Comment: Even during labor shortage, you can’t ‘just get a job’

Prospective employees and employers still are being selective; both want to make the right match.

By Erin Lowry / Bloomberg Opinion

“WE’RE HIRING.” The sign seems to be hanging in shopfronts everywhere; sometimes coupled with a plea to customers: “We’re short staffed. Please be patient.”

There were close to 20 million active online job postings in August, according to the site ZipRecruiter. That’s a staggering increase from the approximately 10 million active postings at the start of the year. And U.S. employment increased by 531,000 new jobs in October, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s no wonder then that there are grumblings about the labor shortage. After so much talk of a “Great Resignation” and young people “lying flat,” the sentiment is now moving toward “just get a job already.” After all, everyone seems to be hiring.

But here’s the thing: It’s not so easy for everyone to land a quality job.

There’s a false narrative that people are refusing to go back to work because their lives are still being subsidized by pandemic unemployment benefits. In the U.S., the federal government extended the amount of time people could get unemployment insurance and provided an additional $600 per week, on top of state benefits, early in the pandemic, before reducing it to $300 per week from January 2021 to September 2021 (though 26 states ended the federal subsidy early).

But these programs expired across the country in September. Typically, unemployment payments vary drastically by state and often do not provide for more than basic necessities, if that. New York State, for example, provides a maximum of $504 per week. (The amount is based on factors including your previous position, pay rate, and the fact that you paid into unemployment insurance.) That may be livable in parts of the state but it might not cover rent and utilities in more expensive areas like New York City. And benefits are not doled out to everyone who asks. Those who have recently quit would likely be unable to claim it in most states, since a common criterion is being unemployed “through no fault of your own.”

So it’s probably not unemployment benefits keeping people from taking on new jobs. Rather it seems people are having a hard time landing the right jobs.

Jacqie Brooks, a marketing technology coordinator based in West Virginia, received unemployment benefits for six months after losing her last position in November 2020. During that time Brooks applied to more than 450 jobs, including entry-level positions. She was rejected a couple times for “not having enough experience.” Brooks was one of several people I spoke to after polling my social media, some of whom asked to be referred to only by their first names.”The problem with taking any job for the sake of working is … if I keep accepting positions that aren’t offering me relevant experience, I’m not helping myself gain more experience for the types of jobs I do want,” says Brooks. “That isn’t productive.”

Careful consideration is happening on both sides. Employees are holding out for quality jobs with benefits, competitive pay and flexibility, because for once it feels they have the upper hand in a tight labor market; but employers are being picky too in trying to select the right candidates. It’s still expensive to hire someone and a headache to replace them. Employers may need employees, but they don’t want high turnover.

A friend of mine was recently lamenting how she needs to hire someone to do a job that doesn’t offer quick upward mobility. Most people who applied were overqualified and would undoubtedly grow bored or frustrated in six months and then probably quit within a year, she said. (The role involves mostly data-input-type grunt work.) She’s had to reject a lot of these applications with retention in mind.

The rise of online job boards should make it easier for employees and employers to find each other, but it’s also created something of an online dating conundrum: There are so many options, you’re going to keep swiping until you find a perfect match. This may not actually exist, but the endless options make it seem possible. What’s more, employers may not even be doing the first round of swiping; companies are increasingly using algorithms to weed through applications and these may be overlooking good candidates.

Dannie Lynn Fountain, a sourcer for software engineers based in Seattle, says the sheer volume of applicants she’s seen has made the hiring process even more complicated. Lots of people are applying to jobs right now. Fountain was one of them: She applied to 146 jobs between January 2020 and May 2021, got 27 follow-ups, did late-stage interviews for 12 positions, and ultimately received two job offers before choosing her current role.

“The adage is one month per $10,000 of salary,” says Fountain. “So a $50,000 job search will likely take five-plus months, a $100,000 job search will take 10-plus months, and so on.”

Even if it’s a job-seeker’s market right now, you shouldn’t underestimate the process. Madeline, a technical recruiter based in Sacramento, says that people sometimes submit unfinished applications or don’t make time for initial screening calls. It’s a mistake that can be costly, especially in terms of time. Her company often takes three-plus months to hire a candidate and typically interviews five-plus people for a single role.

And if you do get an interview, many organizations end up hiring from within. It took Alexa 10 months of applying to jobs before securing a new role as a senior patient care coordinator at the Florida-based home infusion pharmacy where she was already working. Even that was a three-month interview process. The two other jobs for which she had multiple rounds of interviews were ultimately offered to employees already at those companies.

For those using this time to re-skill and pivot, career transitions aren’t simple; even in a labor shortage. “For me personally, ‘selling’ a career transition was truly one of the hardest things I have ever done,” says Fountain. Despite having a master’s in Human Resources, her decade of work experience was in marketing and sales. This wasn’t enough to convince many employers of her HR value. “It’s not enough to rebrand yourself … you have to have demonstrable evidence to validate the rebrand too,” explains Fountain.

So yes, there are indeed jobs out there. But it would be wrong to roll one’s eyes at those who haven’t yet signed on the dotted line. Finding the right fit is rarely easy.

Erin Lowry is the author of “Broke Millennial,” “Broke Millennial Takes On Investing” and “Broke Millennial Talks Money: Stories, Scripts and Advice to Navigate Awkward Financial Conversations.”

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