Skills Matching Pipe DreamsPosted: June 7, 2016
Renfroe stumbled out onto the deck of the Fog Island Tavern, and almost ran over the old man who was coming up the ramp for his ‘categorical aperitif’.
– Whoa, Renfroe – what’s the matter with you tonight?
– Sorry, didn’t see you coming up. Phew. Well, I just couldn’t stand any more of that fancy talk in there.
– Oh? What are they talking about, then?
– Some crazy scheme off the internet. They are actually yelling at their cellphones and laptops, even though it’s just all emails and messages. Seems there’s this guy on some island who wants to improve the way people get employed — get jobs. He thinks there’ a problem in that people get hired for jobs for which they don’t have the skills, while people who do have the skills don’t get hired. Not sure if he’s talking about himself or all the graduates from the university who can’t get the jobs they think they deserve. So he wants to start some outfit he calls ‘Skills Matcher’, to tackle that problem. And there’s a group of nice guys from a Systems Thinking forum who want to help him, but can”t agree on what to tell him. And of course Bog-Hubert is there in his best curtrarian conmurgeon — I mean contrarian curmudgeon mood, telling them it’s all water turkey dung.
– Sounds interesting, I gotta hear this. Getting bored watching the water turkeys out on the bay, you know.
– Good luck. I’m taking bets you’re going to be out here again afore I get eaten up by the skeeters and come back in…
Shaking his head, the old man went into the tavern and joined the gang at the counter where Vodçek was trying to keep the discussion civilized; of course he had the upper hand in it because he threatened to cut off their drinks if they got too rowdy.
– Good grief — there’s life still in this quiet outpost. What’s the latest on this quarrgument Renfroe told me about just now?
Vodçek filled his glass with ‘the usual’ without even asking, shrugged, and glanced askew over to Bog-Hubert, who was scribbling something on a napkin between mischievous comments to his companions: It’s just the Bogmeister riling up the gang here about this noble scheme one of their internet friends is trying to get off the ground…
– Renfroe told me about that, yes. Sounds like a good idea, well -intentioned?
– That’s what they say, Sophie and Abbe Boulah’s friend there, Harry Von Timagan or something.
– That his name? Sounds like something you should be treating with some of your herbal mountain moonshine.
-You mean Bog-Hubert’s Eau d’ Hole? Well… Anyway, Bog-Hubert says it’s all a pipe dream; all their schemes.
– What are the schemes they are talking about? Eh, Bog-Hubert?
– Oh, hi, oldtimer. The precious ‘solutions’ they are throwing about to cure the ‘skills mismatch’ problem? Well — you tell them: there’s the new agency their friend is proposing, to match job seekers with job offers; there’s the software program idea — the one they all need to do the matching, there’s a job fair proposal, and some other weird ideas floating around.
– Well, it sounds like they are trying to to do something useful — if I understand the problem right. Can you straighten me out on that, Sophie?
– Sure: If an employer hires somebody who doesn’t have the skills for the job, he won’t get good performance from that employee, obviously, and his business might be less profitable as a result. Which lowers the tax revenue the government can get from that business, and thus lowers the amount of money it can deliver citizens in terms of governance, infrastructure etc. Meanwhile, the better skilled applicants don’t get hired, remain unemployed, which costs the government unemployment money, or forces those skilled people to take lower-skill — and lower-paid — jobs where they are dissatisfied because they can’t use the skills they studied for — wasting their education and experience…
– I get it. So it looks like it would be a useful thing if that skills mismatch problem could get fixed, doesn’t it, Bog-Hubert? So why do I hear you are throwing water on the flames of their laudable enthusiasm?
– Is that what I’m doing? Sounds like you’re recommending me for a job with the Fog Island Fire Department. But hey, I’m just trying to keep their feet on the ground of reality. “Skills Matcher” — the name alone tells me they are making promises they can’t possibly deliver on — so it’s a bit of fraud, if you ask me. Well, sorry — it would be a fraud if they knew it was pipe dream, and I’m not accusing them of that. But that’s what I think it is: a pipe dream. A wrong question.
– A pipe dream, huh? Something that can’t be done? Can you enlighten us why you think so? Because it seems to me there are many people in different agencies and institutions who are engaged in the same endeavor: getting people with the right skills into the jobs that require those skills?
– Well, think about it. Sure, there are many people doing that now. So how do we know there is a problem — a skills ‘mismatch’? We know because there are people who have, or think they have the skills for certain jobs, but didn’t get hired.
– That’s a little one-sided, but okay: what about it?
– There are several possible reasons why they didn’t get their dream job. One is of course that there are more applicants for certain kinds of job than there are jobs of that kind. At the top, it’s worst: Only one person gets to be president or prime minister; — and I’m not saying that whoever gets it necessarily has the required skills, given the strange ‘hiring process’ for that job — but all the folks who are applying for it thinks they have them, and so have grounds for complaining that the process resulted in a skills mismatch.
– I’ll say there’s more than anecdotal evidence for this. So yes, if there are more applicants than jobs, the people who don’t get hired will complain. And some of them even with good reason.
– Okay. But don’t you think it’s also possible that some of them simply didn’t manage to present their skills effectively enough to convince the employer or placement agent — which if you ask me, is proof that they aren’t quite as perfectly skilled as they think they are? And therefore didn’t deserve to get hired? But try to get them to admit that. Or that the employer wasn’t smart enough to recognize their superior skills — and if so, why would they want to work for an incompetently hiring employer? This too might put a dent in their skills assessment? So what’s the problem there — does it look like one that a better ‘skills matching’ solution can get at?
– You’ve got a point there. But does that mean that there’s no problem? Are the best skilled people consistently getting hired for the jobs that need their skills?
– No, I’m not saying that; some improvement in the current practice would be good, no doubt. But look at the solutions they talking about — Harry, which one was your favorite?
– Well, at first I thought the proposal for a new agency was a worthwhile one, especially one focusing on developing and using a better set of tools, such as the matching program… but thinking more about it, I’m not so sure.
– Not sure about which part? The new agency or the software tool?
– Both, actually.
– Ah: learning! Good!
– Your cynicism is showing, Hubertissime my friend. Do you have any better ideas?
– Well, I’m not the one wanting to mess with the system here, though there are some things I feel could be done. But let’s get to the reasons why these proposals won’t do the trick first. There’s actually one common factor they don’t seem to recognize.
– What’s that, now?
– Competition. Isn’t it obvious that all the players in this game are in some form of competition with one another — not only with the other types of entities, but among themselves? Look: Employers are competing for the best job applicants. Applicants are competing for the best jobs. Schools are competing for the best students to enter their programs, first, and then for the best job placements for their graduates. Placement agencies are competing for the best companies’ contracts — fees — and the best job seekers to use their services. Government agencies too — in their ways, even though they may just be interested in getting as many people hired, regardless of skill match, to keep them out of unemployment lines?
– So? Isn’t competition good, to keep everybody on their toes?
– It does tend to work out too well for some players getting stepped on by the biggest toes, eh? But consider: to gain their precious competitive advantage, would they really be interested in some common software tool, however efficient? They would either be looking for a better program for their own use, or try to find ways to twist the outcome of such a program to their own better advantage, eh?
– Yeah: hmm. And even if there were one best program that eventually everybody would use: what would the best way to twist that one to your own advantage?
– You lost me there — what would you do to the program?
– Not the program, Sophie: to the information it needs to produce its results. You heard about the GIGO effect — ‘garbage in, garbage out’, haven’t you? But ‘garbage’ is perhaps not the proper term here: the completeness of information, and its timeliness, are the keys here. For a matching program to find the ‘best’ match, it needs to have all the items on the market available to compare, to ‘match’ — both jobs and job seekers, and their respective skills.
– Stands to reason. So?
– Well, so why are placement agencies trying to get ‘exclusive’ contracts with big companies? Why do schools try to develop special ‘relationships’ with certain employers? Why job seekers try to use the placement service that have access to the best jobs, faster than others — before other applicants know about them? And why employers use separate vetting procedures and interviews after getting the ‘best’ prospects fro the placement services? And applicants use ‘connections’ to get early information about good jobs, and recommendations for those? All means of tilting the information amount, timeliness, and quality in their favor. Most of the key players are not at all interested in sharing information, getting the complete data into the program and making it accessible to all. And of course sometimes the advantages they pursue with that will override best ‘skills match’ considerations. Or look like they do.
– Well, that’s the best reason for trying to find a better way — because skills mismatch will in the end hurt everybody in some way!
– Sure, Harry. But do you see why adding another agency into the game isn’t going to fix the problem — or do you think that agency could be kept out of the competition influence?
– Well, if it could have the setup with the best program and the best, most complete information, would that not be worthwhile?
– Yeah, tell me how you can get that complete information, and convince everybody that you have it…
– I see. It looks like some government interference or regulation would be necessary.
– Maybe — and who gets to lobby and influence the government to do the ‘right thing’? But let’s assume, for the moment and fir argument’s sake, that the information problem could be solved, and that you could get funding to develop a ‘perfect match’ program. What would such a program be like?
– Well, if you look at the skills needed for a job, and the skills of the job seekers, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find the best applicant — the one who has all or the most of the needed skills?
– You are assuming that there are adequate rules in place for describing skills — that the terms used actually mean the same thing for all parties. That’s something to look into, I don’t think we can assume that is true everywhere. But aren’t you also assuming a somewhat one-sided understanding of ‘best match’ here?
– What do you mean?
– I see what you are worrying about, Bog-Hubert. Harry’s explanation is looking at it from the employer’s side. What about the job seeker looking for her ‘dream job’: given the skills I have acquired in my long studies — which of the various jobs available is the ‘best match’ for me?
– Great, Sophie. That assumes a slightly different view of what the program might present as the ‘best match’. I know, I know, Harry: you are going to say that the program should be developed to take both those views into account and present them to both sides. Will that get rid of the ‘mismatch’ problem, though? Because I think we must acknowledge the fact that there will be few cases where there is a ‘perfect’ match, from either point of view. More likely, applicants will not have all job skills an employer would like to see; and applicants will have different ‘missing’ skills. So the employer will hire applicant A who is only missing skill i; and reject applicant B who ‘has’ skill i but is missing skill j; obviously, in B’s view there is a ‘mismatch’, as long as B considers skill j more important than skill i for the job — and therefore acquired that skill rather than i. Or a job does not require job k that applicant C is very proud of and would like to put to use, so even though all other requirements match, is it a ‘perfect match’?
– No, but maybe, if it’s the ‘best available’, isn’t that an improvement?
– Perhaps. But for a large number of jobs and applicants, the picture gets murky. Take even a simple example: Employers E1 and E2 are looking at the set of applicants 1, A2, and A3; assuming a simple ‘ranking’ on both sides (regardless of what other criteria the algorithm has used to establish the rankings):
E1 ranking : A1, A2, A3
E2 ranking: A2, A1, A3.
A1 ranking: E2, E1
A2 ranking: E1, E2.
A3 ranking: E1, E2
Which is the ‘best’ matching? It seems clear that A3 is out of luck, (even if she thinks she has the same skills as A1 and A2) but is E1-A1 a ‘better match’ than E1-A2 if A1 really prefers E2 (perhaps because of a better salary, or location closer to home…) and E2-A1 if E2 really wanted A2, and A2 wanted to work for E1? It looks like any matching system will make decisions that will look suboptimal to some participants — will applicants have to take the jobs the system decides is best for employers? or can preferences be adjusted in detailed negotiations to which other applicants, such as A3 who isn’t likely to be invited for a closer interview, will not have access?
– I see; that could be a problem — but if employers invite the applicants for an interview who have been recommended by the program? All or most of those should now have the required skills, or most of them, couldn’t the remaining questions be ironed out in the interview negotiations?
– Right. But before we get into that, let’s just explore the issue of the program a little more. The argument so far has been based on the assumption that jobs require skills, and applicants ‘have’ them or not — yes or no. Is that realistic? I mean, aren’t there degrees of skills, levels, that play an important role in how well an employee can do a job?
– I don’t see that as a big problem; all that’s needed is to agree on some way of distinguishing those levels, and write them into the program. It gets a little more sophisticated and refined, but nothing that a good programmer couldn’t handle. Right, Harry?
– And you don’t think it makes the definition of ‘best match’ somewhat more elusive? In a way that can give rejected job seekers reason to believe there’s mismatch?
– Yeah, I can her their cries now; ‘Skills Match’ — nothing but snake oil!
– Let’s not inflame the rejected multitudes here, Vodçek. I know you’d like to have them come here to drown their sorrows in your Tavern. But that issue isn’t even the most complex situation I can think of, Harry. Skill requirements don’t come in splendid isolation, but in different combinations, and each job may require different skill levels in those combinations. I know you can conjure up programmers who can write the program for that as well — if you are willing to pay them — but getting employers to write their job specs properly to express that, and applicants to write their resumes and applications honestly in the same terms, well, that seems to add quite a bit of doing to the task. Getting the information, again, and then figuring out what the best ‘match’ would be — all tied up in different parties’ different perspectives an motivations, handled equitably by your super program — it sounds like a big sales job, of a big barrel that some suspect is full of snake oil. You agree, Vodçek?
– Yes, but even that isn’t the biggest problem yet. If you know what the decision criteria are, you can write them into the program, and job specifications, and resumes. I’m not sure that list can be made exhaustive, using the same terms everywhere that will be understood the same way by all involved. But you mentioned interviews — that’s where a lot of aspects come into play that aren’t even likely to be in the skills list — in reality, hiring decisions are based on may other factors than just skills.
– And assessments about those are much more subjective, but hard to avoid — is that what you are saying?
– Yes, I think the list of personality features, attitudes, motivations, even appearance and habits, familiarity with the culture or the particular industry etc. can be longer than the list of skills. And even harder to describe in job specs and resumes; some such things are never mentioned because they are ‘taken for granted’, but when they come up, can make or break a hiring decision.
– Right, I remember such a case that became a big problem in a faculty search. There was this architecture program that was looking for an architecture historian, advertised nationwide and even beyond, and had gotten some promising applications. They had not only carefully examined resumes and recommendations, and ended up inviting the most qualified applicant for a visit and interview, during which a side question was made about how the professor might teach the undergraduate architectural history courses, to which he answered that he had not expected to teach undergraduate courses at all. This had never been explicitly discussed but just taken for granted by the committee member handling the vetting — it was after all a mainly undergraduate school without any specialty graduate program in things like architectural history. But the applicant had assumed that he had been considered mainly for his excellent research record…and the fellow left, in mutual disappointment. The costs of the visit for that position having been used up, they could not invite another candidate…
– Good example — even though more specific job descriptions and pre-visit vetting should have brought this out, I assume. But it shows that ‘one size-fits-all’ approaches — of software matching program and follow-up vetting protocols alike — are not likely to handle all kinds of job placement situations.
– So what would you recommend instead of these proposals, Bog-Hubert? Even the proponents of the program are curiously coming around to mumble that personal connections, relationships, and things like job fairs might be essential aspects of good job placement. But clearly not applicable to all kinds of jobs either — do you see your architectural historian walk around in a job fair?
– Right. Well, of course I don’t I have perfect solutions for that problem up my sleeve, hadn’t even thought about it before tonight. But I’d say, for starters, let’s drop labels like ‘Skills Match’ — they promise things you can’t deliver, which will add to the disgruntlements of the systemically rejected. And I think there are valid concerns about the consequences of widespread ‘mismatch’ of skills, jobs that aren’t done right, businesses that become less profitable, skilled people staying unemployed, that deserve to be taken seriously.
– Yeah, we haven’t really looked at those issues much tonight. And others – funding, for example — What do you say, old man? More categorical aperitivo classico antiquo to unleash your categorical judgment?
– Ah Vodçek, have mercy with an old-timer from last millennium — I can’t really comment on these fancy things like your matching programs and technology. And I can’t help wondering about the vulnerability of some of those tech ‘solutions’. What if there’s a big hurricane hit, or an earthquake — depending on where you live — and all your fancy power and communications are out — neither government nor companies can even get online to hire workers to help repair the damage? If you are looking for work, where do you post your resume for that wonderful software program to match it with job requirements? I say, invest in carrier pigeons. There’s a job for you, Harry. But…
– But what?
– Well, I suspect that once such tools are on the market, there’s no getting around putting them to use, and that’s as it should be. I just don’t think they will be anything like silver bullets that solve all the problems and concerns. The innovation-fixation on new tools, new tech, new methods — it may be the wrong question, eh? Looking at the wrong end of the problem?
– So what end would you look at?
– Hmm. Off the cuff, I’d say let’s use those ideas in a different way. What if, for example, there would be just a different set of incentives put in place for the different parties involved in this process, to achieve better results, better matches — and let the different parties come up with their own ideas about how to do that? Sure, that would require some answers to questions we touched upon before — appropriate measures of performance; for what counts as a good match, and ways to determine that. Your programs would come in handy for those tasks. But they’d be different for the different sectors in your system, I suppose.
– Say, what kinds of incentives do you have in mind for this approach?
– Well, that’s a good question. Some people would insist on money, on income, or reduction of expenses, tax credits, that kind of thing. Others might be happier with ‘intangible’ rewards such as PR, reputation, reviews. One thing I’d try to investigate is how to get the different entities to change their focus on longer term outcomes, not just the immediate profit from placement fees. Shifting from immediate returns to a kind of long term ‘return on investment’ perspective? Linking the rewards for placement services to the longer term productivity results from the matches they arrange? Cutting everybody in, visibly, tangibly, on the overall reduction of unemployment (and the costs associated with that), the productivity and prosperity of the overall economy, the quality of life in society?
– You’re talking about a much bigger problem there, aren’t you. Are you just drawing attention away from the concerns of the guy who just needs a job, now?
– Not at all. It’s just that that narrow focus won’t help your fellow if the economy is slumping and there aren’t enough jobs for all the folks who need one. So a wider perspective might be able to look at issues you mentioned — such as putting the skills people have to good use even if that isn’t just done by having a job? Didn’t I hear something about an idea of a ‘dual employment’ scheme that would give everybody opportunities outside of their jobs, working for social problems, public infrastructure and such, on a sliding scale, so that those capabilities will not be wasted but contribute to making things better overall? Rather than standing in unemployment lines, or having to move to other places? Or was I just dreaming?
– Must have been dreaming, my friend.
-Yeah, I know the power was off for a while, the storm knocked down a tree down the road. So I couldn’t get online, wasting my time trying to delete all those popup ads for stuff I don’t need…