Retail, food and hospitality are all industries that have been hard hit by staffing shortages since the start of the pandemic. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

“People don’t want to work,” is a popular refrain among employers in the Springfield metropolitan area who are struggling to hire and retain staff.

However, a new survey of more than 8,000 workers contradicts that idea. Sixty-two percent of those workers would prefer to stay with their current employer — if only there was a way to move up the ladder.

Joseph Fuller dropped this finding on members of the Springfield Business Development Corporation on March 3. Fuller is a Harvard Business School researcher who gave a presentation to a roomful of business leaders at the Ramada Oasis Convention Center. Fuller’s main message was based on “Hidden Workers: Untapped Talent,” a 72-page piece funded by the Harvard Business School and by information technology giant Accenture that Fuller co-authored with researcher Manjari Raman.

Their main message to people in charge of hiring was to rethink the process and change the ways they think about low-wage and middle-skilled workers.

Why care?

Employment rates, unemployment rates and job vacancies are often discussed daily in high-pressure boardrooms and low-pressure kitchen tables.

A presentation given to Springfield business leaders shed a different light on the labor market, and it may make you rethink everything you thought you knew about the hiring process in 2022.

Employers are sabotaging themselves

The paper’s executive summary explains that Fuller and Raman conducted their research with a survey of more than 8,000 workers and more than 2,250 executives across the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany.

Fuller and Raman’s survey showed that many workers, even workers who make low wages, appreciate the idea of staying with a company.

“They want to stay. For many of you, for your lower-wage workers, you’re caught in a logic loop about turnover that turnover is inevitable,” Fuller said.

A belief that turnover is inevitable can actually lead to employers sabotaging themselves, Fuller explained.

“Since they always leave within a year, what happens? ‘Well, I’m not going to train them up so they can leave and go somewhere else where I’m the sucker who spent money training them. Since they leave all the time, the job has got to be fairly simple, because a newcomer has got to be able to do it. Simple is not that productive, so it’s got to be low wage,'” Fuller said.

Employees then leave the job because it pays low wages and they feel that they have no incentive to work for improvement.

The term “hidden worker,” Fuller said, means workers who are experiencing distress and discouragement with the process of seeking work, and that their regular efforts to find work they are suited for have failed. Hiring processes focus on the credentials that the hidden worker lacks and ignore the capabilities and values that they can bring to the employer.

Fuller and Raman estimate that there are more than 27 million hidden workers in the United States. 

“People want to set on a path to get a good job and keep a good job,” Fuller said.

How good workers can be overlooked

A big finding in the survey was that incentives to stay employed in one place don’t often motivate workers.

“We did a parallel survey of workers about how they experienced both being a low-wage worker and how they might advance beyond where they were,” Fuller said. “The workers give the employers lower grades than the employers give themselves.”

Another finding is that many workers don’t blame employers for a lack of advancement opportunities.

“Seventy-one percent of Americans say, ‘Me, I am responsible for my own future,'” Fuller said.

Still, many low-wage workers feel stuck with little room for advancing, and therefore improving their economic situations. The requirements on job listings, like advanced degrees or years of experience, might automatically disqualify a worker who would otherwise perform at or above expectations if given the chance. Low-wage workers, especially those caught in poverty, can’t take months or years off of work to obtain advanced degrees.

“They can’t afford to stop what they’re doing now and have a negative effect on their wages with a hope of improving their circumstances. They are very busy, they’re taking care of their folks, they’re taking care of their kids, they have a long commute, whatever it is,” Fuller said.

Fuller introduced some data about worker satisfaction with jobs, and employer satisfaction with the workforce. He focused on low-wage workers for a moment. 

“You’re making judgments about them based on a personnel file, based on how they perform historically,” Fuller said. “Even though they make modest wages, do they contribute to the United Way? Do they show up every day? Are they productive? Do they help onboard somebody new?”

In the hiring process, promoting low-wage workers can be overlooked by employers using computer-based artificial intelligence programs to hire employees quickly and cheaply.

“If you’re getting them in there fast — and you all are doing this right now with each other — what you’re most likely doing is filling a job description that’s looking for someone who is in that job now, or very close to it, for somebody else locally,” Fuller said.

Employers who responded to the survey reported that using online job boards, like Monster and Indeed, were their main recruiting tools for middle-skill and high-skill jobs. Company websites were the second most source of recruitment, followed by employee referrals, social media platforms and job boards that specifically promote diversity.

Job seekers reported using job boards like Monster and Indeed 51 percent of the time when seeking middle-skill and high-skill jobs.

Fuller and Raman’s interviews with hidden workers showed that the average middle-skilled worker makes an average of one substantial job application every two months. 

“The user experience, by the way, for someone applying for a job from many of you is terrible,” Fuller told the membership of the Springfield Business Development Corporation.

How the funnel is flawed

The research showed that the average middle-skilled job applicant had about a 20-percent success rate of hearing anything at all back from the company they were applying with. They calculated a 1.7-percent success rate for applications actually leading to job offers.

The researchers found that when the hiring process was complete, employers were satisfied with about a third of the highly-skilled employees that they hired while relying on artificial intelligence to screen applicants, and that employers were satisfied with less than 30 percent of the middle-skilled applicants that they found with the assistance of artificial intelligence programs or job boards.

“It’s not like this thing is creating perfection. It’s highly flawed in terms of what it actually gives you in terms of fit,” Fuller said. “We exclude a large number of people from consideration, not because we say, ‘I hate veterans,’ or ‘I don’t want anybody who’s ever been arrested,’ we do it because it’s easy.”

Fuller gave one example of how employers drive away candidates through the screening process in a way that discourages many workers from even applying for a job.

“The employers are saying, ‘Tell me what shifts you’re going to work,’ and you know what they’re looking for, the employer? ‘I want candidates who will work any shift I assign because I really have a big problem staffing my operation, so I need workers who are infinitely flexible. Let me describe an ideal worker who will fit my precise needs.’ Oh my gosh, the whole system is broken because no one is showing up to work for $13 an hour at whatever time I tell them next week,” Fuller said.

Unrealistic expectations could discourage an employee, for example, who takes classes at a community college two nights per week and can’t work shifts on those evenings, but is otherwise available five nights per week.

“Employers should look at the profiles of workers who have been promoted one or more times. Similarly, they should look at softer, interpersonal attributes, such as engagement and collaboration. The employees that companies want and need are workers who perform well on those metrics. Small differences in the marginal cost of securing a productive worker or in the duration it takes to find them are irrelevant to a company’s long-term economics relative to how productive a worker is and how long they stay with the firm,” Fuller and Raman write in the “Hidden Workers” report.

Incentives that might actually attract workers

The issues Fuller describes in the “Hidden Workers” report are not unique to a post-COVID-19 America. Robert Russell, Director of Labor and Workforce Development with the University of Missouri Extension Business Development Program discussed similar issues of layoff aversion and workforce maintenance in a piece published in May 2020.

Russell made 10 recommendations, including that employers “upskill” their employees, and to do it by means beyond giving an employee certain nights off to attend classes at a local college.

“There are a number of services and programs in Missouri for employers to develop the skills of incumbent workers, including the Missouri OneStart program and Missouri Works. These services are often available at free — or reduced — costs and provide an opportunity to prepare current workers to meet future needs,” Russell wrote.

Russell also recommended cross-training employees to make them more flexible, adaptive and likely to stay with the company, and that employers consider offering sabbaticals, time away to rest or to develop new skills, with the expectation that an employee will return to the company when the sabbatical is over.

Springfield Chamber of Commerce President Matt Morrow said that Springfield has an advantage over other areas when it comes to training people and encouraging people to develop job skills that increase their earning potential. That is linked to Springfield having three universities, Ozarks Technical Community College and several trade and technical schools.

When it comes to workforce participation, the Springfield metropolitan area falls below the national average, suggesting a high probability that hundreds if not thousands of hidden workers are in southwest Missouri. They may be unemployed, underemployed or otherwise discouraged from participating in the workforce.

“Springfield runs about five percentage points below the national average in labor participation. We lag particularly in the 25 to 49-year-old demographic. Now, there are many factors to that. There is no one, single silver bullet, it’s a complex recipe,” Morrow said.

According to the Springfield Regional Economic Partnership, 95 percent of the businesses in the 10-county Springfield metro area have less than 50 employees, which magnifies the importance of good hiring practices.

Dive deeper

Read the full report, “Hidden Workers, Untapped Talent”

Rance Burger

Rance Burger covers local government for the Daily Citizen. His goal is to help people know more about what projects their government is involved in, and how their tax dollars are being spent. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger