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3 ways to hire ‘hidden’ talent and boost your bottom line

Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

There are many words for workers: employees, talent, staff, teammates and colleagues, to name just a few. But at the end of the day, what do we mean? We mean people–human beings with lives, families and ambitions.

Unfortunately, for many people, the hope and dream of a good job is currently out of reach. New research from Accenture and the Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work shows that more than 27 million people in the U.S. fall into the category of “hidden workers.” They’re people who want to work and possess the skills that employers seek–which would be great if organizations with good jobs could find them. The challenge is that many of these workers are not easily accessible at scale.

What’s behind this paradox? A major factor is how companies search for and screen candidates. At a time when the skills gap is growing and the labor market is tight, some of our current hiring systems may automatically exclude qualified workers from consideration–caretakers, veterans, persons with disabilities, immigrants and refugees, formerly incarcerated individuals and many more. According to the research, a quarter of these workers have college degrees in addition to their existing skills and experience.

Related: Labor shortage? Consider this untapped pool of talent: people with disabilities

A significant majority of employers (88%) believe that qualified, high-skills candidates are screened out because they don’t match the exact criteria defined by common job descriptions, such as having a four-year college degree, which may not be necessary if people have the right skills. That number rises to 94% in the case of middle-skills workers with more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree.

I’ve seen this scenario play out countless times over the course of my career with large, diverse workforces, particularly as it relates to a “gap in service”–one of the criteria that often screens out qualified candidates.

How many of us have seen colleagues take a break for family care, sometimes for multiple years, and then struggle to return to the workforce at the level and compensation they had previously achieved? While caregivers or lead parents can be men or women, the data clearly points to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women in the workforce. In fact, there are fewer women in some industries today than there were over 30 years ago; the proportion of women working in tech has shrunk from 35% in 1984 to 32% today, according to Accenture’s research. And millions of women are still missing from the workforce due to the pandemic, with others considering leaving their jobs.

Uncovering and hiring hidden workers is quickly becoming critical to business growth and economic recovery. The U.S. economy generated fewer jobs than expected in September, but the available workforce also declined, coming in 3.1 million shy of where it was in February 2020.

Across the globe, companies are desperate to find workers: Severe labor shortages could cause long-lasting economic impacts, while shortages of truck drivers and dock workers, paired with shipping delays, are threatening the holiday shopping season. At the same time, renewed concerns over COVID cases are upending return-to-the-workplace plans and slowing economic growth, particularly in sectors such as leisure, hospitality and healthcare.

Click here for more insights from columnist Eva Sage-Gavin.

If economies are going to recover, they need workers. Our research shows that companies hiring hidden workers are 36% less likely to face talent and skills shortages and 35% less likely to face challenges meeting diversity goals.

As leaders we have an opportunity–a chance to thrive in challenging times, to be innovative and creative and open to new sources of talent.

Here are a few ways that companies and leaders can attract new applicants to their candidate pools:

1. Recruit for skills and experience versus credentials

Many of our hiring systems are designed for “traditional” and “checks-all-boxes” hires and are exclusive by design, rather than inclusive. Some organizations only update job descriptions occasionally, if at all. If job descriptions clearly outlined the critical skills or experience required, it would help both the candidate and employer focus on what’s relevant. Opportunity@Work highlights what it calls STARs individuals, those who have obtained Skills Through Alternative Routes, as falling into this category.

2. Filter in, not out

Some of the outdated algorithms in our recruiting systems may need to be updated to be more inclusive. Employers can post contemporary, updated job descriptions that seek out candidates with relevant skills and experiences rather than requiring traditional four-year college degrees. According to the research, previously hidden workers who do get jobs say the No.1 factor that contributed to their return to work was supportive employer practices.

Related: How the HR Executive of the Year rebooted Microsoft’s culture

3. Establish new evaluation metrics

It’s time to modernize our recruiting processes and systems to focus on long-term metrics and performance. It might take a bit more effort up front to hire hidden workers, but focusing exclusively on speed and cost to fill overlooks other important metrics: how long it takes for an employee to achieve expected levels of productivity, attrition rates and rates of advancement, among others. And let’s not forget company culture–it’s important to look beyond the numbers to the returns on investment that truly matter in the longer term.

These strategies will only succeed if we as leaders embrace and activate change. Launching and sustaining comprehensive strategies to hire hidden workers who are a good fit for our organizations’ needs requires the sponsorship of leaders who can overcome resistance, evaluate results and ensure strategic objectives are fulfilled.

We’ve seen just how powerful strong corporate leadership can be when it comes to hiring formerly incarcerated individuals, who face an unemployment rate above 27%. Multiple Fortune 500 companies have come together to join the Second Chance Business Coalition, a cross-sector initiative committed to removing hiring barriers for this group of hidden workers, and they are seeing real results.

This is an opportunity to bring millions and millions of people into the light–to open doors and support workers who have shown they can be effective and successful if given the chance. Our businesses will be better off for it, too.

I recall the memorable lessons learned when I had the opportunity to work with front-line employees in the retail and food service industries. Many had powerful life experiences but lacked four-year degrees and felt this held back their careers. With the right training and support, they exceeded business goals and earned great respect from the teams they led.

We’ve all been through extraordinary change in the last 18 months and no one knows what the future may hold. But we do know that there are workers who are only asking for a chance to show what they are capable of–and now is the time to open those doors and tap into these unique workers.