10 Defects of the Talent Market

Talent market

An Imperfect Talent Market

The talent market isn’t perfect. There are imperfections, paradoxes and dogmas both on the supply side and on the demand side. They pollute our thinking about talent. There are at least 10 talent market defects that make the talent market somewhat exclusive, limited and maybe toxic. It’s time to review them and think about how to deal with them.

Talent Market Defects

Here are the 10 defects. Each defect has different origins, different impacts and different solutions.

Talent Market Defect 1:
Labour Market Thinking

I use the word talent market instead of the more commonly used term labour market. If we talk about the labour market we focus too much on the work (labour) at hand. The demand for labour lies with the employees, freelancers, the people. The supply of labour is coming from the employers. As if the raw material of that market were the jobs, functions, the work.
The true raw material is the skills, attitudes, motivation, … that people bring to work. I wonder how that labour economic thinking came about. Probably labour markets have been dominantly seller’s markets, where the talent was abundant and the jobs (supply of labour) were scarce. And so the focus was on the work and not the talent. And the thinking got twisted around.
But today, Talent is not abundant. It’s becoming a seller’s market. Supply of Talent is dwindling. Demographics help us to understand the shortage in the markets. But increasingly organisations are fishing in a limited pool of that shrinking talent supply.
So let’s reverse thinking and argue that the supply of talent is what matters strategically.

Talent Market Defect 2:
Experience to Get Experience.

Young people who are looking for a job lack experience. That’s a fact. But many job profiles demand earlier experience. This is a vicious circle. How are people without experience to gain experience if experience is a barrier to entry?
The answer is of course that young people should acquire some experience as early as possible through student jobs, internships, dual learning, study projects. It’s about creating dots as Steve Jobs called them, as early as possible. But it’s more about life experience and maturity than it is about the acquisition of specific job-related skills.
For organisations it could be beneficiary to open up to young people more. Internships are the best way of doing that, provided that this channel is also used as a recruitment channel (and not only as a source of cheap labour).
When organisations stress the need for experience, they contribute to the tightness of the talent market. And yes, chances are that young people leave the company after a couple of years. And one could regret the “wasted investment”. But this kind of thinking is obsolete. The investment is only wasted when the talent of youngsters has been restricted. Young people can be a source of innovation, organisational learning, reverse mentoring, … Only when we treat young people like we did in the past, the investment in their talent will be wasted.
So let’s lower the barrier to entry and allow young people to yield returns.

Talent Market Defect 3:
Perfection Exists?

Reading certain job descriptions and their related profiles, I can only conclude that organisations are still looking for the perfect employee. Companies want experience, knowledge of multiple languages, a degree, a strong personality, the right attitude and immediate deployability.
Also in my company it’s a daily battle to convince hiring managers that there aren’t instant ready and perfect people in the current talent market. And the question is if there has ever been. If talent is scarce, perfect talent is even more scarce. And by focussing on perfection, we exclude people with potential for the job, but without all the specs.
This also means that all companies are looking in the same, small and shrinking pool of talent. Looking for the highest standards in a market that is demographically challenged is not the best idea. Companies must distinguish between the “must haves” and the “need to acquires”. Attitudes and values, but also intelligence and social competency are must-haves in all or at least most jobs. For some jobs a (technical degree) is a must-have, but in a lot of jobs companies could let go of that.
So let’s focus on the essential criteria.

Talent Market Defect 4:
The Degree Fetish

The degree is still an important decision criterion in the process of matching talent to jobs. It is in fact overrated. I will never tell someone a degree is not important. The main reason for this is that a degree is still an entry ticket to the conservative talent market. However, it is not a residence permit. The degree loses its value very fast. The value of the knowledge or skills acquired during studies is limited.
We cannot assume that the value of a degree comes from the mere transfer of knowledge. It’s much more important to look at the way the degree has been obtained. People can get a degree (the paper) by focussing on the minimal effort. They comply to the demands of the institution that hands out the degree as a proof of academic or technical knowledge.
But, a degree can also prove that someone is engaged, persevering, creative. So unless there are legal requirements to hold a degree in a job (you need a medical degree to be a physician), organisations should drop the degree spec from their job profiles. That makes those jobs more accessible for people who do not have the right degree. The fetish of the diploma is too exclusive and organisations miss opportunities to hire excellent people.

Talent Market Defect 5:
the Hole in the Cheese.

For many hiring managers it’s almost unthinkable to hire some one who has made a mistake. That’s probably because they’ve never made a mistake (irony). It’s remarkable how recruiters search for the holes in the curriculum. Recruiters typically do not like twists, bumps and holes in a career. Holes in the cheese are not that interesting. But I would argue otherwise.
We all make mistakes. Without mistakes there is no learning. People build careers by the grace of the learning by mistakes. So the holes in the cheese are interesting, but not to disproof qualities. The holes in the cheese are sources of information about how people learn, how they deal with setbacks, how fast they bounce up.
Everything has a story, both perfection and imperfection.

Talent Market Defect 6:
The Love for the Ideal Competency vs. the Fear for Bad Attitude.

We fall in love with people with a track record. The fact that they might not bring the right attitude is too often of secondary importance. Nevertheless in my experience more people are fired because of bad attitude than because of bad performance. I haven’t found statistics on it (only many blog posts).
And the old adage of any HR professional is that bad attitude should lead to immediate dismissal. There’s more hope when bad performance is due to lack of competence. There is no remedy for bad attitude.
But when we meet someone who has the right experience, we tend to forget about attitude. Our love for competency perfection is far greater than our fear for bad attitude. And that’s because hiring managers think they can compensate for the bad attitude. They tend to overestimate the capacity for people to control their bad attitude and they underestimate the damage bad attitude causes.
The cost of a dismissal because of a bad attitude is higher than a dismissal for lack of competence. And that’s because the collateral damage of bad attitude is far greater. Bad attitude is like a venom. It slowly poisons the relationships at work.

Talent Market Defect 7:
Harvest now. Invest later.

Our view of careers is still linear: study, work, retirement. Put differently: invest, exploit and live on the proceeds of work. Who invests? The person, families, the government. Organisations are looking for people who are trained for the job. That is called “train to place”. The reluctance to invest in people, reduces the pool of talent which we can recruit from.
Can we do something else? We can place and train. And this is often more efficient. Put someone with potential on a mission, and they will learn exponentially. Put someone who is trained on a mission and chances are that they will have to unlearn.

Talent Market Defect 8:
Adaptability above Employability.

Organisations hire people for who they are and what they can do. But once hired, there’s too often a pressure to become someone else. We expect people to adapt, to blend in. “Here we do it like this. It’s not right to change it.” In many organisations resistance is futile. And people who do not get assimilated will be removed.
And so we destroy value. Every time we hire someone, there’s an opportunity for the organisation to learn and evolve. And hiring someone always causes friction. Everyone comes on with new ideas, other ways of doing things. And so every new hire should make the status quo tremble at least. This takes energy but adds value.
The focus should not be on adaptability of a person (how well do they fit?) but on employability. And to make people employable, we need to give them the space to be who they are. That’s why we hired them in the first place. It’s a kind of psychological contract. And maybe it would not be wrong to make that psychological contract explicit and to customise the job as far as possible.

Talent Market Defect 9:
The Quest for the Active Components of People.

Much of what HR does is based on the concept of competency. A competency is a characteristic (skill, trait, attitude, …) that enables someone to be successful. It discriminates between high and low performers. I call that the active components of people. Companies have developed competency dictionaries to guide recruitment, career development, employee appraisals, etc. They focus on a couple of competencies that make a difference. Very often these are generic: customer orientation, coöperation, accountability, initiative, …
Not only competency profiles are interchangeable, they are also reductionist. They give us the illusion that we can measure the active components of people and that we only need to focus on these elements.
But a person comes to work as a hole. So we need a holistic approach. The best overall question to ask during a selection process is “Who are you?”. But we ask “What can you do?”. If we hire people not only for what they can do, but also for who they are we can focus on creating a more diverse workforce. The interaction of personality and competency is much more interesting than the reductionist view on competencies. Hiring interesting people who can create value, is much richer than the quest for competencies.

Talent Market Defect 10:
Look Like Me. Conformation.

People discriminate. Let me rephrase that, they have biases. And one of those biases is that we are looking for people who look like us. I call the the conformation bias. It’s easy to hire someone who looks like me, thinks like me, works like me. But it’s rubbish. Instead we should hire people who do not look like us.
Have you ever hired someone you do not like? I have. And it is not easy. But you should not hire people because they are easy. You should hire people who can make a difference. And so you need to hire people who are different from you.
Corporate cloning is not a good idea. Hiring managers should build a diverse team. And I am not talking about diversity in terms of gender and origin. I am talking about diversity of ideas, thinking, looking at the world. Yeah yeah, you’ll say. That’s valid for creative teams, management teams. But in a factory diversity is a nuisance.
Let me tell you this. Most probably you’ll find the greatest diversity on the shop floor. The shop floor most probably reflects society the most. Only, we do not use that diversity enough. We underestimate too often the value of bringing different views together to create a meaningful value. Diversity leads to creativity, in my humble opinion.
Diversity is not easy to handle. But if you hire the same people all the time, you will never change anything. You get stuck in a fixed trail. That’s never a good idea in a disruptive world.

No Illusions

I have no illusions. The talent market is drenched in assumptions and biases. It’s very difficult to break through dogmas. But unless we adopt another view of the talent market, it will remain normative and exclusive. And that won’t help us. So a first step is to understand how these dogmas influence the dynamics of the talent market and our own behaviour.
If you are led by these dogmas, you might want to reconsider them and experiment. To me the business case of a more open approach towards talent is clear: a bigger pool, access to more talented and engaged people, a diversity of ideas. Think about it.
An earlier version of this blog was published in Dutch and French on www.securexblog.be. This is a reworked version.

Why the (employee) labour market is conservative

The conservative Labour Market

Yesterday  I received a demand for help from someone who was looking for a first job. She had been trying since last summer to get a job. I asked her to send me her CV. I count on you, she said when she sent me her CV. Don’t count on me, count on yourself, I told her. This is the labour market, remember.
The experience inspired me to make a list of ideas on how to create and improve a CV. And as I was compiling the list, I realised that the list was conservative. It  focussed on how to comply and get through the hurdles companies have between them and the labour market. This made me think. There are 4 reasons for this conservatism

Recruiters are junior

It’s a fact. Many of the people doing the recruitment have not much life experience. They hold on to the competency profile but are not willing or able to take a broader perspective. They are not able or allowed to take a different perspective.

Hiring Managers are short-sighted

Hiring Managers focus on the short-term. They want people who are productive in the shortest possible time. They usually demand the perfect candidate and are not open to people who have a certain distance to the labour market.

There is too much focus on the Degree and the Job

Companies still focus too much on the job they have to offer. Instead we should focus on potential and employability. Instead of adapting the person to the job, we should build jobs around people. So every candidate should be assessed on the potential contribution he or she can bring to the organisation. In many jobs that is not related to a degree. But still, we focus on degree and on jobs.

We train to place

Too many companies do not wish to invest in development. Hiring people with the wrong experience or training is difficult. Most companies are still in the “train to place” instead of accepting the “place to train” approach. If you start from potential you will get further. Decathlon hires people with the right attitude and a passion for sports and takes it from there. the training comes after the placing.

Exclusive Labour Market

The result is that we still have an exclusive labour market. Minorities, handicapped people, people who do not fit the profile, … have a difficult time to find a first job. The paradox of the labour market is that you need to have experience to be offered a job. And that’s a vicious circle. Countries like Germany have a dual learning system that combines study and work. In many countries there are apprenticeship programs. But in many countries it’s insufficient.

Collect the dots

Play the game and collect the dots

So the most easy thing is to help people how to play the game of the labour market. That means that they need to learn how to conform, or use the rules to their own advantage. Personal branding, career engineering, cv design, … People of all ages and backgrounds should gain insight in how they can play the game. Today it’s only after career disruptions that people are thinking about their career and cv, maybe helped by an outplacement service. The challenge is to think about it all the time.
But they should not think of it in a superficial way. It’s not about having a CV with a great layout. It’s about having something to offer. Steve Jobs talked about connecting the dots. Well you need to have dots to connect them. The continuous gathering of experiences and competencies should never stop. Collect the dots and connect them. That’s the key for success in this conservative labour market. And that’s also the key to be employable and successful in the future.

Change the game and offer the dots

But I do not think that we should leave it there. The labour market should become more inclusive and open to people who do not fit the mould. It’s necessary that people can find their way, provided they are willing to make the effort. So organisations, supported by the government if needed, should offer the dots and change the game. Alternatively they should see the dots and embrace the potential of people whose dots are different.
An active involvement in the development of the labour market is needed from all stakeholders. If we can maximise the number of dots, we can maximise the chances. Organisations that think the exclusivity of the labour market is not their problem should think again. If it’s not their problem, whose is it? It is our problem.
Check also:
Connecting the dots – present and future by Karl Van Hoey

Fear and faith, excellent Allies.

Fear and FaithTough social times

Belgium is going through tough social times. November and December have been particularly intense in terms of manifestations and strikes. And it may not be over yet.
Union leaders say that people are very worried and afraid for all the (possible) consequences of the government’s intentions. They say it was not really difficult to mobilize their members to strike. Union members are – according to the union leadership – very ready to strike.
I fully respect the worries and emotions of people but I doubt whether strike is the proper solution. We’re not going to solve that in a blog. But the aspect of fear occupied my mind this week.


Why are people afraid ? Is it fear that drives them into striking ? Why don’t they have faith ? Faith that using other ways (e.g. dialogue instead of strike) will lead to better solutions ?
And if there isn’t any faith or trust left between unions and government, how has it come that far ?
Many questions. No simple answers.
I use sometimes the “SCARF” framework, developed by Dr. David Rock in 2008.
It explains that when our Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness (SCARF) are at stake, our brain releases reactive energy. Our brain makes us use our energy in trying to defend and keep what we have. “Let’s not loose !”

Fear and faith moving us in the SCARF framework
Fear and faith moving us in the SCARF framework

Whenever the same aspects seem to be improved (the opposite of being at stake), also exactly the opposite happens: our brain releases proactive energy. Our brain makes us highly engaged and collaborative to adopt the change. “Let’s win !”
So we move away from the change in the first case. And move towards the change in the second case.
Any simple communication on change can be enough to start this movement. Our brain continuously screens for physical, social threats and rewards. It tries to decrease danger and maximize reward. It makes decisions about everything you interact with in the world.
This is important to understand:

  • Resistance may take various forms. One can fight (e.g. by striking) or flee or freeze. It is not a rational process. People react out of their emotional brain. They act threatened and feel being victims.
  • We use rational statements to articulate our preferences but tend to rely on our feelings when we actually make choices.

Fear drives us away from change. What is needed to drive us towards change ? Even if the change may impact our SCARF negatively ?


The faith of winning on the long-term, if we’re prepared to “loose” on the short-term ?
The faith that dialogue instead will bring us faster and more efficient in that future ?
The faith that together (unions and government) everybody wins more and faster than each one staying on their own SCARF ?
I get the impression this necessary faith or trust is no longer where it should be between parties. Have some people chosen for radical self-destruction ? I do not understand why the efforts to restart dialogue and trust building, have been so low on the priority list for such a long time

What is needed to reinstall this faith ?

  • Vulnerability

    So far we’ve seen very “macho” behavior: government versus unions and unions versus government. What is going on behind the macho-masks ? Fear at both sides ? The feeling of being powerless ? The conviction the “other side” needs to take the first step ? An honest and vulnerable declaration, like “please, let’s stop this, please let’s listen and talk to each other” may help. No matter from which side it’s coming. Let’s hope these things do happen behind the screens.

  • Empathy

    Does the one side really cares for the other ? And for the general benefit ? Is the government truly feeling the worries of people ?
    Are the unions truly worried about the economy on the long-term and about necessary efforts to be made ?
    We need both to survive: happy, engaged people, embracing change, and an economy to work in.

  • Listening

    In stead of yelling to and fighting with each other on the streets, one could consider to listen. Listen, not to reply, not to give solutions on the short-term, not to recommend, not to decide, and certainly not to judge. But listen, just to listen.
    And even if we do that, I think there is still a long way to go. But at least we will be going towards each other, and not away from each other.

Fear and Faith are Allies

Fear and faith could be excellent allies to make us move from the “away” side to the “towards” side. Vulnerability, empathy and listening are the keys for a successful marriage between fear and faith.
In this movie David Rock himself explains the SCARF framework.

Pension Reform: let's live now.

These are difficult times for unions in Belgium. The government has (finally) decided to go ahead with a pension reform and is doing so with an unprecedented speed. The political agreement and the deadline for its implementation, leaves little room for dialogue between the social partners and the government. It is generally accepted by the public that pension reform is needed so the time seems to be right. But this is not how the unions see it. They see three problems:

  1. They have not sufficiently been involved in the debate about the pension reform (“erosion of social dialogue”);
  2. They see individual rights threatened (“broken promisses”) not only in terms of pension rights but also in terms of unemployment protection;
  3. They see the rights of entrepreneurs and companies broadly untouched (“injustice through unfairness”).

The first problem might be the most important one. Belgium has a strong tradition of social dialogue and a high trade union density. Unions owe it to themselves to react. That explains the harsh language and the announced strikes. Unions do what they do and the rituals are needed to get through this without loss of face. In the past these actions have always led to compromises. But today something peculiar is going on. The minister responsible for pension reform – Vincent Van Quickenborne – announces that he will go through with it, even when this means he will never get re-elected. This is unheard and a new political courage. The socialist party – who has provided the prime minister – confirms that these reforms will go through. The unions are not at ease with this fait accompli and this determinationI can imagine that they are getting nervous.
Union leaders claim now that they have tried their best to keep things calm so far, but they can no longer guarantee that emotions will not lead to wild strikes. They have called for a national strike end of January to channel those emotions (to be honest, the strike was pre-emptive as it was announced before the government was formed). The strike comes after the deadline that the government has given itself. Unions are taken by surprise by the speed in which the reform will be presented to Parliament. They are surprised by the no-way-back and there-is-no-alternative (a style that they know very well themselves). So the national strike might come too late.
Even when unions have a point when they say that the tradition of social dialogue has not been maintained, unions are not informing their members correctly. So let’s put forward some elements.

  1. Belgium has one of the lowest activity rates for elderly people. There are other countries that combine later retirement with low unemployment, and high quality of labour with high employment. We need to look at other countries like the Netherlands or the Scandinavian countries to see that it’s possible. So why not in Belgium?
  2. The pension system as we know it, is underfinanced and future generations will not be able to support the retired if nothing happens. There are no reserves. The real pension age has been too low for decades through systems of early retirement. Subsidized systems of work time reduction or sabbaticals have become so popular that not only they are costly but they have also contributed to the deficit of the system. All this in combination with the increased life expectancy has undermined the financial stability of the pension system.
  3. The economic crisis has created a budget deficiency, which requires budgetary action. This is most probably the main cause for the wrath of unions, but saying that the banks should pay instead of the workers is populism. A pension reform was needed also before 2008, when the financial and economic crisis started.
  4. Belgium is one of the last countries in Western Europe to go ahead with a pension reform. It’s a matter of competitiveness and of image.
  5. The pension reform cannot be a surprise. The debate has been going on for years and there was a modest prelude in 2005. That year the generation pact has been voted. The effect of this generation pact has been modest not to say insufficient.
  6. Social Expenditure in general in Belgium has gone up. This is an indication that there is no erosion of social protection. (see a recent publication of the social security agencyhttp://www.socialsecurity.fgov.be/nl/nieuws-publicaties/nieuwsoverzicht/2011/12.htm#151211). We need to heed the efficiency of the system (but working costs have not gone up dramatically) and it’s a sign of good governance that a government wants to prevent a derailment of the system. There should be no doubt about that.
  7. All in all, the reforms are even not that dramatic. The legal age for retirement has not increased. Compared to our neighbouring countries many things have been kept intact. This probably means that the reforms will not be sufficient and more reforms will be needed. It took Germany 15 years to reform their pension scheme. In the coming reforms we need to make sure that people acquire during their working life sufficient reserves to maintain the quality of life after retirement.

A different way of thinking is needed
The elements above are of a technical nature. What we need to do is to change the way we look at work. Work is not something that prevents us from living. It’s a part of our life and it gives life a purpose. It’s a pity to value retirement as the ultimate reward of work, as the main deferred benefit. Let’s live now.

Youth Unemployment: The Spanish revolution

On Friday may 27 2011, I witnessed how the Spanish Police in battle-dress evacuated the Plaça Catalunya in Barcelona. Youngsters had gathered on this famous square – probably inspired by the events in the Middle East and Northern Africa – to protest against the skyrocketing youth unemployment and the apparent lack of remedy. The atmosphere was that of a political rally mixed with a musical festival. Young people were debating about many topics, but most discussions were dealing with their future, given the high unemployment rate.
Youth unemployment in Spain was at 42,8% at the end of 2010. For the sake of comparison: Morocco was at 18,8%, Portugal had 23% and Greece was at 36,9%. (Source www.ilo.org).
The (weak) economic recovery seems to create jobs, also for youngsters. But the ILO warns that youngsters could get discouraged and stop participating to the labour market. This could be the case in those countries where statistics are not a high priority for governments and where registration as unemployed is no obligation , where there is hidden unemployment or subsidized employment, where there is no unemployment allowance, where participation of women in the labour market is low, … They stay at home or even end up in criminal activity, …
In Spain people talk about the lost generation. Unemployed young people cannot start with their lives; they cannot afford living on their own let alone buying a house. They are confronted with a grim future. Many of them have studied and realize they cannot find decent work. They end up in precarious employment situations, low paying jobs.
According to the ILO we need a government approach that generates sustainable job recovery and sufficient high quality jobs for youngsters. Having a meaningful job is of the greatest importance for people as it is a basis for mental wellbeing. A job generates income; it provides meaningfulness to one’s existence. One can make a difference, contribute, and acquire societal status through employment. Research shows that the lack of a job or losing it has a negative impact on mental health. For someone at the start of his or her career it means a very uncertain future.

What can we do about youth unemployment?

There is no miracle cure. But this is what governments should do:

  1. Make youth unemployment a priority;
  2. Make sure having a job is worthwhile. Reduce fiscal pressure on income through labour.
  3. Provide early work experiences for youngsters by combining education and work. Review your educational system to maximize these experiences.
  4. Make sure that people leave school with a degree and provide ways for catching up for those without degree.
  5. Make sure that companies are open for diversity and look at potential instead of at degrees or the match with rigid job-demands.
  6. Encourage companies to hire people that have no professional experience, even though they are less productive at the start or you risk losing them after a short time. Companies should consider this as a way of corporate social responsibility. Governments can give incentives.
  7. Provide early guidance towards the labour market for youngsters, starting at school. This should cover study choice, curriculum building, internship management, …
  8. If you have no opportunities for your young generation, then help them to emigrate and hope that they will return tou your country once things are getting better. They might remember that you’ve helped them. But deal with your brain drain.

<h3>Back to Spain</h3>
The Plaça Catalunya has been evacuated because there was a soccer match between Barça and Manchester United. It’s cynical that a soccer game – the fear for riots – comes before the protesting youngsters. Barça won and I think that the crowd on the square would have celebrated together with the fans. The square was empty at 8h30 but was filled again with young angry people by noon. People I talked to – both with and without a job – disapproved the approach of the government.
But the situation is indeed cumbersome. The government led by Zapatero has no miracle cure and is faced with many challenges. What is then left for the current generation of the PIGS-countries? Do they have the choice between unemployment and emigration? Will Spain sacrifice this generation and focus on the budgetary deficit. Will Spain create a future for its future generation? A social emergency plan is needed.
David Ducheyne
Read also : ILO, Global Employment Trends 2011: The challenge of a jobs recovery