The Myth of the War for Talent

Contrary to what many people believe, the war for talent is a myth. What is not a myth, however, is the frightening social/organizational/political situation that has been caused by downsizing in recent years, in the name of achieving higher and higher levels of productivity. This downsizing has decimated many organizations, creating the need for each new person hired to be a superstar — because where it used to take twenty employees to do the job, now there might only be room for seven.

I spoke with an IT Director recently who once had eighteen employees. Now he has four. He is living with goals he has no chance of ever achieving, bug-ridden code he can’t even dream of correcting, and four employees who can barely cope with the workload or the stress. This is what happens when you try doing more with less, not as an all-out effort to make a deadline or complete a special project, but as a day-in, day-out way of life. Those of us in recruiting and HR at all levels need to recognize this newly emerged reality, because it will clearly impact how we can drive genuine and meaningful change at our organizations.

Simply stated, the never-ending drive for higher levels of productivity is killing the American workforce. According to a recent three-part series in The New York Times entitled “Sick of Work,” 62% of American workers say their workload has increased over the last six months. Fifty-three percent say their work leaves them “overtired and overwhelmed.” One reason stated in the article is that white collar workers take their work home with them. Furthermore, the American Institute of Stress in New York states that “workplace stress costs the nation more than $300 billion each year in health care and missed work.” It should be obvious that we have wrung about as much juice out of our workforce as we are going to get. Today’s employees are being hard-pressed to achieve these high levels of production, not because of reasons that are intrinsic and prideful, but because of layoffs that have resulted in having employees compensate by doing the work of two or even three of their missing coworkers, all the while coping with the stress of wondering whose head is next on the chopping block. This is not a civilized way to live one’s life. When I write or speak, I generally try to provide answers. So permit me the luxury of asking a few questions instead today:

  • How productive should a person be? When is enough, enough?
  • Should we fry our employees in the name of productivity and just replace them when they are no longer useful? (Why not? Does that offend your sensibilities? We all know that payroll is often the most controllable expense and all of that good green cash just drops to the bottom line. Why rush to hire when we can make our remaining employees run just a little bit faster?)
  • Is the cry for more productivity a great tool for the greedy, bottom-line-motivated, Wall-Street-driven, short-term thinkers or what? After all, business is business; companies have been doing this for years. (Ever hear of sweatshops and kids working for eighteen hours a day for less than a dollar? It’s illegal now, so we now just ship it overseas to the sweatshops we never see. Neat trick, huh?)

Now that I have asked my questions, why not ask these questions of yourself?

  • Do you find that it seems harder to find qualified candidates?
  • Does it take longer and longer to fill positions?
  • Do you find hiring managers agonizing because they can only hire one person and they need three, or four, or five?
  • Are you more stressed than you were ten years ago?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, or sadly, more than one, it is because not only are we killing those who are already employed, but we are also always trolling for just a select few that will allow us the privilege of killing them just as well. I am not a math guy, but let’s look at the numbers using the example stated above. In the most oversimplified of terms, if you need 50 skill sets to run a 20-person department, you have the ability to hire candidates that might be light on some of those skills because they can learn what they need to know. However, if you cut the department down to four employees and you have one requisition open, you need to use it wisely. As a result, you will need that employee to have so much more in terms of skill sets to get the job done. If that’s the case, you will spend far more time looking to hire the right candidate, who, not coincidentally, everyone else is also looking to hire.

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Right there is the crux of the “shortage”: Few people are good enough to have it all. Unfortunately, some of the tools organizations funded in the past to insure their future are now in short supply:

  • Gone are the days of meaningful on-boarding programs that created a better situation for both employee as well as employer.
  • Gone are the days when training budgets had dollars that would develop and build great employees. (The company I mentioned above had $20,000 in their training budget for 1,300 employees. Forwarded-thinking bunch, yes?)
  • Gone are the days of long-term thinking. Now we have passive candidates being pushed as though they were actually the answer to all of our problems. (Pulling candidates from one company to have them fill a need in another will never build a strong workforce overall, and that is what we as a country should be doing.) Sadly, this “shortage” has created an entire industry of those ranging from hucksters and clowns on the one end to academics and well-meaning consultants on the other, all trying to solve a problem that can only truly be solved by corporate America in the first place.

However, recruiters at all levels can do something that will impact this problem. Consider the following:

  • Work closely with your HR business partners to identify employees who are consistently required to do more than is reasonable and examine what can be done to alleviate the situation. Employees who are burning out tend to lose effectiveness and are more open to opportunities outside the organization. Besides, if they leave the organization, it will be your job to replace them. Any recruiter worth his or her salt always has an eye on retention.
  • Look closely at position profiles that are developed for newly approved requisitions. As a rule of thumb, if the requirements of a position seem unreasonable, they probably are unreasonable. (Listing 27 responsibilities and 34 qualifications is a dead giveaway. Besides, who wants a job like that in the first place?)
  • Look at historical levels of headcount for major discrepancies. If you find this to be the case, raise the issue with those who can support change. Turning a blind eye to the problem makes you a part of that problem.

I write on this subject for the recruiting community because I see us as business builders, as leaders, and in this case, as agents of change. I can assure you that corporate America will not be changing to a long-term thinking machine any time soon because it lacks the values to do so. (The author and journalist Ambrose Bierce defined a corporation as “an ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.” Well said.) No doubt I will be called a creeping socialist, or an idealist, or a dreamer. I have elements of all within me, but in reality, I am a hard-core businessperson who understands that the best organizations will do well by doing right. Those organizations creating cultures that value work/life balance, that make people feel appreciated, and that provide a sense of security will ultimately win in the long run. I would like to thank Danielle Monaghan of Microsoft for being a sounding board for this article and for making suggestions that have helped me to put it all together.

Howard Adamsky has been recruiting since 1985 and is still alive to talk about it. A consultant, writer, public speaker, and educator, he works with organizations to support their efforts to build great companies and coaches others on how to do the same. He has over 20 years' experience in identifying, developing, and implementing effective solutions for organizations struggling to recruit and retain top talent. An internationally published author, he is a regular contributor to ERE Media, a member of the Human Capital Institute's Small and Mid-Sized business panel, a Certified Internet Recruiter, and rides one of the largest production motorcycles ever built. His book, Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals/The Guide for Savvy Hiring Managers and Job Hunters Alike (Osborne McGraw-Hill) is in local bookstores and available online. He is also working on his second book, The 25 New Rules for Today's Recruiting Professional. See if you are so inclined for the occasional tweet. Email him at


13 Comments on “The Myth of the War for Talent

  1. Good article Howard — Hope you are well
    Let?s just change our semantics to say:

    ‘The War for Top Talent’

    There has always been a war for TOP talent and there always will be … I’m sure Danielle knows what I’m talking about, because the TOP talent that you need to target and build a relationship for within msft’s exec team is intense !!

    jus’ my .02

    PS. yap, 1 top talent today can do the work of 10 regular talents of yesteryear … (with the help of technology and other luxurious forces)

  2. Howard, I enjoyed reading your article and calling you a creeping socialist is not what came to the forefront of my mind. This is a hard-nosed look at the problem we face today and this is exactly the Rx required. Companies have been wringing the last drips of blood from talent for years – I can not tell you all the horror stories I’ve heard over the years – but when the water hits the shore on this subject it’s that many, if not most, companies pay attention to one thing – the numbers on the bottom line and where they can extract more to bring down to it. Less (salaries) = more $$ for that bottom line and many times it most easily comes out of the hides of the workers. It has always been this way in most companies. It is a function of greed. And though greed can be a driving force it can also be a base characteristic.

    Enlightened practitioners like you see the practice for what it is and what it is not.
    This makes me laugh at those theorists who
    would have us believe the ‘corporation’ in America is some noble, self-sacrificing saint
    who deserves our protection and reverence.

    Let’s get real. Most of them are ravenous, over-reaching animals with little to no regard for a worker’s quality of life. Tell the 50-something who’s devoted a lifetime of work to a corporation that pays more attention to his approaching and escalating health care costs and increases in his pension than it does to his 30 year record of faithful service. The bottom line is that he’s not the animal he once was and they know it. Off with his head! Or how about the salesman with the fire in his belly and his eye on performance who quadruples a company’s territory reach only to see it halved and the other half given to someone else – believe you me the corporation decides how much a guy like this ‘deserves’ or ‘needs’ to earn.

    Is it fair? Not to my way of thinking. That’s why, Howard, when you suggest the WAR for talent is a myth, you may be right. Maybe we should call this a WAR for something else – maybe we should look at this thing as a WAR ‘on behalf’ of talent. That’s why, every single time I assemble a list of names of potential candidates
    inside one of these monster (and mostly uncaring)corporations for someone to call and offer another (maybe better) opportunity to, I’m leveling the playing field, just a tiny little bit, in my eyes. And I feel good about that and I sleep ever so soundly at night.

  3. A thought-provoking article. Two thoughts: one, I was struck by how much it overlapped with ideas in Scott Adam’s ‘Dilbert Principle’ book. And two, without disagreeing with Howard’s ideas, I think the title missed the mark. It seems to me that the article effectively argues that the war for talent is misguided, but it certainly isn’t a myth.

  4. Here here!

    My fav-‘Sadly, this ‘shortage’ has created an entire industry of those ranging from hucksters and clowns on the one end to academics and well-meaning consultants on the other, all trying to solve a problem’

  5. Howard,

    While this may be a bit knee jerk, I feel very disappointed that a person with your credentials and apparent ?knowledge? of the recruiting industry can sound so, well?. unintelligent.

    I do not think you are a socialist, I think you are a contrarian. You like taking the opposite side of an issue to stir the pot. I think you have succeeded with this article, congratulations for that.

    I believe the article is fraught with ?if?s?. If you would take a moment to look at some of the respectable data available on the talent war, you will see that the numbers are bearing things out. If you feel the war for talent is a myth, then you do realize you are taking the opposite side of the likes of the federal government, the big 4 accounting firms and many public and private firms that are living this now.

    The war for talent is a math issue, and you, Howard, are a part of that equation. Looking at your photo I would guess you are over 50, a baby boomer. Your generation is retiring, and the one behind it, is not nearly large enough to fill all the vacancies that are, and will continue to occur. There are many large and small companies in America trying to figure out how to deal with this issue as it starts to develop.

    Do I think that you are totally incorrect regarding the typical employee being asked to be more productive and that a person will hit a wall sooner or later? No, I think this point has some merit. I think that since the industrial revolution and even before that, companies have been trying to get more production out of their people and sooner or later, there is just no more to get. Sometimes technology steps in, (the cotton gin, the assembly line, the internet). These new inventions allowed companies to do more with less.

    However, reading this article I would perceive that you think that your clients are mostly draconian in nature. That they have no long-term vision, care little for their staff, and look forward to burning them out. Again, I hope I am wrong. I do think that pure capitalism and the drive for the bottom line does come at the expense of workers and others sometimes ,(e.g. Enron)

    The clients I interact with are doing their best to think long term. They are doing their best to offer training, and mentoring programs, (both structured and unstructured), to bring people aboard in such a way that they will want to stay longer than the normal employee in corporate America.

    You could have a point in programs disappearing if you are speaking primarily about technology departments and companies in the last 3-4 years. The Dot.Com boom brought some terrific employee oriented programs.. The Dot.Com companies essentially made employers walk the talk when it came to treating employees well. When the economy went into recession, yes employers cut back where they could and one of the big places was the areas you mentioned. I propose that IF, (your word not mine), I believe the WHEN, employers start really seeing key shortages, and they cannot outsource, off-shore or deal with it any other way?THAT then they will again start looking at more/better on-boarding programs, more training etc.. As I mentioned, I feel very fortunate to have clients that I feel do this now.

    The war is here, now. Best of luck to all involved.

  6. Where is HR in the scenario? Where’s a thoughtful ‘people planning’ process? This is recruiting’s problem to solve? Who are these managers? (I say in my best Jerry Seinfeld imitation)

    I guess I don’t buy into such a grim view. And trust me, I am no polly-anna (I know, poor Polly-anna, always being maligned), quite the opposite. I think we all know that turn-over costs money. Could it be as simple as executive management holding individual managers accountable for low turn-over?

  7. There is an extremely high threshold for productivity with people who believe in what they are doing, and can see appropriate payoffs and rewards. And that is only possible when the company balances and manages its talent in fine tune with what its workers expect vs. what the marketplace needs. Perks and workloads are therefore balanced by the peaks and valleys in the market of the product or services being produced. People have an incredible ability to achieve a mission if it is communicated well, and progress and rewards are substantial and/or commensurate along the way. Unfortunately, some companies don’t have leadership that is honed to walk this fine line. And this opens the door for burnout, low morale, and turnover. It’s not rocket science, really. Good leadership and talent management is a requisite for most bottom lines and stockholder return, but only to the extent that it maintains that balance. If the scale tips in either direction, adjustments have to occur.

  8. Howard, although your points are well taken regarding the ruthless drive for increased productivity at the expense of the average worker, the title and first sentence of your article is simply not true. Is there a ‘War For Talent’ across the board in all industries? Probably not. But is the ‘War For Talent’ a ‘myth’ across the board in all industries? Absolutely not.

    In your article, you two of four questions you asked were: ‘Do you find that it seems harder to find qualified candidates?’ and ‘Does it take longer and longer to fill positions?’ You said that ‘if you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, or sadly, more than one, it is because not only are we killing those who are already employed, but we are also always trolling for just a select few that will allow us the privilege of killing them just as well.’ This view is simply naive, especially when considering two industries in particular, government contracting and healthcare. These two industries are critical to the safety and well-being of our country, and the sad fact is that there simply are not enough people with the knowledge, skills, abilities, education and other critical credentials to fill the demand. It truly is a simple issue of supply and demand.

    In my industry (government contracting), the backlog of people in the process to obtain security clearances is in the hundreds of thousands. The companies in this industry do want to hire, and hire in huge numbers. In many cases, their revenue is tied to billing people against their contracts. The government simply cannot process enough security clearances to meet the demand of the market. Those coming out of the military who do have the clearances are not meeting the demand either, and are more highly valued than ever. The same goes for healthcare, especially as it applies to nursing as the nursing schools are just not able to produce the new talent to meet the demand.

    So as a result, we all have to steal talent from each other. Those with the appropriate clearances and/or credentials and experience shop themselves around to the highest bidder, and employers more and more are willing to do whatever it takes to get who they can. It’s not just a matter of numbers not matching up that make this a ‘War’ however, its the tactics being used too. The most recent ‘Mega Jobs’ Employment section in The Washington Post was the most robust it has been in at least 5 years. That’s right, even though we all know print advertising isn’t very effective, employers are pouring huge amounts of money and resources once again into big, beautiful, colorful print ads. Salaries are skyrocketing, with companies paying at a premium for clearances and credentials. Some are even paying candidates just to come out to speak with them. Some healthcare providers are offering massages, pedicures and manicures at their Open Houses. One local employer is even giving away a BMW. The same tactics we saw in the late 90s are reappearing again purely out of desperation.

    So the ‘War For Talent’ in these industries is alive and raging, and its not a matter so much of being to picky or selective. To do these critical jobs, specific skills, experience and credentials are absolutely necessary to meet the demand. There are still a few employers out there who ‘get it’, who do a great job in investing in their employees welfare and development. These companies, such as the one I work for, are winning the battles with low turnover and high offer acceptance rates. But as a whole, we will lose the war as long as the only option available to us is to continuously fight over the same shallow pool of talent that we are able to recruit from.

    Are there some companies out there who simply don’t care about the well-being of their employees, not supplying the appropriate resources and demanding increased productivity all for a higher stock price? Sure there are. But you also have industries such as government contracting and healthcare where employees are working themselves to death because their employers are not able to hire as much talent as they need or would like to. As a result, these employers are not able to provide the necessary deliverables/customer service, they lose revenue (or patients) as a result, employees have to work harder just to keep pace, and those employees end up hopping around from place-to-place in search of a better life (i.e. who can offer the best salary, perks, work-life balance, etc.) It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone, and there is no real relief in sight. The ‘War’ is very, very real Howard. It may not be a ‘World War’, but it does exist nonetheless.

  9. Howard,

    As I read you article it reminded me of a girl that I went to college with back in the 80?s. She interned with and went to work for one of the then Big 10 accounting firms. She worked ridiculous hours, traveled hundreds of miles to get to her clients, and often stayed away from home two or three weeks at a time to complete her assignments. The higher she went, the more she did with less. I knew a lot of the people that she hung out with (all accountants) and their stories were all the same. They all wanted to make partner and the only way to do it was to cut your teeth on the hard road and climb the ladder.

    This is what the big firms did. If you wanted a good job with one of these companies and wanted to get to the partner level, you needed to kill yourself now to get the reward later. The idea for the firms was that there was always another crop of young recruits coming up the ladder that would replace the old burnouts when they were done with them. Only the very best and brightest survived to make it to the top. The rest cut out and went to corporate audit departments. It was, what I thought at the time, the ultimate game of corporate survival of the fittest.

    Then came the last 5 years. Somewhere, some how, someone figured out what the Big 10 (now Big 4 I think) were doing and started applying it nation wide. Not just with technology but with people. You can get blood from a stone and that is what Corporate America has been living on for the last 5-7 years. This is the 2-3% yearly productivity gain that the Fed has loved to talk about. It is going to continue to happen for another 2 maybe 3 years, until the first big wave of Baby Boomers start to give way and retire.

    Then the Gen Xers are going to revolt. The Y generation won?t be in place yet to take up the slack and the majority of Gen Y are not geared for the pressure anyway. They are solid and steady but they need guidance. The X generation is going to start demanding what it thinks it deserves. The Boomers and X people at the top are going to resist and the Gen X talent are going to say ?OK forget this. I can find better someplace else and leave. We are the me generation. It will be at that point that Corporate America will be in real trouble. (I have personally witnessed this happen on a small scale already. It is just a question in my mind if/how it will translate to a larger level. A economic slow down will delay it.)

    People may agree with this view, they may not. But I look at the talent pool/economy equation as a rubber band. It is very flexible and can be stretched and pulled in a lot of different directions, but pull too hard one way or the other and it snaps. A few years ago it snapped in the direction of the talent pool with the explosion. Then it snapped back when the bubble burst. It is being stretched right now is several different directions. Only a lot of companies are just beginning to realize that they are about to go from one of those big, thick red rubber bands down to a thin, cheap blue one. The blue ones snap a lot easier. And they hurt a lot more.

  10. I just wondered if there was anything significant about the date 13th October. Is it backtrack or about turn day? Do some people forget what they say or do they hope that we, the readers forget?

    6/20/2005 – By Howard Adamsky
    Poaching from the competition has nothing to do with ethics. As the good doctor and Master point out, there is no place for socialism in business. There is a war out there and the competition is using real bullets; as such, the objective is to destroy the enemy, not to make nice to them!

    10/13/2005 – By Howard Adamsky
    Contrary to what many people believe, the war for talent is a myth.

    7/18/2005 – By Dr Sullivan reference FirstMerit
    Job boards versus the phone.
    FirstMerit uses job boards in an interesting way. They look at job boards as an indirect way to reach their target candidates. For example, if they are trying to hire commercial lenders, instead of placing an ad for a commercial lender, they take the indirect approach and place one for a lending assistant (a lending assistant works directly for a commercial lender). Over time, they have learned that even though there is very low turnover in the lending assistant job (and thus even though they really try, there is a very low chance of getting a hire), lending assistants typically love to talk. So they use these job board responses to ask who the best lender is in the assistant’s bank. They then take the best lending assistants to lunch and ask them to identify the very best commercial lenders they’ve ever worked for. Even though it’s an indirect approach, they find it produces vastly superior results over using large job boards, because experience has shown them that the very best commercial lenders just don’t post resumes on job boards.

    10/13/2005 – Michael Homula
    We don’t post positions that don?t exist or never hire for. Quite the opposite. We post positions that do exist in our culture and we we know we will be hiring for in the very near future. Because we engage in strong workforce planning and know our recruiting cycles, we know there will be openings for the position we originally posted. We don?t tell the candidates that applied there is a position and then, once we get competitive intelligence, dump them.

  11. thanks Howard,
    very interesting article, and also very interesting points. All very valid.

    I came accross some excellent survey data from Recruiters world
    recently that had me wondering,
    As a headhunter I don’t often get statistics on new hires and such like, and I was hoping that some may be willing to share –

    Is it necessary or is there a benefit for companies to recruit college candidates?
    – if so what are the benefits?

    -what percentage basis would you say that College hiring/recruiting is done at your or for that matter any company?

    – Is there any focus on it?

    – what would be the elements of a great college candidate?

    -How often would a company take a chance on an individual outside of your industry? If so what would be the strong points to make that consideration?

    -Is there a benefit to that? if so What?

    is it more expensive to train someone that had experience, or does it take longer/shorter for them to adapt to the new environment and culture and get up to speed?

    OR Promote someone into the position; or bring them from another industry?

    Lastly, what would you say were the promotion percentage w/in your organization/or any organization?
    and why would you think that would be?

  12. This article has had me thinking all week. Quite often I wonder what it would be like to work for a corporation again – the great benefits, and ‘stable’ income and ‘security’

    Then I look at my husband and many of the candidates I speak to every day and go no way.

    So many of my top candidates will take less money. I see candidates wanting to take a Step Back literally in their careers and desire the smaller mom and pop store rather than go national where they will have more stress.. so that they can have more time with their family as More men are having concerns about seeing their kids grow up. More women are entering the Male dominated world but have still retained their insticts of family.

    Today’s world is so different; As employees personal motivation appear to Change, the pendulum seems to swing in the opposite direction for the companies.

    Corporations seem to have forgotten about the team spirit, and reward for excellent work done. Training seems to be of the past. No more company picnics, just a simple pat on the back –

    Something seems to be lacking as we ask for more of individuals there seems to be less given back to emotionally involve the employee and allow for more job satisfaction.

    Are there others who see this as well?

  13. Fantastic article. From the articles that I read I couldn’t agree with you more. No offense intended but it seems to me that I can’t help but
    think some people like to hear how smart they are from themselves.

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