Living on the Talent Poverty Line

Ira Wolfe
Ira Wolfe
Jan 12 · 6 min read

I can hear it in Danny’s voice: despair, fear, frustration, disappointment. Danny represents just one of the millions of businesses living in “talent poverty.” Danny owns a home health agency. But his role and the industry are almost irrelevant. Danny could be the CEO of a manufacturing company, the HR director at a construction company, or the hiring manager in a restaurant.

Poverty seems like an odd word to describe Danny’s existence because he’s not poor by any means, especially when compared to someone living on the streets or Section 8 housing. In fact, Danny is financially pretty well-off. But when it comes to managing and growing his business, he’s suffering.

Danny lives in a constant state of never having enough employees to meet demand. In fact, Danny estimates that his business could be growing more than 20% each year if he could just find more qualified workers. But no matter what Danny tries, he just can’t seem to get ahead. The moment he fills one job, another one opens.

For the financially poor, opening the food cabinet and seeing nothing but empty shelves is gut-wrenching. For Danny and every other business people responsible for seeking and keeping employees, it’s exasperating. He grimaces when he tells me about the three employees he just hired. One didn’t bother to show up. He painfully describes how the second employee completed her first assignment, left for lunch, and then never called back for the next one, resulting in the loss of one customer and forcing him to turn away others. Fortunately, the third one is still on the payroll although Danny described his energy and enthusiasm as “barely able to fog a mirror!”

Danny’s not alone. He’s the unwilling member of a growing legion of businesses beginning to live in a constant state of talent poverty.

Talent poverty isn’t just another hashtag or buzzword either, but the real feeling that many recruiters and business owners feel: of being beaten down. It’s the excruciating instance when you put your strategic plan on hold or turn away customers because you don’t have the staff to fill an order. It’s the unrelenting stress of knowing that at any moment your boss will drop another requisition on you or a hiring manager will call with a few choice words for not doing your job fast enough. It’s the disheartening reality that you must scavenge for another warm body to fill the open job, just so you can move on to the next one or get back to the other projects piling up on your desk. Worst of all, it’s the feeling that the situation isn’t temporary but permanent; that talent acquisition going forward will be akin to running faster and faster on a treadmill but not going anywhere.

Working the System

With economic poverty, you’ve probably heard unfounded stories of people taking advantage of government assistance. For sure, there are abuses but for most people, this aid is respected and used as hand-up, not a hand-out! HR technology too can be a hand-up but it is frequently deployed as a crutch. In many organizations, it’s the “Hail Mary” pass or magic bullet to keep afloat a fragile or failing HR strategy. In the worst possible scenario, HR technology becomes the strategy. For business, HR technology is the assist that can help you get back on your feet but it’s not the gift that keeps on giving. The benefit you receive will be temporary unless you have a workforce strategy and the will to implement it.

Solution: Develop a disruptive mindset. Upskill then unleash your strategy. Use technology to execute it. But do it fast. The clock keeps ticking and change is accelerating.

Talent Poverty IS self-imposed

Unlike economic poverty, talent poverty is self-imposed. As Pogo once declared (I’m paraphrasing), “we looked around and blamed everyone and everything, but the real enemy is us!” Low unemployment, skill gaps, using Millennials as scapegoats, and other environmental factors do impact recruitment, hiring, and retention. It is what it is, or as Economist Alan Beaulieu recently shared on my podcast, “the economy does what the economy does .” In a somewhat perverse piece of good news, that means everyone is fishing out of the same shrinking talent pool. But that’s just it, everyone is fishing out of the same pool and some organizations consistently hook (and retain) the big fish, while others go hungry. With talent poverty, you do have a choice. Learn to fish or go hungry.

Solution: Quit complaining. Stop bashing Millennials! Do something. You can’t grow with disrupting the status quo. Learn to fish for talent.

Talent Poverty is not easy to escape.

I read somewhere that being poor is like living at the bottom of a deep, dirty pit. You grasp at roots to pull yourself up but the soil beneath you keeps crumbling. Living in talent poverty is no different (although admittedly significantly less tragic.) Escaping talent poverty is not easy. The only way out requires a clear vision of a better alternative, an opposite condition. I really struggled with describing and picturing what that might be. Words like wealth and abundance kept creeping into the picture, after all, poverty was an economic and social condition, right? I reached out to experienced HR and talent acquisition thought leaders for insight. I posted requests for help several times to my LinkedIn community. I received a lot of responses but nothing resonated. Buzzwords like diversity and inclusion and employee experience just weren’t doing it.

Solution: Don’t sugarcoat or underestimate the challenge. Cultural transformation and disruption is hard work and takes time. It often feels like we’re trying to find our way home on a pitch-black night in a strange neighborhood with a dimly lit penlight. Create a clear vision. Gain commitment. Remember it’s a journey, not a destination.

Just Mercy

For several weeks I was struggling to describe the opposite condition of talent poverty. Talent wealth? Talent abundance? Talent Prosperity? Then while watching the movie “Just Mercy,” I had my aha breakthrough. Many of you might have read the best selling book of the same name, (If you haven’t, do it!) There was a moment when Bryon Stevenson, the death row lawyer and criminal justice advocate, argues that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.” Those words stuck in my head and kept playing over and over. “That’s it,” I thought. That describes the state of talent management. The opposite of talent poverty isn’t about talent wealth, an abundance of skilled workers. The opposite of talent poverty is simply respect and fairness. The reason that initiatives like diversity and inclusion and employee experience fail isn’t for a lack of strategy and good intentions. They fail because they are managed like projects, delivered and implemented void of emotion. Diversity and Inclusion or employee experience aren’t about achieving 5 stars on Glassdoor but employees experiencing an authentic emotional engagement with leadership, culture, and the work they do. Talent prosperity isn’t about having robust talent pools and pipelines but fairness and respect.

Solution: Moving from talent poverty to talent prosperity is not for the faint-hearted. Buckle-up. It’s a bumpy ride. Then again living on the talent poverty line isn’t very pleasant either. The good news is that with talent prosperity comes inspiration, opportunity, and fulfillment. Companies treating workers, customers, and the community fairly and respectfully can focus on building superior products, delivering better service, and sustaining growth.

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A "Millennial trapped in a Baby Boomer body, Ira S Wolfe has passionately embraced how exponential change will impact the future of work, jobs, and society.

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