate and promote our employees.

  6. Kevin, I agree with the others that this is an excellent and timely article. But in reading through the responses it’s apparent that many people…too many people…place the burden of training squarely on the employer. What happened to responsibility of the employee? Even in this market I hear comments by workers that they’re willing to be re-trained if the employer will pay for it. Even when I’ve recommended a book or two, I’ve heard “I don’t think my employer will pay for that.” An even larger concern I have is that the definition of skills by employers and emplotee is much too narrow. As you and several commenters acknowledged C++ programming can be taught but today’s market requires much more than just the knowledge of a technical aspect. Knowing how to program plus being able to converse with an end-user or customer in a language other than geek-speak is now part of the required skill-sets. So is agility, adaptability, and openmindedness. Somehow too many people view jobs as an entitlement. Emloyers do need to wake up and recognize that training and re-training is required if they are expecting to compete in today’s marketplace. But a worker too has some responsibility in seeking out the training both of a technical nature but also in critical skill areas such as collaboration, problem solving, leadership, communication, etc.

  7. Still find it interesting in that training is used for development and vice versa. This confusion is part of the problem.

    Personally responsibility is paramount, but that is not taught in the K-16 experience.

    Insightful remarks by all.

    Finally, when businesses place the same value on their human capital than they do their operations (COO), finances (CFO), information (CIO) etc. by having a Chief People Officer(CPO) at the executive table then maybe the talent shortage and the performance issues will truly have the same value at the 30,000 ft. viewpoint.

  8. Leanne- VERY insightful comment about K-16, and I agree with you 100%. Everbody “get’s a trophy” and “nobody keeps a score card” in youth sports/schools, and guess what happens to all those kids who went through our public school system, and enter corporate amercia? They realize infact life is not fair, there are no shortcuts/handouts, and good things happen eventually “laying one brick at a time”.

    “Entitlement” is destroying our culture in America…

    Best, brian-

  9. I respectfully disagree with your assessment of “Myth on Talent shortage” piece which only serves well for the training and PR organizations. Of course, there are some no talent or any distinguished qualification required jobs that anyone can perform, such as picking up fruits and vegetables, you may be right on that line. Your CEO can even pick up fruits by a little training. But how can you iterate the same argument for a nuclear engineer who does a core follow up work for your nuclear power plant which by the way is unique design itself? There are certain jobs that requires years of hands on experience, I did not say training, and skill sets that you can’t even get with a Ph.D. degree from an ivy league schools even if you can effort it. We cannot generalize your argument on every existing talent shortages in our society. One thing we do not have shortage is the money managers, if we look at around us. Can you ever see or heard of outsourcing of the money-manager positions?

  10. Muzaffer – I am somewhat confused possibly because I am old. TKevin in the column talked about the overall mindset and what you wrote was very much in alignment with mindset. Yes the CEO may pick up fruits with a little training and much of that fruit will turn rotten because it has not been properly developed (think cared for). This is a mindset.

    You are right there are skill sets you cannot secure from Ivy League schools and those skills are called soft, people or interpersonal. Again, this is a mindset to invest the money in developing these skills.

    Actually locally here in the Chicagoland area, there are for hire money managers – CFO – because some organizations do not require a full time CFO.

  11. I am probably older than you Leanne. If age gives us wisdom I’ll take it. Yes, we were talking about the “mindset”, I have no objection of spending money to develop those skills needed by the organizations. I am a firm believer that you can even become a virtuoso in violin and go to Carnegie Hall. Don’t ask me how? As they say; practice, practice, and practice. But what I am emphasizing is that those CEO’s who are ready to get rid of their excess capacities should think twice when they are firing the violinists. They shouldn’t throw the baby Wagner with the bath water. We are of course talking about “TALENT” not a skilled person. Even if we have the right mindset we cannot develop them from nothing. That is all.

  12. Muzaffer – You may be older than me. Wisdom for me is learning from the mistakes of others and knowledge is learning from my own mistakes. (I learned this from one of my coaches.) What you are potentially suggesting is a lack of organizational development where the strategy for removal of excess capacity is not in alignment with structure, processes, rewards or people. (J. Galbraith 5 point star model)

  13. Hi Folks,

    I’ve been hearing this discussed since the ’80’s.
    (I generalize with the following statements…)
    1) Employers won’t pay for training for people that might help their competition.
    2) If employees are secure and safe in their jobs, there don’t appear to be advantages (financial, promotional. etc.) to retraining or it isn’t employer $upported), they
    won’t do it. If they aren’t secure, it’s probably too late.
    3) Economics and ageism: It’s perceived (may actually be true) that it’s cheaper to outsource/insource new, younger workers than to hire older retrained ones.

    My solution: create a partnership with business, labor, and government to work out what types of skills are needed and how to provide workers with short, medium, long term retraining, and find out what would be required as incentives for hiring substantial numbers of these retrainees. You may say: “Business doesn’t need incentives to hire retained workers. The free talent market will decide, and the retrained ‘warriors of talent’ shall emerge triumphant!” You believe that, and I’ve got a nice International Orange bridge for you to buy….

    Your thoughts….


  14. Keith – Partnerships are great ideas. What I have observed is that institutions of higher learning become involved along with many not for profits. Many of these folks have “ivory tower” mentality and truly are clueless about the real business world.

    Also, Gallup just released their poll on employee engagement. 31% are actively engaged; 58% are disengaged and 22% are actively disengaged. Couple this with the survey by the Conference Board that suggests 55% of all employees are unhappy suggests businesses have an uphill battle ahead of them. Add the retiring baby boomers, the rapid evolution of technology specific to careers and this is a potentially wide open world for those who truly wish to be the cream of the crop.

  15. To Leanne: I like your latest assessment and the Gallup numbers. Here is my five cent, which I always save till end but you are lucky today. If we really want to solve the problem which business sometimes don’t like to do that I would go after the Gallup numbers and question them why? Why on earth the best country on earth would have this outcome? Why 55% of all employees are unhappy? Without finding the answers of those questions we should not attempt to introduce another bunch of unhappy to bees in to the system.With my best regards, MK

  16. India has succeeded in business including IT by offering intense training. Few westerners have the motivation seen
    in Indian and the universities and training schools are out of touch with global and local demands.

  17. Possibly there is an inherent (subconscious) belief system within the U.S. about independence and personal responsibility since meritocracy has strong ties to the founding of the U.S. Hence employers may believe you as the employee must secure your own training. Not justifying the behavior; attempting to understand why the reluctance to invest in people. Also much of the T&D including at the university level have failed to deliver positive ROI which is not only the fault of the businesses, but those who deliver unsustainable training.

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