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America’s Got Talent

Maybe it needs more training.

It’s difficult to fill a job in the U.S. today. As I’ve noted — and lamented — there were a record 5.8 million jobs open in the U.S. at the end of March. It can take weeks or months to fill an open position. There are many reasons that account for this state of affairs. The labor market is tight. Internal bureaucratic procedures can further delay the process. The first person who is offered the job may decline it — or use it as a bargaining tool to get better terms from her current employer.

And of course, there’s the issue of a skills mismatch. Companies often find that the people in the available labor pool lack the specific skills required for a particular position. This is particularly acute in certain industries. Last year, the American Trucking Associations reported (pdf) that it expected a shortage of 48,000 truck drivers for 2015. As the American population ages, there are rising concerns about a shortage of nurses. And Silicon Valley can never seem to find enough software developers.

Is it possible the apparent shortages can be chalked up to the way in which we think about employees? Could semantics — and not the shortcomings of America’s education system — be partially at fault?

Consider this. Today, it is de rigueur for companies to talk about talent as a synonym for personnel. The recruiter in many companies is referred to as a talent-acquisition specialist.

Now, when it comes to its traditional and most common usage, talent is something that people have — it’s particularly so when we talk about athletics, or musicianship, or writing. Sure, it can be nurtured, polished, and cultivated. Violin prodigies need lessons, and even the most naturally gifted basketball players need coaching to develop their techniques to their fullest abilities. But typically, talent is something you have when you show up on the scene — at birth, at school, on the first day of work.

Typically, talent is something you have when you show up on the scene — at birth, at school, on the first day of work.

So if companies are seeking to acquire innate talent — instead of hiring people who can be taught to do a job — they might take a more deliberate approach. One of the unspoken assumptions underlying this framing is that not everybody can do any job, and that because the stakes are so high, firms really have to spend the time to make sure they get it right. As a result, recruiters talent-acquisition associates will tend to focus on people who have exhibited the abilities needed for the position. That leads them to try to hire people away from their existing jobs, which can often be a time-consuming and expensive proposition. Or they may focus on finding people who are likely to possess the requisite talents, even if they haven’t showed them yet. And that requires an extensive array of interviews and tests, which can throw more sand into the hiring gears.

The talent approach contrasts with the 20th-century notion of training people. Yes, old-school firms and organizations wanted to make sure people were qualified for their positions. But instead of painstakingly trying to identify those with the right talents, companies would bring new workers onto the factory floor, or into the law firm, or the television station. The raw recruits may have never worked in these environments before and may not have displayed the necessary talents. But the companies presumed that they would teach them the necessary skills while they were on the job, that those skills would be useful in the years to come, and that employees would stick around to apply those skills.

That sort of thinking has gone out the window for a variety of reasons. Matching talent to jobs ahead of time can avert a lot of poor hiring decisions. Since employees have the most to gain over their productive lifetime from building and updating skills, they should take some responsibility for making sure they are maximally employable.

More broadly, many companies prefer not to invest directly in training, or to invest less in training. In an age of focus, many firms realize that training may not be their core competency. In an age of outsourcing and specialization, training makes even less sense. Rather than spend the time and resources teaching people how to write software, just hire a company that specializes in writing software and let it worry about its employees’ credentials. What’s more, companies can’t always be sure that they will get a return on their investment. Skills can quickly become obsolete. And if you spend thousands of dollars training someone to become, say, a truck driver, what’s to stop them from walking across the street for a slightly higher wage once they get their license? In that instance, you’ve spent money to create talent that someone else will acquire.

This isn’t to argue that companies should discard their focus on talent. (As a prospective employee, it is flattering to be told you are being considered as talent.) But it is clear that there is a price to be paid for focusing on acquiring talent rather than on molding potential into talent. And now that we’ve entered a period in which workers may have the upper hand, that price is rising. Companies that really need to fill open positions may have to be prepared to train the new talent to do the job.

Of course — and this is a subject for a future column — training would be the beginning, not the end. Companies that focus more on training will want to protect their investment, so they’ll have to work harder on creating an environment in which people with upgraded skills will want to stay, or devising compensation schemes that reward longevity. Talent-acquisition specialists may have to morph into talent-retention specialists.

Daniel Gross

Daniel Gross is editor-in-chief of strategy+business.

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