Is Tech Talent Actually Abundant?

The last few years have seen no shortage of claims that skills shortages are undermining the prospects of various industries.

For instance, the Financial Times recently bemoaned the shortage of workers in “cleantech” manufacturing. The article explains that the chipmaking industry, in particular, is struggling to find qualified workers, and many companies are launching their own training programs to try to address the shortage.

Such stories have become so pervasive that the assumption that skills shortages exist has been taken as read, but what if that isn’t the case? In Open Talent, Harvard’s John Winsor and Jin Paik propose a different perspective on the matter.

Abundant talent

They argue that while many have taken the so-called Great Resignation as a sign that talent is permanently in short supply. The reality is that there is often plenty of talent, it’s just not interested in working for you under the old rules of work.

They cite the tens of millions of people who have migrated onto freelance platforms, such as TopCoder and UpWork, and are interested in gig-based work rather than a salaried position. It creates a situation where, to paraphrase Sun Microsystem’s Bill Joy, the most talented people just work for someone else.

“We’re living in an age of abundant talent,” Winsor and Paik explain. “But before companies can fully tap into it, their leaders must create a dynamic culture that thinks critically about tasks rather than talent.”

Too often, organizations and HR managers have fallen into the trap of viewing things through the lens of talent that is “owned” by the organization, and they then try and gainfully employ those people as best as they can.

A better approach, Winsor and Paik believe, is to instead look at the tasks that need to be completed and then look at the people required to perform those tasks. These tasks could be fulfilled by tapping into the external talent platforms, or they could be fulfilled by tapping into the latent capabilities of your existing workforce.

External talent

Elance was founded way back in 1998, but it was only in 2013, when it merged with oDesk to form Upwork, that the business truly took off. The platform now has over 18 million freelancers, most of whom have a college degree. It’s one of around 800 different talent marketplaces allowing companies to tap into talent from around the world, including Fiverr, 99designs, and Toptal.

Winsor and Paik explain, however, that while many of the Fortune 500 utilize these platforms to find talent, they tend to utilize them under the radar. In other words, it’s a case of individual managers acting independently of their HR teams and recruiting talent for their particular needs. It’s not a case of a formalized HR policy to tap into what they refer to as “external talent clouds.”

This is despite the fact that hiring talent from such platforms is often more efficient and more cost-effective than using a salaried, contingent workforce solution.

Internal marketplaces

Similar abundance often exists within an organization, where the full talents of the workforce are seldom exploited due to the narrow confines of specialized job roles.

Winsor and Paik explain that when companies can invest in talent management to create internal marketplaces that allow people the flexibility to contribute their talents as and where they see fit, a huge amount of untapped potential gets unearthed.

What’s more, doing so can also help to break down silos, improve employee engagement and retention, and also encourage learning. A growing number of platforms exist to enable this, but cultures often inhibit managers and employees from engaging in such a fluid and flexible approach.

They argue that we can learn a lot from entrepreneurs, who, in the early days of their business, are often forced to take such an approach. This can be both internally, where talent is deployed wherever it is most needed, and externally, where tapping into the contingent workforce offers a cost-effective way of scaling up the workforce.

“Many entrepreneurs have already reframed their focus and recognize that talent is abundant,” they explain. “With the development of labor platforms, entrepreneurs can build small companies by using open talent principles in the digital space. Enterprise leaders need to imagine how the talent solution world goes beyond what exists in the organization today.”

If they can do this, leaders might come to realize that talent shortages are perhaps a matter of limited imagination rather than an actual shortage. By looking both internally and externally, they can find all the talent they need.