BBC Capital

How to capture the right kind of talent

About the author

Alina Dizik is a freelance journalist who covers consumer trends, careers, lifestyle and small business for national publications. Her work appears in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Men's Journal and BBC.

Participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Sony had a hiring problem. It wasn’t that the Japanese retailer, with more than 130 stores worldwide, including 38 in the US, couldn’t find enough people to apply for its positions as sales assistants.

Rather, the company couldn’t find the right people—the ‘sales pros’ who could explain the features of a camera without using complex explanations of terms like aperture or audio format.

So, last year Sony’s US shops started to weed out applicants for hundreds of job openings using a predictive index tool. The online survey matched up the candidates’ answers with the consumer electronics giant’s ideal candidate — someone who need not only a love for tech gear but adequate sales skills to explain a product to the customer in plain language.

The new, stricter recruitment strategy seems to be working. Before it was implemented, “there was a lot of [tech-related] chatter that our shoppers did not understand,” said Michaela Ion, senior manager of guest experience at Sony Stores. “Now, we match them against the ideal profile to see gaps in natural behaviours,” she said.

While Sony’s skill-to-talent gap may have been unique to its lines of business, as CEOs focus on building a workforce that can mould to specific demands, speakers at star-studded conferences including the World Economic Forum in Davos, this week are encouraging leaders to rethink their approach to finding, training and better forecasting the talent they’ll need for employees of all levels.

A “persistent skills gap” in North America and Europe has “gotten worse over the last few years,” said David Gartside, a New York-based managing director who specializes in global HR strategy at Accenture, a management consulting firm with office in 54 countries.

As technology evolves, consumer needs remain fluid and an ageing workforce means there is an increasing number of trained people nearing retirement rather than working age. Talent scarcity — or the feeling it is coming on soon — is rising to the top of the agenda for the current crop of global business leaders.

Defining the talent gap

On a global scale, companies are seeing the talent scarcity trend emerge in different ways. The biggest problem, say some experts, is that university students are not getting the science, tech, mathematics and engineering skills that are in high demand in emerging jobs in many Western economies, Gartside said.

In parts of Asia, including China, companies are also struggling to cope with a workforce that consistently job-hops – rather than sticking with one firm and gradually creating value for that company by keeping skills and knowledge there. Europe, meanwhile, contends with a “frozen middle management,” leaving chief executives trying to find ways to boost stagnant ideas and careers, Gartside said. On a global scale, some of the largest companies point out that it’s actually a mix of skills and backgrounds that are crucial to expanding their global business, but attaining this kind of diversity is difficult. 

As companies look to build their talent pipelines, many are trying more innovative ideas to combat scarcity of certain skills.

Some are introducing their brands to potential employees who previously were not even interested in an interview. The Boston office at education giant Kaplan Inc, has started inviting tech entrepreneurs to use its sprawling office space for gatherings in order to get potential applicants through the door. Recently the company launched a 12-week coding boot camp for people within the Boston area who are looking to boost their skills. Graduates of the boot camp are sometimes offered jobs at Kaplan.

Meeting potential candidates long before they apply for a job helps the company to expand their brand, said Lorin Thomas-Tavel, chief operating officer of Kaplan’s Test Prep division, which offers preparation for exams training in more than 30 countries. “It’s really about networking and broadening our network,” she said.  

Finding a mix in developing countries

To find much-needed employees, some executives are turning to new locales -- far from traditional capitals -- to find untapped talent. Two years ago, California-based data storage company NetApp Inc opened a call centre in Dalian, China because the population living in the Northeast Chinese seaport city often speaks multiple languages, including Korean and Japanese.

This has helped expand the company’s Asia operations because it provides much-needed customer service to clients who don't speak English, said Grace Soriano-Abad, NetApp’s vice president of human resources. To find the next customer service hub, “we reviewed our business plan and mapped it to locations around the world,” said Soriano-Abad about NetApp’s decision to expand outside of China’s most populated cities.

At the senior level, finding the right combination of talent can be especially tricky in areas of the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where locals tend to join the public sector, said Rana Ghandour Salhab, Deloitte Middle East talent partner, based in Beirut, Lebanon.

“Our clients want to see nationals from their own country, bilinguals who speak English and Arabic and subject matter experts.,” she said.

Finding the right employees, has meant casting a wider net. As some parts of the Middle East have experienced double-digit economic growth, the company has partnered with local banks to help train their employees for a year at Deloitte before they go back to their primary bank employer. A newly-launched business plan competition across six countries in the region has helped introduce the Deloitte brand and gave winners a fast-track interview process.

Competitions are one way Deloitte has been able to attract creative problem solvers to the consulting industry, over the last few years, said Ghandour Salhab. “I tell them that you can use your entrepreneurship skills in a company initially before you go and risk your own resources,” she said.

Aligning these recent graduates with the world’s multinational companies isn’t easy. While many are keen on entrepreneurship they often lack the engineering skills coveted by European and North American companies.

The answer? Executives are helping to shape careers well before graduates start their job search. Companies are entering college classrooms, and even secondary schools to help shape the curriculum. At National Instruments the US company encourages employees to take time away from their regular job duties to become mentors in robotics classes to promote the field. And three years ago, the company started working with engineering professors at more than a dozen colleges to publicise the company to university first years – long before students would be invited for an internship.

While on a broad scale, talent scarcity in some industries and regions isn’t new, in recent years, companies and their employees have needed to re-tool at a more rapid pace to keep up with the changing technologies and global demands of business and customers. Hiring new employees with specific skills only solves part of the problem, said Accenture’s Gartside who urges companies to also examine their existing workforce and find ways to mobilise them to meet new demands

 “People are getting very focused on exactly what skills [they] need, but the realization that [managers] are coming to is that they can shift that balance and focus on hiring people who have a higher ability to learn [new skills],” he said.