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Reports of COVID-related supply and labour shortages have been common themes across economic headlines for the past two years. Within this, a growing lack of skilled workers has been one of the more significant symptoms of lockdown economics and become an increasingly intense challenge in many nations.

This talent and worker shortage has not been restricted to the private sector. Across the UK, US, Europe and Asia, the role of government and its workforce challenges, including talent and headcount deficits, have drawn more attention since the outbreak of the coronavirus.

The pandemic has strained public workforces, and, with growing numbers retiring, leaving or reconsidering careers in the public sector, more and more positions are going unfulfilled. In August 2021, there were over 800,000 vacant jobs in the public sector in the United States.  And in the UK, where job vacancies recently hit an all-time record, public administration and defence departments had approximately 30,000 available jobs in September 2021, while the health and social care sector advertised 172,000 open jobs.

There is a solution, in the form of “hidden workers.” Identified in research conducted with the “Managing the Future” project from Harvard Business School, such workers are either unemployed or underemployed, but, importantly for the public sector, are eager to find more or better work, increase their working hours and willing to learn.

But what exactly is this group of overlooked talent? And how are they being missed?

Hidden workers represent an incredibly diverse group spanning caregivers, veterans and military spouses, immigrants, and refugees; as well as those with physical and mental challenges, disadvantaged backgrounds, criminal records, and non-traditional education. Data suggests that in 2021, there were more than 27 million hidden workers in the US alone, with similar proportions across the UK and Germany.

Unfortunately, the data also shows this potential talent pool face huge difficulties in finding work or more working hours. And the pandemic has worsened the situation, with 45% of public sector hidden workers saying that barriers to work increased during the crisis and 56% believing that it became harder to find work because of COVID-19.

So how are they slipping through the cracks? How is it that hidden workers only have a 7% success rate in getting a full-time offer, despite nearly two-thirds of executives reporting they perform “significantly better” than average in key areas like attitude, work ethic, productivity, work quality, engagement, attendance, and innovation?

Some of it is due to difficult job application processes and job descriptions filled with outdated criteria, coupled with an unwillingness to redesign work and policies to meet modern employee needs.

However, technology also plays a role via the dominance of Applicant Tracking and Recruitment Management Systems. Automating key aspects of the recruitment process is used by more than 90% of employers to maximize efficiency, but a reliance on specific parameters (e.g., full-time employment history) to identify suitable candidates means many systems also automatically exclude candidates, regardless of what other qualifications they may have. Roughly 90% of all executives acknowledge that qualified high-skills, middle- and low-skills candidates are vetted out of the process because they do not match exact job criteria.

Additionally, when they do hire hidden workers, many organizations do so as a social responsibility initiative, rather than part of the ongoing strategy to move the agency forward and develop their workforce. This means they miss the benefits of embracing hidden workers as a genuine source of competitive advantage, as they can and should be.

There are also issues around the widening training gap. In an increasingly mobile and digital work environment, the public sector itself is changing, often faster than education, technology, and training infrastructure. This has a major impact on hidden workers, who find themselves facing outdated and rigid hiring systems they are unable to keep up with. Around 90% of surveyed workers believe that employer hiring practices resulted in their job applications being discarded when they could have successfully performed in the role.

So, what can public sector agencies do to target and accommodate hidden workers? Firstly, instead of using single or limited criteria to filter out prospective candidates, the focus should be on selecting six to eight basic skills that filter in more applicants.  This ensures that hiring is based on ability, rather than grades and work history.

Linked with this is updating job descriptions so as not to discourage hidden workers. Instead of overly detailed lists of requisite skills and extensive role outlines, recruiters should extrapolate the skills that directly correlate to performance, use those as the basis of the posting and keep things simple. They should put themselves in the applicant’s shoes when designing the process and be clearer regarding skill, credentials, and selection criteria, and focus on ensuring appropriate formats and channels of communication.

In addition, recruiters should take care not to treat hidden workers are a single cohesive group. As stated earlier, they represent a highly diverse set of conditions, individuals, and circumstances, so recruiting, onboarding processes and experiences should reflect that by proper segmentation and targeting. Potential employers also have a role in ensuring that these workers are integrated as well as possible when onboarded. Existing staff should be fully on board with the decision to expand the target pool and the need to foster a supportive and inclusive culture. To unlock their potential, hidden workers should be championed, and their strategic value recognized by the organizations welcoming them to the workforce.

The role of the public sector will continue to change and adapt, reflecting the wide post-Covid world. Competition for jobs, dictated by an evolving labour market, mean that government recruiters will need to rethink who and how they hire. Hidden workers offer a potential solution to what will be a numbers and skills crunch in the public sector, but only if they are understood and targeted properly.

    Rainer Binder is the global social services lead for Accenture's Public Service practice. He leads a team of committed professionals who deliver large-scale transformation projects in the human services industry for leading organisations and national governments around the world.

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