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Recruiters stalk a certain kind of engineer and miss—oh, like 27 million other people

September 15, 2021, 3:23 PM UTC

Welcome to Worksheet, a newsletter about working smarter. It’s Emily Peck again! Hi, hello. Today, a look at how the recruiting process needs lots of improvement—and this isn’t work that should be thrust on applicants. Companies need to fix this. Let’s go! 


Companies are desperate to hire tech workers like Stefan Hayden, a 38-year-old software engineer who lives near New York City.  

“Not a day goes by where I don’t have multiple recruiters emailing me, or messaging on LinkedIn,” Hayden told me last week. Engineers with a few years experience under their belt, like Hayden, are practically getting stalked by recruiters these days, he said. “I’m specifically a white dude in programming in the middle of my career,” he said, explaining part of his appeal.  

The thing is: recruiters are missing out on millions of people, according to a new report from Harvard Business School and Accenture, because they’re screening out applicants who don’t check all their very specific and possibly unreasonable boxes.  

The researchers estimate there are more than 27 million of these “hidden workers” in the U.S.   

Maybe they don’t have all the required years of experience, or they took time out of the workforce to care for children or an elderly relative or themselves. Hidden workers might also have mental health or physical challenges, maybe they’ve been sick or were previously incarcerated.  

Or they served in the military.  

Incredibly, even now—in a pandemic that has sidelined so many workers—some employers will stop considering those out of the workforce for longer than six months.  

And make no mistake, hidden workers want to work, the authors point out. Employers aren’t even considering them.  

Part of the problem is computer algorithms are screening out qualified candidates for failing to meet ridiculous standards, Kathryn Dill, reported in a piece for the Wall Street Journal last week, diving into a particularly maddening part of the HBS report. 

Nurses are turned away because they don’t have “computer programming” experience listed on their resume, but in reality that translates to just data entry, the WSJ reports. And retail clerks aren’t even being considered by the hiring system “if they don’t have “floor-buffing” experience,” Joseph Fuller, the lead HBS researcher and a management professor at the school, told the Journal.  

This is key: Hiring hidden workers isn’t an act of do-goodism or charity and it shouldn’t be sidelined into a special program, as it so often is. Companies get an edge in productivity if they can widen the pool of employees. 

“Most companies that have engaged with hidden workers have done so through their corporate foundations or corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts,” write Fuller and coauthors Manjari Raman, Eva Sage-Gavin and Kristen Hines. “Those are praiseworthy activities, but also inherently reinforce the myth that hiring hidden workers is an act of charity or corporate citizenship, rather than a source of competitive advantage.” 

The companies that don’t get this right will surely lose the war for talent currently raging. 

The Journal story focuses on the algorithms employers use to screen applicants. But what’s important to remember is: People write and design those algorithms. (Those white, male software engineers that are in such high demand. See where this is going?) 

“All the biases of our past get built into those algorithms,” said Brenda Darden Wilkerson, President and CEO of AnitaB.org, a nonprofit organization that advocates for women in technology. There’s also a problem with “pattern matching,” she said. “When you say software engineer, the picture that comes up is a man.” Recruiters go for them first, typically. “They’re shopping LinkedIn for men.” 

Still, despite the biases, Wilkerson said that the current worker shortage has been good for female software engineers; these women are in more demand. It helps that more firms are open to remote workers, and can expand the applicant pool nationwide. The growing remote workforce could be a boon for diversity of all kinds. 

Another way companies could find more workers is to start doing some training. Employers are missing out when they bypass more junior workers, or those without hard science or tech degrees.  

 The majority of college graduates now are women. and they don’t necessarily need a specific degree to do a lot of this work, Wilkerson pointed out.  “The truth is they can learn the tech,” she said.  

One company that her organization works with has been hiring more women out of coding bootcamps and community colleges, she said. “They came in and not only could they do the work, they lifted the culture.” 

Hayden has also been trying to help up-and-comers break into the field. “I try and reach out to junior developers,” Hayden said. “A vast majority are female, nonwhite. And they’re trying really hard to find a position. Most do, I think. A lot of the time it takes them six months to find a position.”  

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