Over the past year, there has been widespread coverage of labor shortages in industries such as healthcare, hospitality and manufacturing. Less publicized, but no less challenging, is a similar labor shortfall facing U.S. public sector agencies where, as of September 2021, some 857,000 posts remained unfilled.
Fortunately, new research shines a light on a large pool of potential workers who are often overlooked. A study conducted by Accenture in partnership with Harvard Business School’s “Managing the Future” project identifies a large pool of untapped talent that could help fill the needs of public sector agencies.
So-called “hidden workers” include a diverse range of unemployed or underemployed individuals who lack traditional job-market qualifications. Some include caregivers, military veterans and spouses, immigrants, refugees, people with physical or mental health disabilities, and those from less advantaged populations who may be lacking educational credentials and more formal types of work experience. Many hidden workers are eager to find or tap new work but withdrew or were discouraged to enter the market. In 2021 there were more than 21 million such workers in the U.S. alone.
The hidden worker dividend
The benefits of hiring hidden workers are manifold. We found that organizations tapping into the ranks of hidden workers are 44% less likely to face challenges finding workers with relevant skills. Nearly two-thirds of executives hiring hidden workers reported the recruits performed “significantly better” in key areas such as:
- work ethic
- work quality
- attendance, and
Given the clear benefits of sourcing workers from this broad pool of eager and engaged individuals, why are so few organizations doing so successfully? We found three key factors:.
Barriers to employment
The first barrier stems from use of recruitment management systems (RMS). These systems are important in automating elements of the recruitment process. However, rules that automatically screen out certain applications based on inflexible or narrow characteristics can cripple hiring efforts. For instance, employers may screen out applicants if they have employment gaps in their resume, regardless of qualifications. The analysis found that resume gaps and insufficient years of experience were the two largest issues working against job attainment.
Second, many organizations that employ hidden workers do so as a social responsibility initiative, rather than as part of their strategy for advancing their mission and evolving their workforce to meet rising needs. Such a limited approach necessarily misses the benefits of embracing hidden workers as a genuine source of competitive advantage.
The third barrier is a widening training gap. Changes in workforce structure and technology mean that public sector work and skill requirements are evolving. They often outpace the ability of education and training systems to keep up. For potential workers facing rigid hiring systems, keeping up with skill requirements can become an even more difficult task.
Strategies to find hidden workers
These barriers are not insurmountable. Here are five ways public sector agencies can accommodate hidden workers in the drive to fill vacancies and boost diversity.
1. Make job filters positive
Instead of a few criteria to differentiate suitable applicants, employers should pick about six basic skills to get more applicants. Affirmative filters help ensure that hiring is based on genuinely relevant skills, rather than blunt proxies such as “continuous employment” or “college graduate.”
2. Focus job descriptions on critical skills
Long and complicated job descriptions laden with lists of requisite skills can discourage applications from hidden workers. Instead, recruiters should engage with hiring managers, supervisors and other employees to identify the mix of skills most associated with on-the-job success. Refreshing job descriptions based on an analysis of skills that correlate to performance can help candidates and employers focus on the most important qualifying skills.
3. Focus on the applicant’s experience
Designing the application process through a user-experience lens can help ensure hidden workers feel comfortable applying. Employers should look to be more transparent regarding skill and credential requirements and in outlining selection criteria. An experience mindset will also enable government employers to identify the job-search channels most favored by hidden workers and the formats best suited to assessing their talents.
4. Undertake targeted outreach
Hidden workers span a highly diverse set of conditions and circumstances, so employers should segment the potential talent pool to understand the needs of specific subgroups and identify which make most sense to target. By focusing on select types of hidden workers, employers can tailor recruiting and onboarding processes and experiences to better fill their talent and skill needs.
5. Foster an inclusive culture
A supportive culture is vital to unlocking the full potential of hidden workers. Many will simply lack confidence and experience in the types of organizations that have excluded them in the past. Employers should actively debunk preconceptions around hidden workers. They should also ensure that incumbent employees understand the circumstances surrounding a target segment of hidden workers and the strategic value of opening workforces to hidden workers. A senior leader should be enlisted to champion hidden worker hiring, acceptance and retention.
Set best practices
The public sector is one of the largest employers in the U.S. and can set employment best practices. Tight labor markets and employers’ evolving needs drive intense competition for workers throughout government and industry. So public agencies have a clear opportunity to better identify, hire and integrate hidden workers into government jobs. It will help evolve workforces, fill skill gaps and more effectively deliver public services.