The Case of a Few Chasing the Fewer

Why is it that we are always attracted to that which we cannot have?or at least cannot have easily? And as soon as something becomes easily obtained, we no longer want it. We are attracted to diamonds, but no longer covet the spices that helped create empires. Recruiters and hiring managers are subject to these same attractions. Everyone wants the highly skilled, experienced, and proven-capable few. And we are willing to compete with all the weapons of the modern organizations: stock options, salary, bonus and perk. The cost to hire one of the rare few is climbing every day. Greenspan warns of impending inflation as wages rise. Agencies are earning record amounts of commissions and recruiters have seen their salaries rise every few months. This is a picture that only a recruiter can love. As a businessman, I have to wonder how long we can chase the few before someone finds an alternative approach that costs less but provides much the same outcome. We all know that programmers and project managers are scarce, and in areas like Silicon Valley virtually impossible to find. So, as a staffing manager or a recruiter, what are the options? You can compete in the open market in the traditional ways. These include advertising, job boards, employee referrals, and so on. Or you can work with hiring managers to increase the net supply of talent. And this is the only solution that will have any lasting impact. If you can increase the number of programmers or project managers, then you have reduced the scarcity and leveled the playing field. Okay, this sounds nice, but how do you actually increase the net supply of talent in any acceptable timetable? You use the techniques developed by countries for centuries when faced with war or natural disaster. You put together special training programs to backfill and to build new talent. In World War II, the United States had a severe shortage of fighter pilots. Now these are highly skilled men, who had usually undergone years of flight school and practice. How could a nation at war, with limited resources, develop a cadre of trained pilots to fight the accomplished German and Japanese air forces? <*SPONSORMESSAGE*> They quickly developed aptitude tests for the basic skills of flying. They tested potential pilots for coordination and physical abilities such as coordination and balance. Then they set up a rigorous flight school, moving the candidates through a series of training activities that built the required skills quickly. In a few short weeks – not years – they had an increasing supply of pilots. Many of them few into combat with so little flight time that we wouldn’t have let them get a civilian pilots license. Yet most of them did well, learned quickly, and came home as the qualified pilots that built TWA, American, and United Airlines. Businesses today can do the same. The oft-quoted Cisco has several programs that are pumping new programmers and web masters into their employee pipeline. IBM and Charles Schwab also have programs that build their talent pool and reduce their need to compete head-to-head with other firms for the limited few. What does it take to put together a program to build talent? First of all it demands that you know what skills are required to do a particular job. Strangely, many of my clients are not very clear on what specific skills are really needed to do a job. Job descriptions are most often written based on inputs: experience, degrees or some other criteria, but not criteria based on outputs. Outputs tell the candidate what they are supposed to accomplish and at what level of proficiency. The pilots of World War II had to know how to take off, fly, drop bombs, and land an airplane. They did not necessarily need college degrees, previous flying experience or to possess any particular personality trait. They did need physical attributes, but could be taught the rest. Once we know that a programmer will be required to write C++ code for a specific application with a certain proficiency level, we can train to that standard. When it is clear what you need a person to actually do, it is also clear how to teach them to do it. That is my first axiom. Secondly, we have to educate managers about the shortages and build a business case that it is cheaper to educate for some jobs than it is to try and find people who already have the skills. Why should a recruiter do this? A recruiter should be a human capital expert; helping an organization find or develop the talent it needs to achieve its business objectives. A good recruiter should be able to make the case for recruiting or for developing people based on the market, the scarcity of the talent needed and the urgency of the need. The goal should be to have the right person in the right job at the right time. This is the second axiom. Thirdly, give people a reason to want to be trained to do something new or different. Henry Ford, back a the turn of the century, offered workers hourly pay that equaled daily pay at most other companies. There was a huge labor shortage and the farm was still an attractive alternative. His offer of large wages and good training made it possible for him to pick the best people from the pool that applied and train them to make automobiles. He is often quoted as saying that this was the strategy that differentiated him and made Ford successful. Create incentives so that the good candidates are willing to learn a new skill. This is the third and final axiom. In summary, work with your management team to create the talent you need, and only seek the few when it is vital to survival.

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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


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