Y! Big Story: Why you can’t get that job

Vera H-C Chan
·Senior Editor, Special Projects

"Wanted: Someone exactly like my last boyfriend (see list of qualities), only better. Demonstrate success in a proven relationship, preferably a current one. You should know what I want without my telling you."

There wouldn't be enough 10-foot poles to poke at a dating ad like that. Replace that mating call with a job posting, though, and that's what many employers are asking for these days—and more.

The latest hiring numbers made markets skitter and economists gloomy. Yet this time, attention also focused on commitment-phobe employers, who can't seem to bridge the gulf between unemployed workers and job vacancies. The growing consensus—which won't surprise frustrated job seekers—is that fickle companies in a surplus labor market are demanding perfect candidates without paying market wages or investing in training. Worse, some discriminate against the unemployed, figuring if they're not taken, they must be tainted goods. And because employees are taking their sweet time sifting through so many potential suitors, they're piling the workload on existing staffers, who are often ready for a breakup. (Update: Or they max out in productivity.)

It's not me, it's you. Dismal hiring numbers stem from plenty of sound reasons, among them fears of a Euro-thrashed market and uncertainty in an election year. Yet the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counted about 3.7 million job openings in March—still below the 4.4 million jobs posted when the recession began, but "up significantly from a year earlier." Plus, those vacancies have been piling up since mid-2009. The reason? The supposed skills shortage of our shiftless, undereducated, out-of-touch American workforce.

Peter Cappelli, who just released his book "Why Good People Can't Get Jobs," dismisses the idea of a skills gap. Instead, the Wharton management professor says "inflexible" employers are "the real culprits."

[O]nly 15% of employers who say they see a skill shortage say that the issue is a lack of candidate knowledge, which is what we'd normally think of as skill. Instead, by far the most important shortfall they see in candidates is a lack of experience doing similar jobs... They want experienced candidates who can contribute immediately with no training or start-up time. That's certainly understandable, but the only people who can do that are those who have done virtually the same job before, and that often requires a skill set that, in a rapidly changing world, may die out soon after it is perfected. (June 4, Time)

Employers aren't just choosy about white-collar desk jockeys. Cappelli's favorite example is the cotton candy machine operator ad that required "prior success in operating cotton candy machines."

Codependent relationships. If no applicant is good enough, then employers make do with what they have and spread the workload around. A few of those overburdened employees may have quit in a healthy economy. Instead, they cling on, slowing the normal turnover process. Companies then resort to layoffs to deal with the perceived dead weight.

In the fourth quarter of 2008, the number of layoffs exceeded the number of resignations for the first time in the history of the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. It is interesting to note that the increase in layoffs roughly matches the decline in resignations in the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009, leaving total separations essentially flat during those quarters. (Employment dynamics over the last decade, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Despite the trend, layoffs have been used as a management tool, rather than as a measure of last resort, since the 1980s. Codependency doesn't mean you're faithful, just fearful; that fear can turn into employee restlessness or resentment.

MetLife's 10th annual survey of employee benefits, trends and attitudes released in March puts employee loyalty at a seven-year low. One in three employees, the survey says, plans to leave his or her job by the end of the year. According to a 2011 Careerbuilder.com report, 76% of full-time workers, while not actively looking for a new job, would leave their current workplace if the right opportunity came along. (May 9, Knowledge@Wharton)

Worse, some workplaces don't even sense the fallen morale: USA Today reported that "employers think [employees] are just as loyal as they were three years ago." In the long run, underestimating loyalty is expensive.

[Related: What minimum wage gets you]

Unforgiving standards (and software): Technology has made applying for jobs online easier, which can flood companies with applications. But in many cases, it has also made it too hard, booting out job seekers who may not exactly fit the often vague and sprawling descriptions. In Cappelli's book, one staffing company president described the process as "looking for a unicorn."

Managers pile all the credentials and expertise into the job description to minimize the risk that the candidate will fail, making it virtually impossible to find anyone who fits. ("Why Good People Can't Get Jobs")

The H1B visa: Solution or servitude? Businesses insist there's a skills gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) jobs, and outsourcing or importing labor keeps America competitive.

A report by the Technology Policy Institute in March 2009 found that in the absence of green card and H1B visa constraints in the 2003-2007 period, roughly 182,000 foreign graduates of U.S. colleges and universities would likely have remained in the country and raised the gross domestic product (GDP) by roughly $13.6 billion. (Feb. 1, ABC News)

Critics point to the current setup as 21st-century indentured servitude. UC Davis computer science professor Norm Matloff, who supports the Durbin-Grassley bill, which seeks to reform the H1-B process, has noted that "the vast majority [of H-1B hires] are ordinary people doing ordinary work"—but who are paid below-market wages.

There is no tech labor shortage. No study, other than those sponsored by the industry, has ever shown a shortage... Employers hire only a tiny fraction of those who apply. HR departments routinely exclude CVs of applicants they deem "too expensive"—those that are over age 35. (So managers never see these CVs and mistakenly believe there are no applicants.) (Professor Norm Matloff's H-1B Web Page)

Employee appreciation time: Cappelli says that while companies are good at tracking costs, "most have little if any idea of the value each employee contributes to the organization." Understanding value—and that a job can change to suit a person's skills—would go a long way in making a good match.