COMPETING FOR TALENT Finding – and keeping – the right employees

Unemployment is high. So are talent shortages. The jobs employers need to fill simply do not match the skills of those seeking work. Poaching talent from your competitors when they, in turn, are poaching yours is a zero-sum game. So how do you find the talent you need? For many companies, the answer increasingly lies in keeping their best employees happy, retraining existing staff with the skills they need, and reaching out to the educational system for help in priming the talent pump.

Adfonic, a global advertising network based in London, is having so much difficulty finding employees in the UK that it is moving most of its R&D to the United States. Meanwhile, Amazon is traveling in the opposite direction, following close on the heels of Google in search of talent in the UK.

Such geographic jockeying is driven by financial and market considerations but also points to a chronic and growing problem: the global talent shortage faced by companies of every size.

With unemployment at stubbornly high levels in many countries, a labor shortage seems counterintuitive. The problem lies in the mismatch between available workers and in-demand skills. In the decade between 1995 and 2005 in Europe, for example, growth in net jobs in the services and knowledge-economy sectors was two to five times greater than in other sectors. In the US in the 2000s, 70% of the jobs created were knowledge-based jobs requiring complex judgments, interactions and problem solving – skills that many American students are failing to master.


In 2012, 34% of the employers polled in 41 countries reported difficulty filling their available jobs.

Manpower group

“Emerging trends put unprecedented value on talent as the driver of business success,” says Jonas Prising, president of Manpower Group, a global employee placement firm. “This will only increase the competition for proven, talented employees with skills employers need.”


According to Manpower Group’s 2012 Talent Shortage Survey, 34% of the employers polled in 41 countries reported difficulty filling their available jobs, compared to 24% who reported difficulty in the same survey in 2011. Competition is especially fierce in the fields of engineering, skilled trades and commercial/industrial sales.

Susan Ashford, a professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan, notes that skill shortages are even more acute in certain localized areas, such as Silicon Valley in southern California. “Nearly 60% of companies are facing leadership talent shortages that are impeding their performance,” Ashford wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review article. “Another 31% expect a lack of leadership talent to impede their performance in the next several years.”

With so many companies competing for a limited pool of skilled workers, the answer to the shortage problem is becoming increasingly consistent: keep the employees you have happy, retrain those whose skills have become outdated, and work with educators to encourage young people to train in the fields that need them.


In a 2012 survey by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, 80% of human resources professionals said that their companies are focused on employee engagement; 67% said the focus on engagement is greater now than it was before the recession.

“As the job market continues to improve, albeit slowly, more and more workers are starting to seek new opportunities,” CEO John A. Challenger says. “In recognition of this, employers are stepping up their efforts to hold onto the talent that was critical in helping the company survive the downturn.”

Challenger cautions that keeping staff requires more than salary hikes and fancy perks: “It is about taking steps to ensure that employees feel they are valued, challenged, and that their contributions impact the bottom line. That is what engagement is about: forming a bond between the employee and the employer.”

“Emerging trends put unprecedented value on talent as the driver of business success.”

Jonas Prising President of Manpower Group

Global car rental service provider Enterprise-Rent-A-Car, for example, has identified a number of non-financial factors that provide high levels of motivation for its employees. The company’s focus is on creating a positive working environment. Enterprise managers are expected to ensure that employees are engaged and motivated by developing good relationships with them, providing them with all the information and tools they need to perform well, identifying personal development targets and recognizing good performance. Rewards are given through informal competitions, opportunities to take the lead on projects, or training in new skills.

Another company committed to ensuring high employee satisfaction is Google, which consistently ranks at the top of “best company to work for” lists and has a reputation for treating staff well to maximize productivity.

In a blog reflecting on his first year at Google, analytics evangelist Avinash Kaushik listed his ten favorite things about working for Google. This list featured seemingly arbitrary factors, including good food in the cafeteria, “brain expansion opportunities,” green technology and diversions for employees on the toilet. Although unusual, the list demonstrates that Google cares about keeping its employees happy and engaged throughout the workday.

While few companies have the resources of Google, its focus on staff satisfaction is something every company can strive to emulate.


Beyond keeping existing employees happy, Manpower suggests that long-term talent shortages may force organizations to devise proactive, innovative and flexible workforce management strategies. These strategies are likely to include focusing on developing the skills of existing staff. In fact, Manpower’s 2012 survey indicates that a growing percentage of employers are addressing their talent shortages by “upskilling” current staff and promoting staff who demonstrate the potential to grow and develop. This trend is particularly prevalent among those employers who say talent shortages are having a high impact on their businesses.

International oil and gas company ExxonMobil, for example, credits ongoing on-the-job development programs for its ability to meet its staffing needs both locally and globally. The company employs thousands of scientists and engineers around the world and is committed to helping them develop business-required competencies and skills while transferring learning across the organization. 

In 2004, the company opened its ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company Technical Training Center in Houston, designed to accommodate more than 4,000 students annually from across its Exploration, Development, Production and Research businesses. One of several world-class centers that ExxonMobil uses, the facility delivers training programs on topics ranging from integrated exploration to reservoir simulation to fast-drill borehole management. In 2011 alone, ExxonMobil’s major business lines spent a total of more than US$79.9 million on employee training, reaching more than 65,000 participants. 

To strengthen the company’s technical capacity, approximately 39,000 participants attended more than 4,600 professional technical training sessions.

$79.9 million

In 2011, ExxonMobil’s major business lines spent a total of more than US$79.9 million on employee training, reaching more than 65,000 participants.

“Major organizations should be looking towards resourcing plans and strategies for the future,” Sarah Taylor, associate director of NES Global Talent UK, says of the need for ongoing employee training. “This can involve training, up-skilling, transfer of skills, the global talent pool of candidates and project timing – looking to when similar projects are finishing to transition team members.”


Taylor also believes that cooperation between industry and education is critical. “The Institute of Chemical Engineering’s ‘Why Not?’ global scheme involves working actively
with schools and companies to educate youngsters on what it would be like to have a career in chemical engineering,” Taylor observes. “Companies go into science lessons and actively get involved in showing the youngsters that engineering can be fun. Getting youngsters engaged as early as possible is key and revisiting them throughout their time in education is crucial.”

According to the official journal of the European Union: “High-quality initial education lays the foundation for skills acquisition and increases enthusiasm for lifelong learning. Today’s societies, particularly in the European Union, are increasingly developing into knowledge societies, in which there is greater demand for highly qualified employees.” In line with this, many companies are trying to nurture future employees by working with educators, both in schools and at universities.

“Many IT companies are now partnering with engineering colleges and universities, building a much-needed engagement between industry and academia, even creating universally accepted benchmarks like certifications and policy-level curriculum changes,” says Naresh Wadhwa, president of Cisco India. “Educational institutions can update the syllabus of professional academic courses to make them more industry relevant, with regular updates from professionals who have a deeper understanding of current business developments and technical standards.” Wadhwa cites the Cisco Networking Academy program, which partners with more than 170 institutes in India to create a supply of world-class IT professionals who can help bridge the skills gap across the digital divide. “If leading companies from across industries can step forward to advance talent development,” he says, “we could make the youth of today competitive, supporting long-term, local sustainable development and also addressing global demand.”

Education in subjects known as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is also gaining widespread support as a valuable method of preparing students for the working world.

One leader in this endeavor is Supélec, an engineering education institution and one of the most prestigious Grandes Écoles in France. An essential feature of research at Supélec, whether fundamental or applied, is that it is based on the actual needs encountered in industry.

“The close links between research and teaching make it possible to incorporate the latest scientific and technological advances into the student lectures, tutorials and practicals,” explains Alain Bravo, a member of the French Academy of Technology and general director of Supélac. “Research thus guarantees top-quality education. Continuing education, on the other hand, allows engineers engaged in professional activities to adapt to new techniques or to increase their overall competence.”

On average, 32,000 engineering students graduate in France each year, but it is not enough, a lament echoed by developed nations worldwide. “We really need to increase that figure to 40,000 to keep up with current demand,” Bravo says. “In France, the current situation is that we have a lot of medium-sized universities and smaller-sized engineering schools. But we are reshaping the present education landscape to amalgamate some of these institutions to create larger centers of excellence. This will hopefully allow us to engage with and educate more students to a higher standard.”


of companies expect a lack of leadership talent to impede their performance in the next several years.

Harvard Business Review

Bravo also highlights the important role businesses play in STEM education. “Supélec was created by the industry to support industry,” he says. “During their courses, students are equipped with industry knowledge with on-the-job training, work placements and regular contact and advice from the business world.”

Bravo advises frequent contact between students and the working world to ensure students learn exactly what will be required of them when they graduate. “Already our new intake of students, which joined in September, have been on work placements. It’s important to give them that experience and equip them for what lies ahead.” ?


According to Rick Cobb, executive vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the following are three important ways in which any organization can keep talented staff.

• Own the succession plan for high-potential employees

Such employees are often “captured” by their managers and denied chances to advance because they are perceived to be too valuable where they are. This forces them to go outside the organization
for advancement.

• Solicit and recognize input from employees

Employees want to contribute to corporate success, not be “cogs in the machine.” Empower them by seeking and acting on their suggestions, and more of them will remain loyal to your organization.

• Create, support and recognize a legitimate mentoring process

In exit interviews, most employees point to a lack of development and opportunity to grow as the reasons for their departures. Mentors connect employees to a company in a meaningful way while making the employee more effective.

by Richard Milton Back to top