How job seekers can bridge workplace skills gap

“There’s clearly a gap between the skills workers have or are presenting, and the qualifications that employers want,” said Alexandra Levit, a founding member of the Career Advisory Board, which was established by DeVry University to provide insight and advice on trends that affect job opportunities.

“We set out to investigate the gap between job postings and hires with our Job Preparedness Indicator Survey [September 2011]. We wanted to help job seekers understand the competencies that employers find most valuable,” Levit said.

The study (available at www.careeradvisoryboard.com) learned that for entry-level positions, the most valued traits are work ethics/dependability and self-motivation/initiative. At the midlevel, hiring managers need workers who can solve problems, manage their time and communicate well. Managerial job seekers need to show leadership qualities, particularly strategic perspective, global outlook and business acumen. "Hiring managers told us that these last three skills are highly valued by managers, but rarely seen in candidates," Levit said.

So, why are so many job seekers missing the boat? “Either candidates don’t have the skills needed, or they are not focusing on the right skills in their marketing materials and interviews,” she said.

Other factors are also impeding hiring, said Andy Decker, senior regional vice president for Robert Half International, a global specialized staffing firm.

“Companies have the mindset that with unemployment at 9 percent, they should have no trouble finding the exact talent they want. They may put 15 competencies in the job description and be unable to find anyone who fits them all,” he said. Employers may be too selective and unrealistic for their job market.

Decker pointed out that for many industries and positions, the unemployment rate is much lower than 9 percent.

“It’s 3.3 percent for software developers, 3.4 percent for accountants and auditors, 0.6 percent for financial analysts and 2.5 percent for computer programmers,” Decker said. “For college-degreed workers over 25, unemployment is at 4.4 percent, so anyone posting a job that requires a college degree will have a smaller applicant pool.”

On the other hand, the unemployment rate for production workers, press operators, electrical assemblers and many jobs related to manufacturing or construction is much higher than 9 percent.

“Many job seekers need to find a way to further their education and acquire the skills for more in-demand jobs,” Decker said.

He also advised them to keep pace with technology, taking courses to improve soft skills; join professional organizations and network.

“With companies reluctant to hire people with large work-history gaps, applicants should consider volunteering at nonprofits, churches or professional organizations to show that they are actively using their talents,” he said.

The practice of broadcasting resumes to every available job posting does neither hiring managers (who must sift through thousands of unqualified candidates) nor job seekers a service.

“Job seekers should focus their efforts on companies and jobs that they really want and for which they are a good fit,” said Marie Cumbest, vice president of client services for Career Spa, an Atlanta-based recruiting and career transition firm.

“We tell them to approach a position in the same way they would a new client. Learn everything you can about it, customize your response in cover letter and resume, and follow up, follow up, follow up,” she said. “It’s all common sense, but not common practice, so it will make you stand out in a positive way.”

Research shows that employers spend about 16 seconds on average reading a cover letter, she said.

“We encourage our clients to break from the paragraph approach,” Cumbest said. “After an introductory sentence, create two columns. On the left side, put four to six key requirements of the job. In the right column, match the requirements with your skills and accomplishments. Matching your abilities with their needs will get your resume read. We’re seeing our candidates land jobs that they are excited about.”

Cumbest said that companies are starting to hire, although cautiously. “The reason the customized approach works is that companies want people who can hit the ground running and who want to be there,” she said.

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