Trying to Get a Job in a Labor Shortage is Harder Than You Think

Photo by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash

In the middle of a labor shortage, a man in Florida applied to 60 jobs only to receive one interview. While companies might be receiving fewer applicants, especially for lower-wage roles, why are they struggling to hire the candidates that are actively pursuing their openings?

The Tale of Two Retail Applications

In August 2021, we followed the application journey for two job-seekers named Ryan and Alex. They applied to frontline retail roles in the Boston area, and filled out online forms with basic information about shift preferences and whether they had worked at the retailer previously.

Ryan spent over a month calling the retailer — either no one would pick up or he was told that the manager was not in yet. Eventually he was invited in for an interview, but when the manager could not find his application in the system, he was sent home to reapply.

Alex had a more promising start. Five days after sending in his application, he received a phone call from the store manager and set a time to come in for an interview. But it was not an interview — the manager explained the role and offered it to Alex without gathering any information about Alex’s retail experience, education, or reasons for applying for the job. Being on-time was sufficient to receive a job offer. They even asked Alex if he wanted to be the Assistant Manager.

Despite a fast interview, over the next two weeks, Alex was stuck in a cycle of uncertainty and wasted time:

Alex had to plan several separate trips to the store before starting his first paid shift — a luxury that not everyone can afford and a red flag for anyone with alternatives.

Operational Challenges of Hiring in High-Turnover Environments

These experiences on the frontline illustrate a simple truth: poor operational execution that existed before a labor shortage will only get worse during a labor shortage — potentially exacerbating that labor shortage in stores. Raising wages is a good start to boost applications and retention, but companies that are struggling to hire will also need to confront the reality of their operational system.

1) Insufficient Manager Slack

When turnover is high, handling vacancies becomes a vicious cycle: managers must spend time filling in for scheduling gaps, which gives them less time to hire and train, which means those scheduling gaps continue to go unfilled. Without slack, managers cannot put time into the hiring process, which means they do not ask enough questions, hire too quickly, and do not have enough time to do proper orientation and training, which drives turnover and the need to hire once again.

The manager at Ryan’s store was supervising multiple stores and was too preoccupied to take calls from an interested candidate. When Alex arrived for his interview, the manager was working at the cash register, and had to leave during the interview to attend to customers. When managers do not have stability, time, and support, they will struggle to conduct a respectful and thorough hiring process for potential candidates.

2) Frontline-HQ Disconnect

When corporate employees try to address these hiring challenges, they tend to use a few conventional best practices: streamline the hiring application, write a more appealing job description that highlights company culture, advertise benefits and perks, hold an open house, and use referral incentives. When headquarters does not factor in the store-level capacity constraints, they often solve the wrong problems, or worse, introduce new ones.

Ryan could quickly apply to the position, but he still never received a follow up to set up an interview, and the store could not even access his application. Alex first saw his full job description when completing the paperwork that came with his offer. Many companies that we work with offer benefits, but turnover is so high (and time in role to qualify for benefits so long) that employees leave before ever enrolling in them. When headquarters rolls out top-down tools designed for a perfect environment, it often adds workload to already time-strapped stores, creating new challenges and eroding trust.

3) Low Expectations and Low Commitment Hiring

In this vicious cycle of low staffing, managers not only lack the time to find and interview candidates, but they do also not have time to train them or follow proper onboarding procedures. And when employees leave quickly, managers may feel even less inclined to invest time in interviewing or training candidates. New employees that are thrown into the frontlines on their first day without training are likely to make mistakes, leading to both poor customer service and disciplinary action that might result in termination. Headquarters then interprets this poor execution as a reason to create more top-down tools and command & control measures.

And these types of experiences were commonplace even before the pandemic. The U.S. had a tight labor market in 2018 (3.9% unemployment rate), but you would still find discouraged quotes on Glassdoor such as a retail candidate who wrote, “It seemed like no matter what I said, I would’ve been hired. It wasn’t a sit down interview, and I feel like I dressed nice for nothing,” and a food service candidate who reflected, “I felt ASHAMED that they weren’t prepared at all and they were at this point where they just met me like 10 minutes ago and they wanted to hire me right away without checking my resume or anything.”

Alex’s frustrating hiring experience set low expectations for his new job. After managers continuously delayed his onboarding, Alex considered quitting before his role even started. After being abandoned on the cash register without any training on his first day, he internalized that this was not a place that would invest its time in him. In the spirit of reciprocity, companies that do not demonstrate respect for a new candidate’s time will struggle to receive that same respect in return.

Lessons for Employers

So how should company leaders address their hiring challenges? To start, they should apply for a frontline role. If it is challenging, talk with your store teams about what they would need to give potential employees a positive first impression.

Instead of blaming external factors for hiring difficulties, companies can use this as an opportunity to fix the inefficient and frustrating experiences that they have relied on to fill vacancies. Developing a strong frontline hiring process takes time, disciplined operations, investment in people (including adequate pay), and real communication with frontline managers.

The labor shortage is an indication that workers are demanding more from their employers. Investing in a strong system that demonstrates respect for people’s time and abilities before they are even a part of your organization will help companies to attract and retain committed employees, even in tight labor markets.

Good Jobs Institute is a 501(C)(3) non-profit founded in 2017. Our mission is to help companies thrive by creating good jobs. Our President and Co-Founder Zeynep Ton is a leading retail and service operations expert, Professor of the Practice at MIT Sloan, and author of The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits.

This article was co-written by Amanda Silver (Good Jobs Fellow), Dan Ford (Good Jobs Fellow), Sarah Kalloch (GJI Executive Director).

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