Work

Companies Are Desperate for Workers. Why Aren’t They Doing the One Thing That Will Attract Them?

A collage of empty office desks.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

If you believe reports from employers, they’re desperate to find good workers but can’t lure them at any price. Talk to job seekers, though, or existing employees at those same companies, and you’ll hear a different story.

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From job seekers’ perspectives, companies do have plenty of vacancies, but they haven’t adjusted to the massive sea change the job market has undergone in the past two years. They’re offering laughably low salaries although candidates can command far more, or requiring years of experience for “entry-level” jobs, and they’re still operating on a model of underpaying and overworking at a time when workers have much better options.

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These accounts are pretty typical of what I’m hearing from job seekers, as well as from employees at companies that say they’re having trouble hiring:

• “I’ve lost count of the job ads I’ve seen that want 5–8 years of experience (in a fairly unique field) but are only paying $17–18/hour in high cost of living areas and where the job is in-person. I imagine the employers think that is a good pay rate, but it really is insulting.”

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• “My employer is absolutely desperate for another key staff member, but doesn’t want to give any more than a week vacation. Won’t budge at all. It’s incredibly short sighted.”

• “I recently went through a job search and it was interesting. I received an offer from every interview—one actually called while I was on the way home. What some employers were offering is still laughable though. One health care agency that involved direct contact with medically vulnerable patients boasted in the interview that they encourage taking time off and promoting a healthy work-life balance. Their PTO benefits were seven days off a year, which included both vacation and sick time, with no COVID-related sick time allowance. Unbelievable. Last I saw they still had a job ad up marked as urgently hiring.”

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• “In my industry (biotech, specifically cell therapy) I keep hearing and seeing that there is a desperate need for trained employees. … I know that in my department we’ve been trying to hire some specialized positions forever, and at least some interviews have happened, but the interviewees turn the jobs down because we’re not paying anything like what our closest (job type and physically) competitor is paying. Since everyone in our department knows this, no one I’ve talked to seems to know why we aren’t offering market rate.”

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• “We are hemorrhaging talent, both salaried and production (factory workers) and can’t find/hire qualified applicants who will work for what previous employees were making. We’re going months without filling positions, mostly because our HR VP believes that we’re all overpaid. The market believes otherwise… I wonder who will win??”

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At the same time that companies are failing to offer competitive salaries, many of them are overstuffing the job descriptions well beyond what’s realistic:

• “My organization is ‘struggling’ to fill a role, complaining about how they can’t find anyone qualified and when they do find someone somewhat qualified, they get turned down. Well, no kidding. The position is a combination of two very different jobs, so good luck find someone with several years of commercial land transaction experience AND volunteer management experience. Oh, and you want to pay this experienced person who has to do two very different jobs and report to two different supervisors peanuts? No wonder they’ve been trying to hire for this position since July.”

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• “In my field, I’m seeing a ton more postings for jobs over the last month or so, and I’ve had multiple recruiters contact me just this week. But the job descriptions are wildly demanding, even more so than pre-pandemic. So many very specific skills that you’d be very unlikely to find in one person. … I had a client rant to me recently about how they weren’t getting ‘good’ candidates for their positions. I suggested that they consider focusing the job description a bit more on the skills they most want, and he got really defensive and just said again how much they needed all this work done. Then YOU HAVE TO PAY FOR IT. There is just utter disbelief that they no longer hold 100% of the cards.”

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That resistance to adapting to new conditions seems to lie at the heart of what’s happening in the market. Employers are still operating like they did a decade ago, without considering how they might need to change—to raise offers, increase benefits, and generally make themselves a more attractive place to work.

They’re also not approaching their hiring processes with the seriousness or urgency that this market demands, as this person points out:

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What I’m hearing about the job market doesn’t match what I’m actually seeing. I’m hearing, “We’d hire anyone with a pulse and half your experience.” I’m hearing, “Please apply, I could use someone like you.” I’m hearing, “You’re a great fit for this role” from the recruiter.

What I’m seeing is I apply into a black hole. I’m being told to reach out to people who never get back to me. I’m seeing “desperate” companies take a lot of time to think about it. I’m seeing people get to the final round of interviews, and suddenly be disqualified for something that, according to the company, should have disqualified them when they first spoke to the recruiter. (Seriously, a friend went to a final interview after getting extremely good feedback from his internal recruiter on every prior step in what I think was a four-part interview, only be told that the company was looking for entirely different skills for the role. Think interviewing in French and then being told the job requires Japanese. You’d think they’d have figured that out much sooner in the process.)

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Companies that are managing to hire effectively right now are changing their processes in order to do it:

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I recently was hiring for a position and it was a fast job market for the best candidates— we had 2 turned down offers (one person had 4 competing offers)! We realized our typical process was too slow (it took approximately 3 weeks). We knew we had to be faster—the third time through, we had an offer in their hands within 9 days of their application, and it was accepted. We also increased the salary nearly $20,000 from the first posting to the third posting, because the market was showing us that the candidates we wanted could command more money! (We discussed keeping the same salary but making the role more entry level, but decided to increase salary instead).

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To be fair, some employers do seem to be doing everything they can do but are still running up against the realities of a job seekers’ market:

My company is in the software sector and finding experienced developers, programmers, and implementation folks in our specific, very competitive, ecosystem is REALLY hard. We’re fully remote (with fully supported IT), pay competitively (really), pay at least 80% of medical insurance premiums and have other really nice benefits, have amazing work-life balance, require folks to take their vacations and a very supportive, transparent, employee-centric culture. … We’ve had folks accept our offer, then renege two to four days later. We’ve had someone start working and after two weeks, quit because they accepted another offer. Our specific job market has always been competitive, it’s now insanely competitive.

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Ultimately, though, too many companies have become used to not having to pay competitive wages, offer attractive benefits, or generally treat people well. Now that that’s changed, some of them are finding it easier to complain about the labor market than to figure out how to make themselves a place people would be eager to work even when they have other options.

It’s unclear how long this moment will last and whether it will be long enough for more companies to be forced to alter their mindsets—but the longer it does last, and the more accustomed we get to these changes, the better off workers will be.

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