Where have all the (good) applicants gone?

by Frank 24. June 2012 06:00

I am told again and again by the popular press and unpopular politicians (is there any other kind?) that we in Australia have a skills shortage. I agree but with a strong proviso; we have a skills shortage but we don’t have an applicant shortage.

We have been advertising for a support specialist (we actually hired one), software sales people and experienced .NET programmers. We are trying to grow and expand and the lack of good quality staff is the major impediment.

I have placed the ads on SEEK, on LinkedIn and am also using the services of several recruiting firms so we at least have a wide coverage.

The initial problem is that the majority of candidates either don’t read the ad or don’t understand the ad or just plain ignore the requirements in the ad. Please note that we are talking about very clear and unambiguous requirements like:

  • Please note that applications without a personalised cover letter articulating why you have the right attributes to be successful in this role will not be considered.
  • Previous applicants need not apply and all applicants must be Australian citizens or legal residents.

We also list skill or experience prerequisites which most applicants also either misread, don’t understand or just plain ignore. Again, we list them very clearly as follows:

  • You will have 3+ years’ experience programming in .NET (preferably VB)
  • You will have 3+ years’ experience working with SQL Server (2005/2008)
  • Experience with the most of the following: .NET 3.5, ASP, AJAX, LINQ, Threading, Web Services, JavaScript, IIS

Of course, as you may guess, the next biggest problem is that the claims in the resume/curriculum vitae simply do not match reality. We for example now test all programing applicants and less than ten-percent of the people we interview come even close to passing a simple programming test. For example, applicants who claim to be certified and experts in topics like SQL are unable to answer even the most elementary questions about SQL.

The funniest (strangest?) thing is that invariably, when we ask them after the test why they rated themselves as a 9 out of 10 in SQL but don’t seem to know anything about SQL, they still rate themselves as a 9 out of ten. It is at that point that you realise there is no point in continuing the interview.

We have now changed our approach and in order not to waste time we conduct a simple phone interview with applicants before deciding to bring them in. As you would guess, most never get past the simple phone interview.

In a nutshell, the ‘norm’ appears to be that applicants ignore the requirements in the ad and also lie about their experience and skills in their resumes. Sometimes the lies are so obvious it is funny. For example, we always check applicants in social networking sites like LinkedIn. The differences between the public profile on LinkedIn and the resume we receive are often amazing; different companies, different titles, different dates of employment. It reminds me of that old question, “Are you lying now or were you lying then?” As soon as we see big differences between the LinkedIn profile and the resume we lose interest.

Recruiters are also in the main, simple hopeless. They want a huge fee for placing an ad on SEEK and sending you a resume. Most don’t interview candidates or screen them in any way or even check references and none take any responsibility. Most beg for an appointment so they can really understand your requirements and then totally ignore them after taking up an hour or two of your valuable time.

However, even after the ‘information-gathering’ appointment and us supplying the recruiter with detailed written requirements the first few resumes we receive are usually nothing like what we asked for. Invariably, when I summon up enough patience to call them as ask why they wasted my time sending me resumes that are nothing like our requirements the answer is usually, “Oh, I thought you might be interested in this one.” Luckily I am not in the habit of gnashing my teeth or I would have none left.

Let me translate that response, “I am a recruiter on a low base salary and high commission and I can’t pay the mortgage on my girlfriend’s flat unless you take one of my candidates so I am going to send you whatever I have in the hope I can earn some commission.”

Then there is the question of literacy and professionalism or the lack thereof. To be fair, a lot of our programming candidates (most actually) are new to this country and English isn’t their first language so we expect to see some unusual phrasing and sentence construction in the resume. Most programming candidates however, despite language difficulties, do a pretty good job in the resume. It is only when we do a phone interview that we discover the candidate’s real grasp of English and unfortunately, for most new arrivals, I can’t employ them in my development environment if they can’t communicate technical matters and nuances at an expert level. It isn’t my job to teach them English.

The real surprise, or shock, is the number of ‘sales professionals’ who can’t spell or construct a sentence or even format a document despite English being their first language. I need these people to be able to construct well-written, cohesive selling proposals for my clients and if the resume is an indicator of their abilities then they fail abysmally.

More importantly, you have to ask if this is the effort they put into an extremely important document selling themselves what hope do you have of getting a well-written and totally professional proposal for your customers? We simply reject any sales candidate with a poorly written and formatted resume.

It is strange that most resumes from programming candidates who are also recent arrivals to our country are generally much better written that the resumes of so-called experienced sales professionals who were schooled here. There is obviously something seriously amiss with our education system and the standards of the companies they worked for previously.

The sad bottom line is that out of one hundred applicants we will only want to interview ten and out of those ten only one will prove to be suitable. I would like to say that this is a one-percent success rate but it isn’t because the one good candidate always gets several offers and the chance of actually hiring them is no better than one in two. This give me a success rate of at best, one in two-hundred.

My theory is that there is a major mismatch between available candidates and the available positions with a lot of poorly qualified people in the market and very few highly qualified people in the market. So we definitely have an ‘available’ skills shortage. It is an awful thing to say but I can only see this situation getting worse in the next few years as our economy slows down because the few good people are going to stay where they are and wait out the bad times.

Where are those cyborgs I see in movies like Prometheus; how much do I have to pay and how long do we have to wait?


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