Workforce tends to be the central issue for most communities nowadays. Though I would say that “workforce” is really just one ugly manifestation of the same issue that is plaguing all smaller cities and towns.

When people talk about “workforce” they are usually coming down to one or more of these statements:

  • “Employers just can’t find good people anymore.”
  • “Businesses won’t choose our community if we don’t have the workers.”
  • “We can’t recruit and retain young people if they can’t find jobs here.”

These are each a very real, very unique problem for sure. These statements are troubling and applicable across the economic spectrum – young people of affluence and means as well as the sinking lower middle class and the growing population of poverty.

But do you see the difference between the last one – about recruiting and retaining people – versus the first two? The last one is from the perspective of the individual. First two are from the perspective of a business.
The solutions to workforce woes lie in thinking about it from the individual’s perspective, not the business’s. Though keep in mind, businesses are made of individuals. So, I’m talking about the owners and decision makers as much as the employees. Regardless of their role in an organization, each person makes the decision to be in a place or to not be in a place.

The access to and importance of the individual has been made a reality in our world by the likes of the internet and other technologies in the connectivity revolution. And such developments have happened so fast that we have generations straddling two very different realities.

What this means in pragmatic terms is that, for the younger job seeker, the job market is now a consumer marketplace. They are the consumers. The jobs are the products. It is their demand that is driving the supply of jobs. This is a fundamental shift in understanding of what the job market is, as the employee has long been seen as a cost-of-goods-sold.

Employers have traditionally filled job openings as they fill sourcing requirements. It’s a cost. It’s part of creating the production machine that makes money by serving a consumer marketplace somewhere down the line.

Today people look for jobs online like shopping for shoes. They are seeing what’s out there and deciding if they want to “buy” it. In the case of a job, buying it means taking the position. Their currency is their own time and talent and dedication. They are going to invest these somewhere, so they want to be discerning about where they invest.

If you think about it that way, then it becomes clearer why employers “can’t find good people” anymore.

It’s because the people are falling into three categories:

The people who have valuable currency (good and qualified employee with time, talent, skill, and dedication to give) don’t see the product (the job offering) as good enough (or right for them).

The people who would take the job as a fair trade for their currency don’t know about it / understand it / know about the employer / know about the career.

The people who can’t afford the job (meaning, what they can offer as an employee is so low, that you wouldn’t hire them – especially in the areas of soft skills).

So, if you think about the job as a product and the employee as the consumer. Then all of a sudden new avenues for solutions are opened up. We, as a society, are VERY good at designing products and selling them to a consumer marketplace.

If the employer treated the job like a product they had to sell, then there would be a whole marketing and sales infrastructure around doing so and doing it well (the way we have around selling actual products and services in the marketplace).

This is already happening, of course. Job boards list job openings like items from a yard sale or local job boutique. Recruiters are essentially specialized sales people selling higher-end products (better paying jobs). The recruiters are not as concerned with finding good people (they have access to a ton of those) as they are with having a job they can sell effectively.

Another complexity is that jobs are hard to “sell” because they require skills and experience (qualifications) to “buy” them. So, it’s like selling a house, where you’re going to need a lot of other pieces in place. When you buy a house, you need a realtor, a lender, a lawyer, appraisals, and so on. It’s a complex sell with high stakes.

Selling a career job to a serious individual is also a high stakes transaction with lots of moving pieces and qualifications involved. The individual needs to really want the job and the lifestyle the job affords. Or they need to see it as an opportunity to move forward in their path in life. All the pieces must be in place or get into place for the transaction to work. I believe that if we all understand that the job market is now a consumer market, then we would be as good at filling open jobs with good people as we are at buying and selling homes in the consumer marketplace.

Our larger problem is that we are straddling the paradigm shift. Many who are at the helm of businesses still understand the economics of employment in the past paradigm. Yet, the individuals swelling in the workforce are already operating in a whole new economic workforce paradigm where the employee is a consumer in a competitive consumer marketplace.

Most younger people are always either casual or aggressive shoppers for great jobs. Employers, on the other hand, are not good sellers of opportunity. That’s because they don’t yet operate this way.

I believe Economic Development Organizations and Chambers of commerce can serve as a bridge for employers to move into the new paradigm. To do so, they themselves must embrace the shift discussed herein. Then, different actions can be discussed from there.

Every community has to start with where it is. I see this in my work with different communities that are in different phases of embracing such understandings, and they are (for the most part) implementing creative marketing and communications solutions to inform and inspire positive change. It makes the work fun!