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Search for the Perfect Job Candidate an Imperfect Strategy

In many cases, 'good enough' is just fine; an over-reliance on software programs for job applicants also can weed out highly qualified hopefuls because the qualifications are unrealistic or simply not needed for the positions.

July 6, 2012

It's a familiar refrain from CEOs today: Despite high unemployment, company leaders still can't find qualified applicants, particularly for high-demand positions, such as software programmers and engineers.

Yet many human resources experts say those leading the search have it all wrong.

Peter Cappelli, professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, wrote a book on the subject, Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It, published in June.

Cappelli argues that there is no shortage of qualified applicants, yet a host of reasons company leaders are holding back on hiring, including: a pursuit of the perfect candidate when a very good one would do just fine, an unwillingness to pay a competitive salary for hard-to-fill jobs, and an over-reliance on software programs that screen out many qualified candidates.

"I'm not sure it's rocket science for people in human resources, this dominant rhetoric that we hear—the story that says businesses can't hire because all the applicants are bad and the applicants are bad because the schools are failing," Cappelli said. "Well, there's really no evidence for any part of that argument. This is all really far off the mark."

Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director and global practice leader for Towers Watson & Co.'s talent management practice, says Cappelli's research hits the mark.

"I also think there's a belief that there's so much talent out there that if we're going to hire someone, we're going to get the absolute best person in the world," said Jesuthasan, who's based in the company's Chicago office. "There's this tendency to set the bar really high. The tradeoff is that ... the process takes too long ... and then the work is not being done.

"I believe organizations need to recognize when talent is good enough, and what can be developed within the organization."

Cappelli said that with more creative thinking, company executives can easily find the right candidates.

"What's so quirky is that applicants are arguably better now than they've ever been. The pool is huge. Most everyone is overqualified by historical standards. The average American is overeducated for the job they're doing. Yet there's this unrealistic expectation from employers. They're sort of assuming [because of the unemployment crisis] that there's just got to be the perfect candidate out there looking."

Experts say the over-reliance on software programs for job applicants is exacerbating the problem. The programs often weed out highly qualified applicants because the job qualifications are laughably unrealistic or simply not needed for the positions.

Cappelli cited one example in which a manager revealed that his company had 25,000 applicants for a basic engineering job, but none was considered qualified. In another case, an employer was looking for a marketing position requiring experience in the green olive produce market. Apparently, experience in the black olive produce market wasn't good enough, Cappelli said.

One factor contributing to the over-reliance on software is that many human resources functions took deep cuts during the recession, leaving HR managers overwhelmed, adds Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of the Massachusetts-based HR consulting firm Human Resource Solutions. Software programs can be helpful, experts say, as long as they're used to screen out highly unqualified job seekers. There should be room to consider nontraditional candidates, such as a laid-off chief financial officer for a building company whose financial skills translate to other industries with little training.

"I think you have to go back to the human touch. Organizations have to use a combination of tools," Matuson said. "If they are looking at 25,000 applicants and they can't find one, there's a problem."

At the same time, many companies aren't really pushing hard to find candidates for unfilled positions, Cappelli said.

"One of the key things we're failing at is we don't have good enough measures on how much it's costing us to not fill these jobs," he said. "Sometimes, it can look like you're saving money when you leave a position vacant. In fact, there are calculators that will estimate it for you. It's not that conceptually difficult to do, but there's just a lack of interest because the accounting systems aren't set up for it."

Looking at qualifications differently can also have big payoffs, experts say. "There's significant numbers of unemployed talent with exceptional skills, Jesuthasan said. "Sometimes their skills can be equally relevant in another industry. ... And that solution may be a lot more cost effective, too."

Meg McSherry Breslin is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.