This post came from a question I was asked by a frustrated professor at my alma matter.  He tries his hardest to teach his students relevant material and give them the chance to develop skills employers tell him they demand.  However, many large companies who his students apply to for employment keep rejecting them.  Yet industry experts insist they cannot find enough technicians and engineers with the right qualifications.  He asked why and what can be done about this?

Almost everyone has been told the United States is suffering from widespread shortages in its science and engineering workforce, and if they continue, these shortages will cause it to fall behind its major economic competitors.  Little credible evidence exists for a numerical shortage. Instead, there are more people with science and engineering degrees then jobs available.  Yet many employers claim there is a talent shortage and they cannot find enough good engineers out of those who are fresh out of school.  If there are enough new graduates out there, why cannot employers find the correct ones?  The reasons I have been able to identify are the following:

  • Skill mismatch
  • Unrealistic requirements for new hires and unwillingness to train them
  • Ineffective recruitment practice

Skill Mismatch

According to the “talent shortage” and “skills gap” narratives, technical workforce shortages are primarily caused by an inherent weaknesses of American education in science and mathematics.  While it is true that there are some bad schools and ineffective degrees, the real problem is a mismatch between what a school is able teach vs what an employer demands.  Schools will never be able to produce graduates with exactly all the skills employers want.  Training of new hires is supposed to fill any gaps.  The mismatch between employer expectations and education in micro and nanotechnologies is a common theme of this blog.

Technology (and the skills needed to work with it) evolves faster than a school’s ability to teach it.  This is part of the reason the myth of the “STEM shortage” still exists.  It takes students anywhere from 2-4 years to complete a vocational degree, and 4-6 years to complete an undergraduate degree, yet can be much faster for the next generation of consumer electronics to hit the market.  As technology evolves, a company has to fill jobs and prepare itself to meet demand.  A smart employer who desperately needs new employees with specific skills will hire first then train as fast as they can, instead of demanding new graduates to be fully proficient from the start.  If there is a shortage of professionals trained in a particular skill, it can disappear within 2 or 4 years.  This is faster than when most graduates will be ready.  When they finish their studies, a different set of skills will be in demand.  The ease at which a company can fill entry level jobs (or any technical job for that matter) is often based on its ability to train its new hires, regardless of the local labor market or the quality of local schools.

Unwillingness to Train Leads to Unrealistic Expectations

A reason some companies cannot find talented engineers is their unwillingness to train new hires.  In place of training, these companies expect new hires to have all the requisite skills, even the industry-specific ones.  A good example is any oxymoronic, “entry level” job requiring a Master’s degree and 5 years of postgraduate work experience.  In 2014, Dr. Peter Cappelli wrote an editorial in the Washington Post claiming the expectations of many employers have become out of step with reality and they have trouble finding candidates with the work history they want, rather than not having enough recent graduates with the correct skills to be hired.  From the stories several managers have told me about hiring at their companies, this problem is still relevant today.

Expectations from new hires that are too nitpicky, numerous, or requiring industry-related, postgraduate work experience for an “entry-level” job, frustrates a company’s recruiting efforts far more than any mismatch between what they expect and what schools teach.  New hires can be trained.  Not many engineers I know want the same job they have been doing for the last 2 years somewhere else.  It is no coincidence that companies that expect this and are unwilling to devote time and resources to training face a “talent shortage.”

Recruiting is Hard for Any Company

For every manger I have spoken with, recruiting is hard.  Even for those with a clear idea of the type of person they seek to hire and realistic expectations for skills and work experience, finding the ideal employee can depend on luck.  Sometimes a candidate is in the right position for a job at the right time but very often they are not.

Too many companies further complicate their own recruiting efforts by trying to automate them too much or relying on processes that are unfriendly to job applicants.  One inefficient yet widespread practice at large companies is to have as many people apply online to their posted jobs as possible in order to fill a company’s “hiring funnel.” The online application process used by these companies are optimized to filter out many candidates instead of identifying good ones.  Therefore, recruiters at large companies using these processes solicit applications from as many people as possible for a single open position.  Often they receive over 200 applications for a single one. The filtering software then automatically eliminates or ranks applicants based on keywords or years of experience, regardless of whether or not a candidate can do the job.  For some companies, it takes weeks to identify a few finalists and they cannot evaluate or correspond with every candidate.

If the listed job requirements do not appear realistic or the application takes more than 5 minutes to fill out, many job seekers will go not apply.  Some will instead identify relevant managers on LinkedIn, then contact them about the job.  Most jobs are filled through referrals in a manner similar to this, even those which are posted online.

Companies which are friendly to job seekers and select new hires in a quick and personable way attract great employees.  Many companies which treat all job applicants like cattle and drive them into time consuming recruiting processes as they seek the perfect employee complain of a talent shortage.

What Can We Do About These?

Unfortunately most of these problems are beyond the control of a career-driven student or their educators.  A possible skill mismatch may be compensated through completing projects relating to the skills most in demand before a student is about to graduate.  The rest are employer problems.  Therefore, a new graduate must be prepared to fight and force their way into their first jobs!

Some claim internships as the new “entry level” job.  However, there is no guarantee an internship will turn into a full-time position.  Therefore it is not wise to pursue many postgraduate internships unless there is something special and very valuable about a specific one.  Smart companies have focused internship programs and realize interns are a poor substitute for entry level workers due to the educational and short-term nature of such contracts.

The “talent shortage” and “skills gap” can be as much, if not more, an employer problem as they are an issue with the abilities of new graduates.  Students soon to graduate and educators should realize this.  An employer’s unwillingness to train or attempts to be cheap are their problem.  This will only hurt them in the long term.

To get their foot in the door, recent graduates have to hustle.  It is not enough to passively apply online or attend career fairs.  The result of those is typically radio silence from overwhelmed recruiters.  Instead, one must seek out the correct person within a company to contact and either 1) express their interest in joining the company or 2) ask for advice and guidance about the industry or company.  To be successful in a job search, a recent graduate is well advised to know how to spot business pain and how they can quickly learn how to solve it and become profitable to an employer.  Engineering is about solving problems, and technical problems cause a lot of business pain.  A successful employee solves these problems.  A successful job candidate demonstrates they can solve them.

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