Are Employers Too Picky?

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It takes months to fill an opening, hiring managers lament. It takes months to land a job, applicants complain. If both sides want speed, what's taking so long?

With the U.S. economy well into a fifth year of expansion, and both the stock market and the pace of deal activity setting record highs, it's hardly a surprise to hear that demand for finance professionals is robust at all levels and in most pockets of the industry.

At the same time, rocketing bonuses and widespread adoption of non-compete agreements make it harder than ever to pry star performers away from their current employers. The pool of unemployed job-seekers is unusually shallow as well, based on the latest national jobless rate of 4.5 percent, close to a six-year low.

A CareerBuilder survey released last month found 48 percent of accounting and finance employers say they have current openings for which they can't find a qualified candidate.

The best of all possible worlds for both job-seekers and external recruiters? Not exactly. Beyond red-hot areas like structured finance, even candidates with solid experience and accomplishments face formidable competition and an uphill struggle to land a job offer, according to experts we spoke with.

Structural Unemployment

It may seem a paradox that experienced applicants hit a wall when so many jobs are going begging. But it could reflect a disconnect between the skill-sets prevalent in the labor pool and those demanded by employers. Economists label such a condition "structural unemployment," to distinguish it from frictional unemployment that occurs when well-matched employers and job-seekers are groping to find each other.

Structural unemployment can arise from rapid technological advance, or from major legal and regulatory changes like Sarbanes-Oxley.

"There are many professions that used to be stable, that aren't stable now," observes Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club, a nationwide career counseling network.

Viewed from the ground, it appears that employers are intent on hiring only those people whose background and capabilities exactly match their needs. Several recruiters told us it's not unusual to send a client one or more candidates whom the recruiter judged a perfect fit, only to be asked to keep looking for a closer match. This quest for the ideal candidate poses a real challenge, say these middlemen, who pore over thousands of resumes.

No Letup on Soft Skills

What's more, the technical skills that show up on resumes are only part of what it takes to make the grade. Often it's "soft skills," rooted in individual personality, that determine how a particular applicant is judged to fit into the broad corporate culture and narrow work group.

"I see some employers getting more flexible about skills required for the job - but not on the polish of the candidate," says Brenda Wisniewski, manager of New York Networking Group. "Ninety nine percent of interviewing is personality," she adds. "The person that they like the most is the one that's going to get the job."

Rejected applicants aren't the only ones who suffer when an opening stays open indefinitely. Just as a stigma attaches to applicants who are unemployed for more than a few months, job openings also can go stale. Once a slot has been open for six months or longer, most qualified candidates will know about it and will wonder what is wrong with the job or the employer, said a manager at a nationwide recruiting firm, who asked not to be identified.

In such cases, external recruiters believe they can add value by helping firms refine the criteria they use to screen candidates for a particular role. For instance, a recruiter might advise a hiring manager to seek out skills that may be transferable, such as people who handled a similar job function within a different market segment or a different department, says Benjamin Normann, vice president at the Weatherly Group, a New York search firm.

"They're never going to accept a substandard candidate," Normann says of the investment banks and alternative investment firms he serves. "But through recruiters, they might look in places that they never would have thought of on their own."

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