Why your career dream may already be dead

By Neil Patrick

We don’t just have a global jobs crisis, we have a career progression logjam…

Today I woke to a BBC Radio 4 news item which reported that CEOs were complaining (again) about talent shortages and their difficulties with attracting and retaining good people.

There was much talk about “talent acquisition”, “agile organisations”, “human assets” and a good deal more management psychobabble. But whilst I yawned at the language, there was no doubting the veracity of the message.

In October 2015, PA Consulting issued a report which attributed this problem to poor use of HR data:

“There is a mismatch between chief executives’ desire to get talent management activities right and their investment in technology; only 3.6% of CEOs and HR directors had a coherent approach for analysing talent-related data”.

Report author Jennifer Cable said: “The say-do gap is huge. It seems that talent management is belief led rather than metric led, but you name me another critical area of competitive advantage where activity is not being backed up with concrete data.”

I would go even further. The problem isn’t just about data and beliefs. It’s about culture and action. Or lack of it. 21st century HR leadership is broken. It no longer serves either employers or employees well. I have nothing against HR people. And I would point out that HR is by no means the only function which has failed to transform fast enough to keep pace with what Jeremy Rifkin calls "The Third Industrial Revolution". Marketing, sales, finance, even IT in large organisations are similarly lagging.

Recently, the Pew Research Center reported that the US middle class was now outnumbered by the poor and upper classes. This is another indication that the traditional career ladder structure has bottlenecked in the middle of society.

This strategic failure is also evidenced by my own mailbox. Almost everyday I get emails from professional people who despite having great qualifications and work experience report that they cannot get interviews, let alone get hired.

If we have lots of skilled people looking for jobs, AND organisations frustrated in their search for good people, how come this problem exists at all?

What on earth is going on?

I am not going to fall into the trap of blaming one party or the other. But organisations have to accept that the old model of recruiting and hiring is failing faster than they’d like to admit.

This isn’t news to some I know. It’s the maturation of trends which have been going on for at least a decade.

The root of the problem isn’t useless job applicants or wicked HR people. The root of the problem is how both employers and jobseekers think about jobs. What they are, who does them, how they do them, how they are managed, how they are rewarded.

The current model of recruitment has not suddenly materialised. It has had decades of refinement, all designed to assess, quantify and rank the suitability of individuals for a particular job. Organisations like processes and procedures. They help them feel in control. And able to defend themselves against potentially hostile regulatory or legal threats.

Recruitment and selection processes and procedures have now inevitably become hard coded into IT systems called applicant tracking systems. Large employers have invested millions in their adoption and deployment. I have written about the consequences of these systems here.

HR teams are not to blame either. But they have become servants of the machine. The catchphrase “Computer says ‘No’” could have been written just for them…

The problem is that the whole recruitment industry and HR profession has been getting better and better at doing what can now be seen to be the wrong things.

They have become experts at creating boxes and then matching the boxes with the people that apparently best fit into them. These boxes specify everything, much of which is irrelevant or at least a distraction. Things like:

  • Hours of work which reflect traditional norms not operational or employees’ needs
  • Cut and paste competencies which are generic and often based on lazy thinking
  • “Acceptable” levels of sickness which assume everyone’s health is the same
  • Holiday entitlements which reward length of service rather than accomplishments and workload
  • Rates of pay pegged to outmoded concepts of seniority and status.

These boxes haven’t really adapted very much to reflect the huge changes which have been going on in the world. They perpetuate some very old ideas about what a job is and how it should be done. These ideas are a legacy of the old command and control structures which originated in business and organisations in the industrial age.

People were increasingly reduced to cogs in a giant machine. This direction of travel has now reached a breaking point where unless an employer is desperate, hardly anyone can match their over-specified expectations.

If we add in instinctive personal biases around gender, age, appearance, race, we start to get a glimpse of just how much the system is broken. Yes, I know such things are illegal, but they are so easily fudged that hardly anyone worries about them.

Meanwhile the very nature of work has massively transformed in many jobs over the last ten years.

Organisations talk a great deal about becoming agile, yet their procedures change really slowly. Many aspire to being disruptive, yet are effectively paralyzed by risk aversion and legacy structures. They seek to be flexible, yet find change difficult. They espouse how they are customer-centric, yet shareholders' interests always trump customers'. They keep on doing the same old thing when it comes to specifying job roles and finding people to put in them.

Jobseekers are rightly and understandably frustrated and incensed by this. The explosion of  digital communication, means anyone who is looking for a new job can find hundreds almost instantly online. The result – organisations are bombarded with on average up to 200 applications per vacancy.

And since humans cannot possibly be expected to accurately assess such a deluge, automation has been adopted to screen, sort and rank resumes and choose candidates. Except these systems are at best only partially effective. In one test carried out by consultants Bersin Associates, a ‘perfect resume’ only scored 43% on the applicant tracking system…

Organisations aspire to respond and adapt to these problems, but very few are making real headway. This is because they are playing around the edges, when what they really need is a complete rethink of how they can reconcile their need for talented people with an admission that the current way of doing things is no longer fit for purpose.

So we see the continuation of cut and paste job descriptions. Of largely discredited psychometric assessments. Of idiotic interview questions and competency ‘tests’. Of overly rigid terms and conditions of employment.

The future won’t be owned by organisations which perpetuate the status quo. It will be owned by those that can grasp the nettle and figure out how they can live by these ideas not merely talk about them.

For millennials, this fragile career environment is one they have grown up with. They’ve never known anything else. For older generations, it’s nothing short of a catastrophe for which few are equipped.

Organisations will eventually transform. They have no choice. The trouble for people seeking jobs and career progression is that this transformation is going to take a very long time. And the trouble for organisations is that this key strategic requirement is so low on their agendas that they are at risk of organisational obsolescence which at best will hamper every aspiration they have, or at worst kill them.

Happy New Year! ;-)


  1. Transformation will be spotty. To change things requires people to admit they were wrong; even more, that they were sold snake oil. Nobody likes to admit they made a mistake or, worse, that they were fooled. And when careers are on the line, people will protect their own career to the detriment of the organization simply to avoid having to acknowledge the error of their prior decisions.

  2. Yes David, vested interests are another nail in this coffin I fear. Funny how 'courage' is a word which I have never seen on a job description...

  3. I fear Leadership, or rather lack of, has a great deal to blame. I've known some great business leaders in the past but less-so more recently. It's not enough to be a manager at any level of an organisation, there has to be some leadership in there too. I think leaders at all levels need to find out how their business works and find out what's really going on in the organisation, sort the wheat from the chaff and make some bold HR decisions about those who are wasting everybody's time and preventing really talented people from contributing and making real some of their organisational aspirations.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I agree leadership is a key aspect. One thing I have noted is that HR is nearly always towards the end of every board meeting agenda I have ever seen. QED?

  4. There is no talent shortage.

    There is a shortage of talent that will work for low pay.

    There is a shortage of talent that will work for an abusive boss.

    There is a shortage of talent that is not stereotyped out of jobs.

    There is a shortage of companies who will give talent a fair shake.

    There is a shortage of talent that is able to get past the Applicant Tracking System which rejects 75% of talent even if they are qualified.

  5. Neil: Very compelling and disturbing assessment. In the midst of this mess, I do believe that there are ways that everyone can do their part to evolve out of the paradigms and constraints that are slowly dooming the job market, and the prospect for actual business growth and development. See one of my posts on this: http://bit.ly/1kwIjpI

    1. Thank you for your thoughts on this John, and unsurprisingly I agree totally with your post. I also think enlightened leaders share our beliefs. My worry is not that things won't change, but that the pace of change will be far too slow to have a significant impact in our lifetimes. But I truly hope I am wrong.