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Maybe it's unseemly to speak of talent shortages when so many people are job-hunting. Maybe it's inconsiderate to talk about how desperate employers are for skills when every other news story highlights gargantuan unemployment numbers. And yet, it's true: Employers are bemoaning the shortage of qualified applicants. For job seekers, that's good news.
A common misconception is that every hiring manager and rÉsumÉ-screener is deluged with rÉsumÉs from highly qualified candidates vying for jobs far below their level of expertise. Yes, there are numerous candidates for almost every job, but the qualification gap remains.
What are employers looking for? Smarts, top-notch English skills, intellectual curiosity; these are highly sought-after attributes, along with the ability to work easily with people and experience solving thorny business problems. Now more than ever, employers need the sorts of employees who can wade confidently into a messy business situation (a bollixed-up database integration, a disintegrating tech-support function, or a six-months-delayed product launch) and clean it up.
Employers want people who see beyond their own desktops to the competitive landscape, people who can use their experience and good instincts to move the needle on everything from, say, media relationships in a PR job, to manufacturing defects in a quality-control role. This is a not a good job market for "do-as-I'm-told" job seekers, but it's a great one for people who like to run with the ball.
And that's why the competition in the job market isn't nearly as bad as you'd think. I work on both sides of the desk—advising job seekers and employers—and the recruitment paradigm is clear. At least 70% of the rÉsumÉs I receive in response to any job posting are at-a-glance "No thank yous." Why? Atrocious grammar and spelling, rampant typos, no sense of understanding of the job, no sense of understanding of the applicant's own history.
I'm talking about cover letters that say: "My stirling qualifictations for the job are evvedent" or say only: "Find my resume enclosed." Cover letters that say: "My objective is to find a good position with an excellent employer that values good performance from it's emploee's." (Please note: The preceding are all actual examples of cover letters that I've gotten.) Don't get me wrong: I feel great compassion for folks who are looking for work and are challenged to compete in the suddenly virtual and often impenetrable 2009 job market. I hear from dozens of job seekers each week, and I share advice with them in online communities until the very small hours of the morning.
And I tell them that what gets employers' attention is a smart, pithy cover letter that talks about the opportunity and the employer's likely challenge before diving into a laundry list of the candidate's virtues. Or a rÉsumÉ that focuses on accomplishments over mundane tasks and duties. And above all, material that conveys a sense of who the job seeker is and how s/he thinks. Employers need gray matter more than they ever have before.
Cover letters that share the sentiment "I hope to be considered for the position" without going on to explain why the author should be are useless. Employers are starved for solutions. Candidates who bring a world view, focusing on problems and even evaluating possible solutions on the spot—sometimes before Day One on the job—will get hired, candidate surplus be damned. Getting that world view across is a job seeker's priority No. 1.
Job seekers discouraged by negative reports in the media can take heart. As with marketing contests that warn "Many will enter, few will win," the job market is glutted, but the talent war goes on.
Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.