The myth of the talent shortage
It's a complaint I hear in various work-related contexts—while reviewing candidate resumes, at industry conferences, chatting with clients over dinner: "Good talent is so hard to find." This sentiment, coupled with a range of studies that suggest between 40 percent and 50 percent of professional hires across all industries fail within the first 18 months, suggests that we have a bit of a human resources crisis on our hands.
But the issue is not a dwindling pool of qualified candidates; it's a tired, broken system that relies heavily on "hard" skills and a specific kind of experience. Advertising isn't the only industry guilty of this, but we are the ones who need to fix it.
Whoa, wait … why us?
We're natural innovators. Idea people. And the survival of our industry depends on it.
In his book, "Where Good Ideas Come From," media theorist Steven Johnson debunks the myth that the most ground-breaking ideas are individual epiphanies. In fact, he argues, they are "creative collisions" brought about when people from differing disciplines, experiences and points of view come together to create. If our chief export as an industry is good ideas, we need to create environments where this is the norm.
But making this our default position will require two critical shifts.
A change in perspective
To start, let's stop blaming a "talent shortage." What we have is a finite number of people whom we've traditionally defined as talented. As the long overdue discussion about hiring and promoting more women and people of color persists, we need to cross-tabulate those groups with another cohort often dismissed out of hand, whom I affectionately refer to as "the underdogs." They're the career-switchers, the graduating students who do not come from a celebrated college or portfolio school, the stay-at-home moms returning to work, say, or anyone over the age of 50.
When we encounter underdog candidates, we should examine the potential flipsides of the unflattering narratives we tell ourselves. So, "She only went to the local commuter school" could be changed to, "Maybe she lived at home to save money or take care of an ailing parent—sounds like she's responsible." Someone with a reasonably good portfolio who "didn't actually go through portfolio school" could be thought of as "a creative problem solver." Likewise, "She doesn't have any agency experience" could be turned on its head to be, "She's not afraid to take risks and will come in with a fresh perspective."
In all these cases (assuming the candidates are otherwise qualified), the pros outweigh the reservations.
A change in behavior
The second, more difficult shift is in behavior. We won't change the landscape of our industry if we don't change modes of recruiting and hiring. That 40 percent to 50 percent job failure rate I referred to? Only 11 percent of those failures occurred because of a technical inability to do the job, according to training and research firm Leadership IQ. The great majority of failures were due to a soft-skills shortcoming or mismatch. These skills are more predictive of success than where you went to college or your list of accomplishments.
The ideal scenario would be one universal, empirically validated source of truth, but until that exists, we can get scrappy. Use resume key-word searches to identify soft-skill traits first—then take a look at the more technical details. It's a major reorientation, but at our current rate of failure and the cost associated with it (according to a late 2017 CareerBuilder.com survey, companies lose an average of $14,900 on every bad hire), it's worth seeing if this approach yields better results.
Agencies are at their best when solving acute business problems. This is an opportunity to take on a behemoth, underscore our commitment to innovation and show other industries how we lead with solutions.