The Real Shortage: Qualified Labor or Recruiting Ingenuity?

Does the U.S have a labor shortage, or have we standardized recruiting to the point of missing great candidates with the right underlying skills?

By Kerry Edelstein
February 18, 2018

Close your eyes and take a moment to picture an auto mechanic.

Did you picture someone with oil grease spotting his or her clothes and hands? Maybe a tool or two in hand, and a name embroidered on the pocket of a wrinkle resistant uniform shirt?

Now picture a software engineer.

In your mind, they probably don’t look quite the same, do they?

Yet automotive dashboards often have Bluetooth, satellite radio, even WiFi. If you drive a newer vehicle, it’s essentially a computer on wheels. Repairing a car often requires re-programming buggy software or fixing damaged hardware.

At the CES 2018 “Future of Jobs” panel, a panelist from Toyota explained to the audience that auto repair today often requires a similar skillset to software engineering. And indeed, the delta between blue collar and white collar seems to be narrowing.

Members of the panel posited that the domestic demand for both company-specific skills and advanced technical skills has created a problematic labor shortage in the U.S.. And in fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites that nearly 6 million domestic jobs are currently available.  In a U.S. market with only 4.1% unemployment, that combination can create something of a hiring crisis.

The logic reads nicely on paper, and I’ll be the first to stand up and say that our education system has been failing for decades to prepare Americans for the modern economy. There will be much more to come on that topic at Trophy Nation.

Nevertheless, it seems disingenuous to claim a crisis-level job shortage without deeper consideration of context. “Not enough qualified candidates” doesn’t quite pass the gut check; it doesn’t quite align with the under-employment of college graduates permeating society. As I open my LinkedIn inbox to typo-ridden messages from bot-cruiters assuring me that I’m a “great fit” positions that I outgrew more than a decade ago, I find myself questioning the claim.

Even if we do have a genuine labor shortage in America, I’d argue that we also have a culture of de-valuing thoughtful recruitment. And perhaps a labor shortage can be addressed by changing that culture.


My partner Casey has reinvented his career no less than four times. He’s been a security guard for a casino, a technical illustrator for a slot machine company, a production assistant on multiple primetime TV shows and dozens of TV ads, and most recently, the guy who runs the canning and kegging processes at a craft brewery.

Casey’s most recent career transition from producing TV to producing beer came after years of home-brewing, reading dozens of brewing books, and studying for (and passing) the Level 1 Cicerone test. For years, he’s been accumulating an encyclopedic library of beer knowledge. Our relationship is a breeding ground for new vocabulary and catch phrases that illustrate that enthusiastic obsession.

Me: (Staring off into space while Casey shares his latest beer insights)

Casey: Honey, did you go full donut on me?

Me: Full donut? Did you buy donuts?!

Casey: No, you completely glazed over.

Me: Hahaha. Look at you being clever. Were you beerducating me again?

It seemed a logical evolution for him to move to the rapidly expanding industry of craft brewing, his life passion. We both thought it would be an easy transition; he doesn’t just love beer, he knows beer.

But it wasn’t easy.

I came home one afternoon to find a mopey boyfriend sulking on the couch,. He’d submitted his resume to many breweries; nobody was getting back to him. Adding to the melancholy was the untimely circumstance that both of our cars had broken down, so he felt stuck at home.

We struck a deal. I’d give him the keys to my rental car, if he’d drop me off at work and then go brewery hopping all day Wednesday and Thursday, when breweries are open but not super busy. “Nurse a couple beers and chat up the owners,” I suggested.

I wasn’t actually kidding. I’d seen him in action on a recent trip to New York. At Big Alice Brewery in Long Island City, the beertenders shouted “Casey!” and ran around the bar to give him a hug when we entered. He’d met them the day before. Indeed, in less than two days, he’d emerged as a beloved, Instagrammed personality in the Queens and Brooklyn brewing scenes. On his first ever trip to Queens and Brooklyn, no less.

I hadn’t seen a guy enter a bar to such fanfare since Norm walked into Cheers. Casey didn’t need to submit resumes to get a brewing job; he needed to drink his way into a brewing job. So like any supportive girlfriend would do, I sent my boyfriend brewery hopping, with strict instructions to Uber home if he wasn’t sober enough to drive.

He came home sober, with two job interviews and an ear-to-ear grin.

The next week, he landed a job at the very brewery where we’d held his 40th birthday party, and I landed a steady stream of free “low-fills” of my favorite beers. Less than a year later, he was offered a second brewing job, this time at a brewery closer to our house. In his first month on that job, he setup a brand-new canning line, and re-rigged the kegging line to double production.

Watching Casey circumvent a flawed recruitment & application process to successfully reinvent his career makes me wonder: is the labor market problem really a shortage of qualified candidates, or are companies just too narrow-minded when they define and recruit “qualified” candidates?

As fun as it is to joke about Casey drinking his way into a new career, the fact remains that he was summarily ignored by many breweries when he applied through traditional channels. Those same breweries that rejected him then, now run into him at events and ask him, “Why didn’t we hire you?”

Because they were too myopic, is why.

He knew that what he loves about TV and beer alike was the underlying story. He observed that he knew more about the process of brewing beer than most of the staff at every brewery we entered. He understood that the mechanical skills required for technical illustration and the operational and people skills required to be a sought-after production assistant are also mission critical at a brewery, which is essentially a manufacturing plant.

He understood that he was inherently qualified. The question is, why didn’t they?

The answer to “Why didn’t we hire you?” is really quite simple: people recruiting for those jobs thought too narrowly. Many didn’t know enough about other jobs to connect the above dots. When Casey tried to submit a cover letter connecting the dots for them, he found that many didn’t have a place in their application process for a cover letter. Some didn’t even have a place for the resume he’d creatively designed to standout.

None of them had built into their application process the simple question of, “Why should we hire you?” How is a company to find adaptable, resourceful doers with applicable skills, when their application process fails to capture any of those qualities?

And maybe that’s the problem. Companies bring in subject-matter-specific recruiters and use standardized tools, with the intention of recruiting for that job, rather than, those underlying skills.  Those underlying skills, that capacity to learn and apply…it’s all around us if we open our eyes.


Casey isn’t a case study of one.

At my own firm, our lead data scientist and big data analyst didn’t come to us from an engineering school, but from the Psychology faculty of a small university. Which means he’s also a trained cognitive scientist with expertise in neuroscience. Who turns out to be a pretty phenomenal writer, I recommend you check out his series on Closing Colleges.

I found our research analyst at the UCLA gym, where he was teaching a dance class while completing his undergraduate degree. An artist with an analytical mind, he is oftentimes the creative soul of our business, the person who will “unstick” us from group think.

I met our Trophy Nation editor and social media manager 10 years ago when he was starring in a friend’s play. He went on to co-author his own play that is currently being work-shopped for Broadway, and learned the skills of “talk backs” (the live arts equivalent of a test screening) and effective social media management to manage his own career as a writer. He also used to manage a restaurant, which meant he already knew how to manage a team. Where others would see a starving artist and server, I saw a resourceful professional with a wide range of skills I needed to grow my company into new lines of business.

That doesn’t mean that traditional recruiting can’t work; sometimes you really do need people who’ve “done that exact job” before, to train the people who haven’t. We have those folks on our team, too.  We just don’t only have that.

So maybe the guy managing chaos on a Disney set is perfectly qualified to run your plant operations. Maybe a social science faculty member is your next big data engineer. Maybe an emerging playwright is just the partner you need to launch a media entity. And maybe our biggest shortage in American labor is a collective creativity in observing and cultivating the perfectly capable, homegrown talent right in front of us.

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