Opinion: Employers are back competing for employees with the right knowledge and skills which is good news for job seekers

In 1997, Steve Hankin of McKinsey & Company coined the term "the war for talent", and this became one of the biggest business buzzwords of the late 1990s, soon morphing into "the global war for talent". The core idea was that companies all over the world were in fierce competition with each other for the best employees. To be sure, there was never much clarity about what "talent" really meant, and this war was rarely carried out with any vigour or commitment.  For the most part, the "war for talent" often involved little more than a handful of banks and consulting firms raiding each other for top employees. 

The global economic downturn of the late 2000s put an end to most discussion of wars for talent. Even now, you are more likely to see discussions of wars on talent – i.e., the ways employers alienate job seekers by creating arbitrary and stressful recruitment and selection processes and by showing little care for employees or applicants. Other commentators believe that the war for talent is over and everyone lost, in large part because so many people have given up on the corporate world and have moved toward self-employment and entrepreneurship.

But there are good reasons to believe that employers are back in the business of competing actively for employees with the right knowledge and skills, and this creates unique opportunities for job seekers. The economic recovery in recent years has led to substantial changes in the job market. Job applicants in Ireland are finding themselves in the position of weighing multiple opportunities and choosing among competing organisations rather that flooding the market with applications and hoping for some sort of offer. 

Recent surveys suggest that 75% of Irish employers expect to add staff in the near future and many of them see the problem of finding candidates with the right skills and experiences, and a willingness to change employers to be a significant challenge. Jobs in the building sector are a particular priority, but Irish employers are also keenly looking to fill roles as diverse as microbiologists, multi-lingual specialists, java developers, data analysts, and risk analysts.

Job growth in Ireland is spread across a number of different industries, but it is particularly strong in areas such as finance, pharmaceuticals and medical devices, human resources, marketing, office support and technology. Many of these fields are suffering from a shortage of skilled workers and applicants who can demonstrate job-related knowledge, skills and abilities are increasingly likely to find themselves to be highly sought after. It is a very good time for applicants with the right training and experience! 

On the other hand, boom times rarely last forever. Even in situations where employers are actively recruiting and competing for skilled employees, it is a bad idea to become complacent and assume that employers will seek you out and lavish you with offers.

What can you do to maximise your chances for success in the job market? The basic career advice, especially for students and for individuals with relatively little job experience, has not changed greatly, boom or no boom. First, be careful and realistic in preparing a CV. This critical document needs to convey credible, quantifiable information about relevant skills in a compact and efficient way. Students in colleges and universities often have access to but rarely take advantage of career service departments and offices. Even if your student days are far behind you, there are a number of agencies and consulting firms that will review and help you shape a CV to maximise the likelihood of success in applying for jobs. 

Secondly, prepare carefully and rigorously for employment interviews. It is always amazing and often depressing to see the number of job candidates who show up for interviews knowing little about the company or the job, and being completely unprepared for even the most basic and most predictable questions.  Interviewers often ask questions such as "what are your strengths?", "what can you bring to this job", "what are your goals?" and "where do you see yourself in five years". Applicants who stumble and fumble with questions like this will find the going hard, even in an environment where employers are competing for talent.

Employers across the board are competing for employees who are dependable, willing to work hard and willing to learn

Finally, remember that growth in one area often creates growth in a number of related areas. For example, growth in the building sector has increased demands for surveyors, architects and engineers, but it also creates increasing demand for and competition for plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers and the like. Industries and sectors that supply the building trades, ranging from brick makers to building supply stores often see growth as the trades they support grow. 

One implication is that you should not necessarily drop whatever you are doing now and retrain as a microbiologist or java developer, but rather think broadly about the range of opportunities that can open up for applicants in a wide range of sectors that support and interaction with the particular employment areas that are hottest right now. Employers across the board are competing for employees who are dependable, willing to work hard and willing to learn, and these core characteristics can mean as much as a degree or certificate in a field that is hot today but could cool down tomorrow.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ