On the technical skills shortage and hiring practices

Well, when I said I would be posting infrequently, I didn’t expect to go three weeks between posts. I’ve had the thoughts for this post floating around in my head for the past couple weeks, but only today have they coalesced into something coherent.

The issue of skills shortages and inadequate STEM education in the US has been a noteworthy issue for me for at least the past year, partly for personal reasons and partly due to the significant role my employer plays in the current STEM education push. Since the shortages and the education are two somewhat-distinct stages of a pipeline, I intend to cover them in separate posts. This post covers the (supposed) skills shortage in the current workforce, which is the more personal of the issues for me; I’ll discuss the STEM education in a follow-up post.

Vivek Wadhwa posted a piece on TechCrunch a few months ago covering a range of issues with engineering employment. Something in particular stuck out to me:

Alden postulates that employers are looking for very precise skill sets that are not readily available either because of inadequacies in U.S. education and training, or because of insufficient mobility in the labor force.

I definitely agree with the first part of this statement. However, I don’t think training and mobility are the driving issues, though they certainly are issues. In my rather unscientific survey of job postings, I generally see two things: 1) requiring years of experience in precise skill sets; 2) strong preference for, and sometimes explicitly rejecting anyone but, local candidates. If good candidates are routinely rejected for one or both of those reasons, then solving the problems Alden mentioned won’t make much headway. In fact, this trend is one of a few things I think calls into question the efficacy of the STEM education movement, but that is a subject for my next post.

Then there is the appropriateness of the precise requirements. One of Vivek’s commentators summarized this problem well:

My experience is that companies are asking for specific skill sets that aren’t remotely connected to what the position needs. For instance, I saw an ad for the position I am currently happily in, and I didn’t apply because I didn’t have most of the skills they wanted. However, when I saw a link to the same ad from someone I knew who was working in the company, I gave it a shot and was hired right off the bat (because my skills were known to that person).

After a couple of weeks in the position, I could see that someone with the skills they were asking for would have been VERY unhappy in the position. These skills are very commonly advertised for in the industry I’m in, and I can’t help thinking that they’re probably as irrelevant in many of the other jobs as they are in this one, and companies insisting on those skills are eliminating many candidates that are likely perfect for the job in favor of ones that could be a poor fit (even if they’re available).

I have been there myself, having a position where the description didn’t match well with the actual work. To some degree, this inaccuracy is unavoidable; nobody can craft a job description that encompasses everything the position will be required to do. Still, after getting the job you should not hear something to the effect of, “You’re awesome, but we wouldn’t have hired you based on your resume.”. (I got this position through my department manager, so I didn’t formally apply.) I have coworkers who feel deceived to various degrees about what to expect on our current program as well.

From my little corner, these inappropriate filter functions appear to be a serious impediment to successfully filling engineering positions. These mostly affect large companies, but these are the same large companies pouring millions into the STEM effort and trying to get the federal government to do the same. The same companies that claim to be committed to “attracting and retaining world-class talent”. Perhaps these companies should take a critical look at their own houses before proclaiming a critical shortage, or be honest about what they are looking for.