Monday, October 18, 2010

Combination Jobs That Go Vacant

Something funny is going on in the U.S. labor market. It’s obvious that there are millions of high-skill workers who are looking for jobs, desperately in many cases, yet many employers complain that they can’t find qualified workers. I’ve come across anecdotal evidence that may explain some of this. And it’s not about a mismatch of skills, with workers having the wrong skills for the work that needs to be done.

It starts with employers combining jobs. An example from a recent news story was a factory that decided to combine assembly, computer programming, and quality control work. This makes some sense for the operations of a shrinking factory, but it just combined the job requirements of what used to be three jobs. Then it found that no job-seeker in the whole country had the years of experience it was looking for in all three of these specialties.

I pored through job listings and found example after example of the same thing. Employers want software engineers who have network management skills and are fluent in multiple European languages. Epidemiologists who can double as statisticians. Restaurant managers who can do bartending and accounting. But they aren’t interested in paying the premium salaries that these rare combinations of skills would command. And even if they were, so few people possess these specific attributes that there is no assurance of hiring any of them.

Employers may not understand the scarcity of combinations. This is a concept from advanced mathematics, but if you have never studied probability or related fields, it can come as a surprise. To take a simple example: A million people use the first name Rick. Tens of thousands have the last name Aster. Therefore, there’s nothing strange about the name Rick Aster. But the fact that the name is perfectly ordinary doesn’t mean it occurs frequently. There are only a few people with the name Rick Aster.

Here is another example. There are about 5,000 active rock musicians in my local area, so maybe there are 1,000 bassists. About half of them sing, and about 1 in 50 also play violin, so there might be 10 rock bassists who sing and play violin. If I want to recruit one of these approximately 10 musicians, I have to have a very advanced strategy just to find out who they are.

Obviously, that’s not what employers are doing with their combination job descriptions. They are passively waiting for responses, and being disappointed when applicants are only partly qualified. In the current slack job market, employers have become even more passive than they were before.

Sometimes, employers are just advertising for the specific combination of skills that the last worker had. I’ve seen this in my own career, when I was the temporary worker, and the employer advertised for a permanent worker to replace me. The job listing asked for someone who had my exact skills: advanced SAS programming, customer segmentation experience, financial background, and so on, line after line for most of a page. Obviously, that didn’t work. When they thought a little further about what they actually needed, they focused the job description better and eventually hired someone.

If you need a worker, there is always a way. The most obvious strategy is job training. If you need someone to do bartending who is fluent in multiple European languages, the obvious approach is to hire the person who is has approximately the right language skills and teach them how to work a bar.

What makes this year so different is that many employers aren’t looking for any of these alternatives. If they can’t find just the right person at the exact salary that’s in the budget, they don’t want to take any chances. Instead, they’ll leave the position vacant. They say there is a mismatch of skills, but it isn’t really that. It is a sign of businesses running scared. And if this many businesses are this scared, that is a problem in itself.