The Struggle to Hire and What Businesses Can Do About It

If you’re finding it difficult to hire employees, you’re not alone. Bloomberg reports that many small businesses are struggling to find people who currently want to work—in fact, 42% say they have jobs they can’t fill. The number of people quitting jobs right now is also higher than average.  

One culprit is likely COVID-19. For reasons related to the pandemic, a number of people are choosing not to work right now. They don’t want to risk getting sick, they have children at home, or they may be able to get by for now on unemployment insurance.

Some small businesses with positions to fill have turned to gimmicks like signing bonuses and free food, but these recruiting tactics are unlikely to be effective long term. They don’t address the risks, challenges, and needs people have right now. 

Fortunately for employers looking to hire, the problem of people choosing not to work isn’t fundamentally different than the problem of people choosing to work somewhere else. In both cases, the would-be employer has to convince prospective hires that working for them is better than the alternatives, and then they have to live up to those promises.

To be sure, those who choose not to work are missing out on many benefits. A job provides not only a paycheck, but also opportunities for employees to do meaningful work, contribute to their community, make friends, develop skills, receive training, advance their career, and fund their retirement. If someone isn’t working, they’re missing out on these and other opportunities. Employers may be able to leverage these benefits to appeal to those who have removed themselves from the workforce and convince them that work is worth it.

Safety, Flexibility, and Pay

Before employers can use benefits like friendship and skill-building to lure applicants, they must first address safety, flexibility, and pay; in a hierarchy of employment needs, these are foundational.

While vaccinations are proceeding at an encouraging rate and all adults are now eligible, COVID-19 remains a serious threat. It will be some time before people getting their shots now develop immunity to the virus, and they may worry about infecting friends and family who are unable or unwilling to get the vaccine. Because of these fears, some people aren’t going to work, period, and there’s nothing employers can do to persuade them. Others, however, may be open to working if they feel confident enough that the job won’t put them or those they care about in danger.

Flexibility is another key component for many potential applicants, much more so now that in-person school and childcare have become scarce. Since younger children cannot be left to fend for themselves while parents are at work, something has to give. Employers that provide flexibility—either through the initial scheduling of shifts or the ability to rearrange working hours on the fly—will likely receive more applicants and have a lower rate of turnover.

Other potential employees may be willing to work if they feel the pay is worth the risk and sufficient to cover the costs of working (transportation, childcare, insurance premiums, etc.).

Of course, most businesses don’t relish the idea of paying employees higher-than-usual wages, but there’s good reason to believe that increased pay is a good investment, especially for people in traditionally lower-paying jobs. When people are preoccupied with bills, debts, and other forms of scarcity, they tend to be less productive and make more mistakes. But, when scarcity isn’t taxing their mental bandwidth, they’re able to be more productive, make fewer mistakes, and increase business profitability. Increases in pay can pay for themselves. 

Career Development Opportunities

It may be that the positions an employer needs to fill don’t come with an exciting career path or teach the kind of skills that employees are likely to put on future resumes. But that’s not set in stone. Both the employer and the employee choose what skills are learned and used in every position.

Imagine, for a moment, a local deli that needs to hire a person to take orders at the register. The job market might consider this job “low skill,” but the owner of this deli doesn’t think of the job that way or advertise it that way.

Now, the owner doesn’t use the gimmick of giving the job a fancier title than what it entails; instead, they set the job up to provide skills training for more advanced positions in customer service or sales. In the first few days, the new hire will learn the menu and the layout of the register, but then, in the lulls between rushes, they’ll learn techniques for talking to customers, de-escalating tense situations, upselling, and the like—training that people in customer service and sales would expect to receive. Later, the new hire might even learn some of the ins and outs of starting and running a small business.

This owner knows that high employee turnover is simply the nature of the business and that employees will, sooner or later, take their training and skills to other jobs. And that’s the point. The aim here is to cultivate a reputation in the community as an excellent place for customers to grab a meal and an excellent place for employees to start learning marketable skills they’ll use throughout their careers, increasing the size of both the applicant pool and the deli’s profits.

Attractive Job Postings and Hiring Processes

Poorly written job postings can prove a serious obstacle to getting applicants. It’s important, as Katrina Kibben reminds us, that recruiters and hiring managers understand what they’re looking for in a new hire and write job postings that are simple and effective. 

If an employer offers some or all of the benefits discussed above, they should showcase them in their postings with concrete examples and as part of an engaging story. For instance, instead of the deli owner writing, “We teach valuable skills,” they can explain that downtime will be filled with instruction on sales and de-escalation techniques. And instead of saying, “We offer flexibility,” an employer can advertise that employees have of a range of shifts to choose from on a weekly basis, or will be able to complete their work at any time of day, so long as weekly deadlines are met.

But no amount of training opportunities will mean a thing if a business’s hiring process is a chore for applicants to get through. The more minutes it takes to complete an application, the more applicants will decide it isn’t worth it. The longer a candidate has to wait for an offer, the more likely they’ll turn down that job offer—sometimes, as Adam Karpiak illustrates, even when they don’t have another job lined up.

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How to Improve your Job Postings

A job posting is often the first impression a prospective job applicant has with your organization. It’s important for that impression to be an informative one. Your job postings should convey why someone would want to work for your company, what distinguishes your workplace from others, what’s exciting about your mission and vision, what you have to offer, and what the job is and requires. Here are a few ways to get better results from your job postings:

Highlight the company’s strengths. Part of the purpose of a job posting is to sell your organization to prospective employees. It’s a sales pitch that conveys your culture and brand. Be sure to include both traditional benefits (e.g., insurance offerings, retirement plan) as well as less common, more exciting perks (e.g., unlimited PTO, remote work options, product discounts). You should also mention company awards, notable achievements, and career development opportunities.

List the minimum requirements and essential functions of the job. You can also include the full job description, if you have the room for it. The requirements and functions you mention should be accurate and clear. You don’t want to scare away great prospects with unnecessary requirements, but you also don’t want a lot of unqualified people applying for the job.

Include the pay range. Posting the pay range of the job will get you 30% more applicants. It will also save you and potential applicants a significant amount of time by allowing them to self-select out of the running if the range is too low for their needs or if it clearly indicates that you are looking for a more experienced employee. It will also promote transparency and help create a more equitable workplace, but it’s not a requirement.  

Analyze the results of previous job posting locations, especially if you paid for them. Consider not only the upfront fee, but also whether you received a good number of applications specifically from that source. Were the candidates qualified? Have you ever hired candidates from this source? There’s no sense paying to post job ads that aren’t bringing in good candidates.

Consider alternatives to where you’ve posted in the past. Here are a few options:

  1. Overlooked talent pools (e.g., websites geared toward certain populations or groups)—these can be especially helpful for increasing diversity in your workplace.
  2. Community events and job fairs in your area—being able to answer questions about your company and your open positions can help weed out those who may not be a good fit or might not be happy in the role.
  3. Local schools—many colleges guarantee a certain job placement rate and have an entire department to help their students become employees in the industry of their education. Oftentimes the coordinators of these programs will come to you for jobs as well, which is another direct talent pipeline. Reach out to your local community colleges or local universities and talk with them about any students that they might have who would fit your job description needs. They often also have an internal communication system that can get your job posting in front of a lot of students (or even alumni) in a hurry.
  4. Previous applicants—even those you interviewed who might have been a second or third choice. You already know they’re interested in your company, and you may even have met them face to face. Even if it’s been half a year since they applied, reach out. What’s the worst that can happen?

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