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If there’s an IT skills gap, part of the problem is in HR

IEEE Spectrum posted an interview with Peter Cappelli, author of a useful-sounding book called Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.

He nails the problem, as far as I can tell.

I very recently fell victim to a couple of things he described in this interview. A recruiter tried to place me in a job that I was qualified for. It would have been an easy commute, and it would have put me right in downtown St. Louis, which had some intangible benefits for me. They had an opening, and I had the qualifications, so what was the problem?

The biggest problem was money. They were offering me 20% less than I had been making.

We worked to try to narrow that gap. Had we been able to meet about halfway, I probably would have taken the job. After nearly 7 years in the middle of an Illinois cornfield, downtown St. Louis sounded really good. I was even willing to take a pay cut to get out of that cornfield and into the city, and told them that. But I do have two preschool-aged boys, one still in diapers, and I need to be able to pay my bills. It was going to be hard to make a cut that deep work.

After a week or two passed, my recruiter sent me an inquiry from the client: Do I have any hands-on experience?

Tons of it! My resume explicitly states that I spent 2006-2009 administering a live network with more than 20,000 users on it. And for a few years ending in 2005, I administered a metropolitan area network with 1,000 users on it. In between, I did user administration for the largest ISP in the St. Louis area.

From 2009 onward, I’ve had less and less hands-on experience, which is one of the reasons I’ve been looking. An ideal job for me would combine the policy work I’ve been doing along with some hands-on work. Few things irritate me more than out-of-touch policy wonks, and I don’t want to become one of those myself.

I never heard another word. The next I heard from that recruiter, he was trying to place me somewhere else that would have only been a 5% pay cut for me.

One of two things happened. This other company either decided I wasn’t worth what I was asking, or they didn’t believe that I had the hands-on experience I claimed to have. I would think they could cover that by adding another question when they call references. “Would you say this job was hands-on?” is an innocent question. Why couldn’t they ask?

Or, perhaps their objection was that I didn’t have hands-on experience yesterday, and I’d forgotten it all. Not true, but they didn’t ask.

Whatever their reasons were, they cooled on me after that initial interview, which had gone really well. So I’m not working for them. The bigger problem (for them) is neither is anybody else. The position is still open.

Why’s the job still open? Take a look four paragraphs back. Someone else was willing to pay more. Actually, lots of people are. On any given week, there are 5-10 job openings, paying right about the same rate, for someone with my qualifications. The main reason I didn’t change jobs in April was because I was waiting for the right combination of location, benefits, and job responsibility to come along.

In the interview, Cappelli states that employers complain they can’t find people who are doing the exact job now for someone else, who can jump in and give them immediate help. Of course they can’t. If I’m doing a job for one company, I’m not going to bolt for another company for the exact same pay and leave behind my seniority, unused sick leave, unused vacation time, vested 401(K) plan, and an environment and commute that’s familiar. Unless I’m just incredibly unhappy, or think I’m about to lose my job anyway, I have to have some incentive to change.

If you can’t find someone at the going rate, the free market applies. You have to raise the price you’re willing to pay. That price might be straight salary, or it might be vacation time, or a sign-on bonus, or some combination. You may have to get creative. Otherwise, you’re just waiting on pure dumb luck.

I ended up taking a job. I even took a slight pay cut to take the job, because I won’t have to travel and it’s closer to home and the benefits package is a little bit better than what I had. I’m taking a pay cut but I’m making it up elsewhere. They came up a bit, I came down a bit, and I think we’ll both be happy.

So guess what my soon-to-be-former company did? They offered $1,000 a year above market rate. A thousand bucks. They also have a very good benefits package. I don’t think it’s as good as the package where I’m going, but it’s still the second-best benefits package I’ve ever seen. So they dangled out their high-end benefits package, a thousand bucks above market rate, and two days later they had three candidates. There’s a good chance they’ll have my position filled by the close of business today. None are perfectly qualified to give immediate help, but it should take about 30 days to turn their selection into a productive, useful employee.

My soon-to-be-former company gets it.

That said, I think my soon-to-be-former employer made some mistakes with me, particularly with the way they described their own benefits package. But it’s probably best if I don’t go into details there. I’ll just say if you have a great benefits package, make sure your employees know about what they might not be using, and remind them each quarter when things like bonuses and 401(K) matches are coming. Otherwise, those things can become invisible, and you know the recruiters from other companies are pitching theirs when they cold-call your employees.

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