Employability vs attractiveness: why companies complain they can’t recruit

Laetitia@Work #3

Hi everyone, 

This is my third newsletter. And nearly 900 of you have already subscribed! That is hugely motivating. Thank you! 🤗

In this edition I want to focus on the notion of “employability”. Although I’ve used the term countless times in articles and talks, I can’t help but cringe each time I hear other people focus on it so much. The same way I cringe when I hear someone blame a woman for being single—she’s not desirable enough, they say, that’s why no one wants to be with her. She should lose some weight. Or wear better clothes. 🙄

Well, you have to look at the whole picture! Maybe she’s single because every possible mate in her area is too dumb, uneducated or ugly for her! Or she just wants to be single. To be able to see the whole picture you have to look at the person, the cultural context, and the possible mates at the same time.

Image result for peeled and cut pineapple wrapped in plastic"

There’s this growing talk of a global “shortage of talents”. An article published on LinkedIn insists that “the skills gap is widening” and that “the global talent shortage could reach 85.2 million people—costing companies trillions of dollars in lost economic opportunity.” There aren’t enough employable people, they say.

A recent survey from the National Federation of Independent Businesses found that 35% of small business owners had job openings they were unable to fill (…) and 89% of those hiring reported having “few or no qualified applicants” for their open positions. More than a quarter of small business owners surveyed said finding qualified workers was their most important business problem,” says this article.

Many people don’t have jobs and quite a few jobs aren’t taken. Strangely enough we put the burden of responsibility disproportionately on workers today. People who don’t have jobs are told they need to improve their “employability”. It’s their fault.

In fact, the talent shortage has only partly to do with lack of training or inadequate education. France fails to recruit enough teachers. The same can be said about nurses, pretty much everywhere. Yet there is adequate training for these professions. It’s just there aren’t enough people who want to do it. And so I would like to balance the concept of employability with that of jobs’ attractiveness.

The notion of employability is one-sided

Defined as “the attributes of a person that make him/her able to gain and maintain employment” (Wikipedia), it only puts the blame on workers, not on employers. If workers don’t have a job, it’s because they’re not “employable”.

Companies complain a lot that they can’t recruit enough employable people. Often they also blame the government for not training enough people and lobby to have schools and universities create new programmes that fit their needs of the moment.

But there’s a number of ways this vision is inherently flawed:

Education and training provided by public institutions should fundamentally serve people, not companies. And they should focus on developing people’s “transformational assets”, i.e. the cognitive, social and emotional abilities that people need to transform themselves. In what Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott call the “age of longevity” in their book The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, early education should not necessarily be “vocational” but develop a person’s ability to learn in the future. Education for education’s sake.

When education institutions claim they serve the needs of the “market” they’re always wrong. In fact, they don’t really know the needs of the market all that well—only the needs of those organisations that are good at lobbying. Also, it takes a couple of years for the students to reach the market, and by that time, the competencies they’ve acquired may no longer be what the market needs.

What if the reason why many jobs aren’t taken wasn’t because of a shortage of people but because these jobs aren’t attractive enough? If the jobs market really was a market, then it should go both ways. Companies and workers should meet half way. Worker “employability” should be matched with employer “attractiveness”.

The reason why we focus obsessively on employability may have something to do with the “unbundling of jobs, which is one of the main subjects of my book Du Labeur à l’ouvrage. Jobs that are repetitive and boring used to come with a number of tradeoffs—social benefits, economic security, access to housing, healthcare… but a lot of these tradeoffs have deteriorated over the past three to four decades. So why should workers accept the alienation? And so most jobs have effectively been “unbundled”. It used to be that in exchange for division of labour and subordination, workers got all these irresistible benefits. But in the relative absence of these benefits, these jobs are seen for what they are: unattractive.

There are two types of unattractive jobs: low-paid unattractive and highly-paid unattractive.

  • Many low-paid jobs aren’t attractive: those that aren’t paid enough to cover the cost of housing, those that aren’t paid enough to cover the cost of boredom, those that aren’t paid enough to cover the cost of an absence of flexility and childcare. Many jobs in urban areas are particularly problematic: when the cost of housing rises much faster than the revenue offered for a job, it will be harder to recruit. All the more so as geographic mobility is on the decline. If it was a well functioning market, companies would have increased the said revenues to be able to continue to recruit.

  • As for highly-paid jobs, the argument that there’s a shortage of talent is also short-sighted. Highly-paid unattractive jobs are common: how else would you explain the popularity of the concept of" “bullshit jobs”? Furthermore, it’s as if employers now wanted ready-to-use workers fit to do the exact tasks they need them to do without ever having to train them and develop their talent. A bit like consumers who want to buy peeled and cut pineapples wrapped in plastic because they’re too lazy to cut their fruit themselves. Not only does the fruit lose its vitamins in the process, but you also produce a ton of plastic rubbish that will end up in the ocean. (And now you understand the picture above!)

Why don’t companies invest in training anymore?

A lot of the skills that are in short supply today are fairly new. Companies could just train the workers they need. In fact, they used to, but they stopped doing it. That’s the question asked in this very interesting article titled “U.S. Employers Say They Can’t Find Skilled Workers” : “why are so few businesses providing the job training required to create the skilled workers they need?”. The author of the article writes, “the existing evidence suggests companies have backed off the kind of training many provided in earlier eras. A paper published in 2015 by C. Jeffrey Waddoups, an economics professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, found a 28% decline in the number of workers who got training from their employers between 2001 and 2009. Those numbers were down across most industries, occupations, and demographic groups.

When they need an employee with a specific skills set, companies can either “buy” one (pay up for a worker who already has the skills) or “make” one (provide or pay for the training that’s necessary). Both cost a lot. To access qualified “ready-to-use” employees, you need to pay more, and/or use the services of consultancies and agencies to get them. Training them costs a lot too, and companies don’t trust their employees who they think will leave them as soon as they have the valuable skills to go work for a competitor. And the reason they don’t trust them is because they know the jobs they have to offer aren’t attractive. So everybody’s stuck.

Alas, there’s no quick fix.

The problem of employability vs attractiveness reflects the unbundling of jobs and the declining bargaining power of workers. The manufacturing industry used to provide on-the-job training and unions used to provide training that was relevant. But they’ve declined beyond recognition.

The workplace is increasingly “fissured” as corporations increasingly distribute activities through an extensive network of contracting, outsourcing, and franchising. Workers are more likely to work for a network of middlemen or as independent contractors, rather than directly for the company that benefits from the fruit of their labour. They have lost many of the full rewards of economic growth as a result, including the protections of 20th-century labour laws, and the reward of “talent development”.

For all this to change, a lot of things are needed: more universal, public education; new, stronger unions; systems to offer people more “transformational assets” (like Sweden’s “transition system” that helps the unemployed find better jobs). But also, employers need to understand they have a role to play in creating a virtuous system where more people are trained inside and outside organisations. Attractiveness is not about nice furniture and free food at the office, it’s ultimately always about providing a stimulating environment and the opportunity to learn.

  • This week I’ve read and written a lot about corporate culture: for a future Welcome to the Jungle ebook about “scaling corporate culture” and a new “must-read” article about Ben Horowitz’s last book What You Do Is Who You Are. I’ll let you know when it’s published!

Content related to this week’s newsletter:


  • 🎙️ “Impeaching the President”: this episode of the (brilliant) British “Talking Politics” podcast features the American Sarah Churchwell about the lessons to be learned for Trump and his opponents from what happened in 1868, when President Andrew Johnson was impeached by Congress and survived his trial in the Senate. Everything you need to understand the ins and out of US impeachment!

  • 🗞️ “The Geisha Syndrome”, Jun Wu, Medium: this Chinese-American woman experienced corporate work in Japan… and discovered there’s only one way for Japanese women to be at work: that is to serve.

  • 🗞️ “Advertising Makes Us Unhappy”, Nicole Torres, Harvard Business Review, January 2020 : The higher a country’s ad spend was in one year, the less satisfied its citizens were a year or two later. Their conclusion: Advertising makes us unhappy.

  • 🗞️ “The 2010s were supposed to bring the ebook revolution. It never quite came”, Constance Grady, Vox, December 2019: interesting piece about the consequences of publishers’ war against ebooks in the 2010s. It led to increased concentration in the book market. “Nearly every phase of a book’s life is [now] dominated by a tiny subset of companies.