If you’re highly qualified, how come you can’t get a job?

By Neil Patrick

How can it be that so many highly skilled people are unemployed, while employers claim they cannot find people with the right skills?

Over the weekend I was reading The Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin. Although this book is about the economic, environmental, technological and social issues we face today, within its covers there is an explanation of this apparent contradiction.

And understanding this is of critical importance to anyone who wishes to prosper in their career over the long term.

We’re on the cusp of a new industrial era

Jeremy Rifkin has identified that industrial epochs are characterized by two determining factors. These are the dominant energy source and communication media.

So, the first industrial era was powered by coal and the prevailing communication medium was the printed word. Society organised itself around these…coal powered transport and industry and provided heat and light to homes and businesses. Print communicated everything from newspapers and novels to instruction manuals and bibles. All were committed to print.

The second industrial era is now in its death throes. This was driven by oil and the dominant communication mediums were radio, television and the telephone. In case you've not noticed, the oil is running out fast and TV and radio have ceased to be the dominant media they were in the last 60 or 70 years. Oh and it seems telephone landlines are becoming less and less popular too.

Rifkin believes that the third industrial era will be based on green energy and the internet. This change will have massive implications for the types of jobs we all do. The effects of the transformation will impact every one of us, not just those working in energy, communications and media. And there is clear evidence in many of the events that have unfolded over the last few years that he is right.

Rifkin even argues convincingly that the current financial crisis was a symptom of the end of the second industrial era, rather than the cause of it.

We’re all potential victims of accelerated obsolescence

So not only are we currently undergoing a transformation of society itself, the technologies which will define our society in the 21st century are undergoing a revolution too.

And because the pace of technological change is accelerating, very few people can assume that their skills will be current for much more than 10 years or so.

Google didn’t exist in 1995. Back then I would search the internet using a long forgotten search engine called Dogpile. Today, if a business doesn’t rank high on Google searches, it’s increasingly invisible and rightly or wrongly judged as second rate.

The credit industry was dominated by credit cards until 2008 and the financial collapse. Try finding a job today if you’re a credit card professional. Despite the credit crunch starting almost 6 years ago, one of the biggest UK credit card issuers, MBNA has been contracting now for years. It currently employs around 3,000 staff, down from 4,224 in 2011.

Yellow Pages was a huge global business for decades. But despite trying to shift its business online, it’s facing an inexorable decline in its relevancy. Not only that, it fails on environmental grounds too. The Product Stewardship Institute claims local governments spend $54 million a year to dispose of unwanted phone books and $9 million to recycle them. Phone books use low grade glues and are therefore difficult to recycle, and they often clog recycling machinery.

There’s no job security in established businesses either

Of course the decline in the fortunes of businesses is nothing new. What is new is that the speed at which a firm can move from established business and secure employer to contraction or even obsolescence. And if your career is tied up with one of them, your skills can become worthless very quickly.

The U.S. Postal Service suffered 30,000 layoffs in March 2010. Sears/K-Mart layed off 50,000 in January 1993. IBM layed off 60,000 in July 1993. And General Motors layed off 47,000 in February 2009. And these are just some of the biggest. For every one like this, there are hundreds of smaller less well reported downsizings and closures.

Organisations are very good at disguising their difficulties right up until the last moment. Are you really tuned in to the real situation at your employer? You need to be.

So if you are planning to work until you are 65 or beyond, you can fully expect that you’ll need to completely reinvent yourself at least 4 or 5 times over during your career. Note that I say ‘reinvent yourself’ not just change jobs…

Peter Weddle makes this comment on the ASQ blog. This is his take on it:

"Today’s turbulent economic environment has changed the way employers fill their vacant positions. Instead of using their traditional approach — hiring a person who is qualified for a job -they have turned to a new strategy that is best described as “talent staffing.” As a result, tens of millions of decent, dedicated and capable people — men and women who have successfully worked their entire lives — are now unemployed, unsuccessful in their search for a new job and unable to figure out why. No one has told them that the rules of the game have changed".

Do not confuse this with the economic downturn

It’s tempting to think that our recent woes are because of the recession. And that if and when things recover, we’ll all be much more secure in our jobs. Think again.

This isn’t a temporary state of affairs, it’s a paradigm shift which will continue to accelerate over the coming years and decades. It is this speed of change which means that often, skills which were cutting edge as recently as four or five years ago, can be obsolete today.

So you need to keep not just your skills but your TALENT up to date. And that’s the crux. If you are employed, you can fully expect that your employer isn’t going to react very enthusiastically to a request for a couple of weeks off work.  You're asking them to pay for you to learn some new stuff that may very well not be relevant to the job you are doing today, but which may be critical to the job you’ll need in say three or four years’ time…

If you are looking for work, you need to understand that employers will only hire individuals who have all of the skills to do a job and the state-of-the-art knowledge required to use those skills effectively on-the-job. They seek better-than-qualified persons to do a job, and they expect superior performance from them and from their first day of work.

This means they expect you to be the custodian of your talent value. That’s down to you not them.

What is talent?

Ironically, even though millions of people in Europe and the US are now unemployed and looking for work, a large percentage of employers believe there is a shortage of individuals with talent. They are quite wrong to think this of course. But perception is reality whether it is right or wrong.

Peter Weddle defines talent thus:

In practice, employers have defined a person of talent to be someone who has one or both of two attributes:

They have a skill that is critical to organizational success and a track record which demonstrates their ability to use that skill effectively on-the-job.


They perform at a superior level on-the-job which sets a standard that encourages their co-workers to upgrade the calibre of their work, as well.

The tragic irony is that employers do little or nothing to help their employees develop and hone their skills and talents for the future. So the moment you get hired is the moment your talent value starts to slowly but inexorably erode. You can be sure that your employers will only invest in you if they perceive a more or less immediate return on that investment.

What can you do about this?

Employers want to hire all-stars. Not just people who are good at what they do, but people who are clearly the best at that task. And the only way you can be such an all-star is if you are working with your talent.

First, make sure you know where your talent lies. Talent is not skill. Talent is an inherent capability, a natural capacity for excellence at a particular type of work. Talent is as individual as you are. But it cannot be universally used. No talent is compatible with all work, but every talent can be expressed in more than one career field. It can be developed to perform in one environment today and another tomorrow. But before you can do that, you have to understand precisely what you are talented at.

Second, make sure you are working in a career field and for an employer that enables you to express your talent. Employers aren’t hiring your skill, they’re hiring what they think will be your total contribution to their organisation. And right now if you have a job and your work isn’t allowing you to demonstrate your true talent, then it’s time to be looking elsewhere, even if you think your current job is OK.

Thirdly if you’ve identified your talent then you must do everything possible to nurture it, especially if you are not able to do this in your normal job. Because this isn’t something you can achieve in a few weeks or months, doing this while you are employed is vital.

Finally, you must step back and take the long view. The prospects for your firm and industry affect you. Directly. Whilst it’s easy to think that when Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, it was an unpredictable event, the truth is that there were signs at least one year earlier that the firm was in financial difficulties. Moreover, five years earlier, in 2003, it had suffered an $80 million penalty from the SEC for using its researchers to unduly influence market prices.

Yes, it’s unfair that the rules of the game have changed. And yes, it’s even more unfair that employers never bothered to tell anyone about it. But if you step back and understand what is going on, you’ll be better equipped to deal with the reality. And if you fully embrace the reality, you’ll seek and find and the work you really love and build a sustainable career with it.


  1. Neil, a very helpful article. The rules of the game certainly have changed. Reinventing yourself is a continual journey, particularly if your career is caught up in the communication channel convergence that is rushing headlong to the Internet.

    1. Thank you Rod. When I think of my own close friends, they are all so busy with their careers and work commitments,I am worried that this big picture stuff continues to elude them...despite me carping on and on about it ;-)

  2. The following seems to imply that employers will only hire superstars. "They seek better-than-qualified persons to do a job, and they expect superior performance from them and from their first day of work." It is clearly impossible to assume that all workers will or are expected to perform within this category. What does this say about recognizing the diverse, critical and less-than-superstar contributions that may be required by a company or organization?

    1. Thanks for your thoughts.I was perhaps generalising too much...always risky! And I agree that this expectation is unrealistic. A team is always the sum of its parts. You need a blend of characteristics and competencies...after all who can really excel at everything? But the main point I was trying to make was that we can only perform at our highest level when we are tapping into our most core talents.