Is the War for Talent a Red Herring?

I have often heard it asserted by people within the recruitment industry that we are all involved in a war for talent. The mantra asserts that in our role as corporate recruiters, we are in aggressive competition with other organizations for the same individuals. As a result, and despite the best efforts of media like ERE, there tends to be suspicious relations between the recruitment faculties of different companies.

As we enter a new and more challenging phase for the global economy, we’ve all seen a sharp increase in the numbers of capable candidates who are available. With a market like this, which should dispel any competitive fears talent acquisition teams feel, I think we have a great opportunity to re-assess how we relate to each other.

Our Problems

From my recent conversations with recruiters in other companies (admittedly all IT firms), it has become clear to me that the main challenges that we face on a day-to-day basis are not related to our ability to source appropriate candidates. Nor are we often faced with a race to hire a particular individual before the “competition.”

More often, the issues that demand our urgent attention relate to internal processes and systems. As our CEO recently said of Red Hat as a whole: “We are succeeding despite our processes.” I would suggest that this is something many of us can relate to.

The most vocal and audible advocates of solutions to our problems are often those third-parties who are keen to sell us something, be it an applicant tracking system, or managed resourcing solution, or something else entirely. Where such a vested interest is held, we cannot rely on any sort of objective assessment of the situation.

Where Are Our Solutions?

So if we shouldn’t turn to the vendors for insight into best practices, where do we look? The key to understanding how to improve our own systems is to look at what other recruitment teams are doing, and to learn from their experiences. In order to do that, we need to clearly define our own priorities. Is it more important for us to keep hiring managers happy, or to foster enthusiasm in our candidate community? Maybe there is a more tactical goal, such as a reduction in the usage of staffing agencies.

Either way, there is bound to be another organization who has confronted the same issues before. We all have valuable experience from our own time in recruitment, but we should also never pretend to know everything.

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Knowledge Shared Is a Problem Halved

Our company has a cultural bias towards transparency, and I think the open source software model is something that our industry can draw upon. We are all striving towards similar goals, and we can really evolve talent acquisition as a commercial discipline if we pull in the same direction. The U.S. has a head start in this regard; in other parts of the world dedicated internal recruiters are not yet a common feature of the corporate landscape.

Through groups on LinkedIn and ERE, in-house recruiters are starting to connect with each other. If we are all going to evolve, we also need to contribute. Tell the industry what you’ve tried, or what you’re thinking of trying. Share what worked and what didn’t, and see how it compares with the experiences of other teams.

If we as corporate recruiters want to adopt best practices in our own areas, we need to identify what best practice is. We should not assume that the most painless procedures that we have used ourselves in the past are actually the best systems in the industry as a whole … but they might be.

Open yourself up to scrutiny. Sure, it might be a little embarrassing at first to hold your hand up and say “I’m a recruiter, and my processes don’t work,” but you’ll feel a whole lot better for it afterwards. And who knows, you could just learn something in the process.

Tim Marston is the Senior EMEA Recruiter for Red Hat, Inc., an NYSE-listed software company. He is responsible for Red Hat's recruitment activities across the EMEA region, and is particularly passionate about selection process. Prior to this, he spent several years as a recruitment consultant, establishing the first dedicated recruitment service for agile software development teams.


6 Comments on “Is the War for Talent a Red Herring?

  1. I couldn’t agree more that we Corporate Recruiters could be more collaborative and less combatant. Our Detroit chapter of the American Society of Employers helps to foster sharing of best practices through a quarterly Recruiter Roundtable. I am the co-founder of a recruiter network in SE Michigan, where local corporate and agency recruiters come together in social and educational forums. The group has multiplied 10-fold in a year and a half, proving that the desire to break down barriers does exist.

  2. Here’s another slant on the war for talent; not demographics, but in terms of being in the trenches.

    I still think there is a War for Talent; just not the war, or more accurately… diversion, that many corporate recruiters are running off to fight.

    The fact is that you are in “aggressive competition with other organizations for the same individuals.” It’s the nature of competition and competitiveness breeds “suspicious relations.”

    Even with the global economy in a tailspin and a sharp increase in the numbers of capable and available candidates; talent acquisition will be competitive. The haystacks just got a lot bigger…sorting and filtering a lot harder. The challenge, for competitors will be, besides the large haystack, how you relate to the talent market place not to each other… you’re competitors.

    Your observation that internal processes and systems are the main challenges is astute; but seldom acknowledged. For those who want to resolve this serious challenge, the problem isn’t all that difficult. Col. Boyd’s OODA Loop (observe, orient, decide, act) offers a good model. Contrary to your fears, vendors can provide a tremendous amount of information. There are also independent consultants capable of guiding buyer to make good choices. A professor of mine, in my pursuit of a forestry degree, was famous for saying “you gotta walk the ground men”. So there you have it. Once you’ve observed the problem, orient to it, decide what to do, and act. Unlike the fighter pilots the OODA Loop was designed to keep alive; folks in HR don’t have to worry about engaging at that level of intensity. Nevertheless, as your CEO observed “succeeding despite our processes” would suggest trying a different approach.

    The assertion that third-party providers can’t be objective, and therefore reliance on a competitor for help is a bit like asking the fox to guard the hen house. Consider best practices in terms of recruiting for example. Which group has demonstrated, time-and-again, the highest and best competency in recruiting high-level talent; in-house recruiters, or third-party search and placement pros? Oh-by-the-way, in referring to third-party recruiters, I’m talking about those that demonstrate their competence in the market place every day. They’re not hard to identify…as their reputations precede them. For those who wish to be candid, the objection is generally about cost not competency. Allow me to suggest that if the challenge is to “clearly define our own priorities” a good place to start would be whether to rely on a competitor or an independent and competent consultant. At least engage in the due diligence of comparing apples-to-apples before dismissing the “usage of staffing agencies”; as you admonished “we should also never pretend to know everything.” Candidly, I think third-party recruiters have not only defined “best practice” they invented them. Sophisticated talent managers understand clearly that when they need top talent and need it now the “most painless procedures” aren’t going to be found in house

    You did indeed “open yourself up to scrutiny”; and while it may have been a little embarrassing to say “I’m a recruiter, and my processes don’t work,” I think you’ll feel a whole lot better having learned something in the process.

  3. Timothy, you practice what you preach…you held up your hand.

    Now, let me chime in on the subject question “Is the War for Talent a Red Herring?” The answer depends on who you listen to, whether those who care engage in due diligence. The answer is fairly straightforward!

    Consider former Microsoft lobbyist Jack Abramoff who direct $100 million in political expenditures between 1995 and 2000, enabling Microsoft and other employers to procure employer-friendly changes to H-1B visa legislation in 1996, 1998 and 2000. As a result of this work force glut, real wages in STEM fields have remained flat since at least 2000. As a consequence, visa policy holds down wages in America. According to the DOL compensation levels for a foreign student shifting to a work visa status ranges from 30% to 45% less than what it would be for U.S. student graduating with a baccalaureate degree? It appears that low wages and unemployment results from EXCESSIVE importation of foreign labor. Sounds a bit like Government sponsored Corporate Welfare.

    UC Davis, Computer Scientist Professor Norman Matloff says the War for Talent, in America, is a red herring. In December 2003 he published a 99 page report titled “ON THE NEED FOR REFORM OF THE H-1B NON-IMMIGRANT WORK VISA IN COMPUTER-RELATED OCCUPATIONS” is posted on the UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN JOURNAL OF LAW REFORM Fall 2003, Vol. 36, Issue 4, 815-914. YOU CAN READ THE REPORT at:

    In more general terms, according to Randstad USA’s annual 2008 World of Work survey: Any future skilled worker shortage won’t result from a lack of manpower in the wake of shifting workforce demographics. It will be the limited transfer of knowledge during the generational shift of 78.5 million retiring boomers to 79.8 million Gen Ys inheriting this workplace. The problem is that the current U.S. workforce, Gen X, Gen Y, Baby Boomers, and Matures, rarely interact with one another. So, the size of the, Gen X, Gen Y workforce is larger, younger, and better educated that previous generations. Does this spell shortage of skilled workers?

    In 2002, Nobel economics laureate Milton Friedman correctly identified the 1990 H-1B visa program as a “government subsidy” because it allows employers access to imported, highly skilled labor at below-market wages. Mainstream economist Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve’s board, reports that 42 to 56 million American service-sector jobs are in jeopardy of being outsourced? over the next several years?

  4. In Response to Brandon’s critique:

    First of all, thank you for your comments Brandon.

    I still stand by my assessment that the ‘war for talent’ is distinctly overblown. Whilst my organisation may occasionally joust with specific market competitors for individuals, there are huge numbers of companies with whom I rarely if ever compete. For example, a salesperson for my company is unlikely (although it’s not impossible) to be a profile of interest for the sales team of a pharmaceutical company. However, I am sure that there are practices that the recruitment team within that same pharmaceutical company that would be of interest to me.

    In essence I do agree with your assertion that many good practices have come from the third-party or independent sector, but it is more about the individuals concerned than the structure of the marketplace. If organisations continue to take their Talent Acquisition discipline more seriously and invest in their internal teams, these individuals will increasingly be hired directly into companies and not operate on the outside.

    I hope that this makes sense.


  5. Tim, we are in sync, on all counts.

    The War for Talent is overblown. In large part this so called war is a fraud driven by the same public and private sector corruption that’s caused the the financial meltdown driving world economies into the ground.

    Also, I wholeheartedly agree with your observation about talent acquisition discipline. My point, and I believe yours, was that such discipline, like anything else, requires practices and process that drive the desired outcomes; getting the right people in the right seats; and that sharing best practices among colleagues in human capital management elevates talent management practices. No argument there.

    My point on the discipline of doing that was that some organization have both the need and resources to support an internal talent acquisition engine; while others might be better served by third-party solutions and services.

    Your missive and responses were well thought out.

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