The Myth of a Talent Shortage

We have been bombarded for a decade with news reports, articles, stories, and books about the looming shortages of talent that are about to overwhelm our industries, businesses, and economies. The pandemic has seemed, on the surface, to exacerbate this because many people have left their former occupations to try new things or have dropped out of the workforce.

There is some validity to these stories, taken at face value and looking at traditional work styles and jobs. Human resource people, recruiters, and some business people affirm the shortage anecdotally.  But it’s hard to find real examples and real numbers. Primarily there are temporary or short-term shortages in emerging or expanding areas where education and supply have not kept up with demand. This includes such fields as artificial intelligence, robotics engineering, and other jobs in new industries. Often job requirements are unrealistic, and the required qualifications for many of these jobs are excessive and unnecessary. In time, enough people will have the skills and experience to fill these.

More significant is the widespread adoption of automated tools and robotics that has reduced the demand for many types of workers. For example, only about 11% of workers remain employed in manufacturing, and those workers are more skilled and experienced than at any other time in our history.  Automation has replaced thousands of less-skilled jobs, and the need for raw, untrained people has reached very close to zero.

The trend toward automation will continue rapidly as it becomes more difficult to find people willing to work for relatively low wages. Retail stores, for example, are reducing the number of sales associates by installing systems that let customers do their own check-out. We have already seen Amazon introduce a “black box” retail establishment with only a handful of employees. McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurant chains have installed self-service ordering and payment systems. There are hundreds of other areas where automation will reduce the need for or replace humans when the costs are less than or equal to the cost of a human.

The rise in demand for non-traditional talent will grow rapidly as we emerge from the pandemic even though we do not know what they will be.

So, it is unlikely that there is any broad-based shortage of traditional talent. Any shortages that may exist can be attributed to new types of work without trained workers, unrealistic job requirements, over credentialisation, geographical location, the nature of the work, and the pay scale.

Our mindset is still in the past and we continue to assume that traditional skills will have value and be needed in volume in the future. But the rise in demand for non-traditional talent will grow rapidly as we emerge from the pandemic even though we do not know what they will be. The jobs that are emerging require skills and attributes that have not been required or widely taught. These include skills in negotiation, innovation, teamwork, influencing, cultural competency, and the ability to interact with robots.

If organisations want to prepare workers for these new jobs they need to start training programs, raise wages, and lobby educational institutions to change curricula.  None of those things have happened on a wide scale, but the pandemic may be changing this thinking. Numerous reports and government agencies are proposing changes in how we incentivise and pay for education and training.

Over the past few years, there has been increased interest in internal development programs, internships, internal mobility, and similar development activities. Companies are investing in diversity programs, training, college recruiting, and retention activities to ensure the supply chain. But, we have not built good bridges between education and work, nor have we pushed organisations enough to develop their own employees.

The challenge for the government is to find ways to partner with businesses to help them retrain and re-skill thousands of people who are no longer needed in traditional occupations. From high school to university, educational systems make false promises to students and parents by implying that they will be employable after graduation. Recruiters know that neither a high school diploma nor a college degree is enough to ensure a job offer.  Most occupations require extensive training and take years to master or require skills not even taught. For most people, figuring out how to get a job with no experience is the most significant challenge they face.  This should force organisations to build bridges which could be internships, short-term work assignments, part-time work, apprenticeships, and so forth. We all need to lobby for changes in human resource policies and changes in employment laws that limit building these bridges. 

Most governments focus only on permanent employment, most likely because they derive regular income from salary deductions for taxes. But we need many avenues for people to follow – from being a gig worker to becoming a permanent worker if desired. There is no one way that is right for everyone, and having a choice can make a difference in who gets a job and who learns a new skill.

The concept of a talent shortage is based on the assumption that tomorrow will look more or less like today. We know this is no longer true. The world of work is in major flux and over the next decade will completely transform.  We now need to encourage experimentation, continuous learning, and a flexible mindset. We need a combination of private, employer-supported training aided with government support both financially and in exacting more flexible regulations and laws regarding the conditions of employment. The 20th Century is long gone, and its concept of what work should be.

Cover Image: Shutterstock

You can catch Kevin at the upcoming Australasian Talent Conference 2021 DIGITAL #ATC2021DIGITAL event speaking about The Fearless Forecast: The New Now of Work + Possible Futures. Get your 2-4-1 tickets now!

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2 Responses to “The Myth of a Talent Shortage”

  1. Howard JAMES

    I’ve been in the recruitment industry for 28 years now and every year some “futurist” or mathematician working on AI has told me that I will be redundant by ?????? Usually 12 -24 months. I’m still here and so are many manual labouring jobs. There are some things that just cant be done by a computer and that will always be the case. He’s simply wrong ! Maybe in 100 or 200 years but in the meantime he can keep recycling these predictions every 12 months or so to make a living and name for himself. AI cant replace that! In the meantime if he thinks there is no talent shortage – put an add up for a mechanic, or Lead Project IT engineer – systems or a stonemason, or office admin withskills in Zero or,………………………………………………………….

  2. Christopher Caston

    It is extremely tone-deaf when employers talk about a talent shortage. Developing skills takes a lot of time and expense. Getting experience requires selling your soul. Employers think that the invisible hand of the market has trained and experienced people available on tap but it’s not the case. Each job seeker was once someones baby that took decades and cost thousands to raise, feed, care for, educate and train. The employer just now has to take them in an entry level role and give them room to further train and up-skill to the specific requirements for the role. It should be so simple but infuriatingly it’s not the case. Entire generations of job-seekers have been demeaned and dehumanised to the point where they now want nothing to do with the corporations so claim to so desperately need them.


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