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Recruitment tensions: a passing phase or long-lasting desertion?

What if the bargaining power shifted? What are the avenues for collective action?

Recruitment tensions: a passing phase or long-lasting desertion?

What if the bargaining power shifted? What are the avenues for collective action?

We recently published an article on this Epale platform about the Great Resignation[1]. We sought to provide some insight on the reality of the phenomenon, what can be observed, its potential reasons and we also made some modest proposals for levers of action. The article gave rise to numerous reactions, particularly from the world of recruitment, companies and professional branches concerned by these issues. How can we change our strategy, when it was previously based on a more or less intense selectivity?  How can we reach an audience that escapes the not always subtle adequationist discourses and incentives to seek a mobilising path for them (sometimes independently of the objective data available)? How can we better understand the way in which people envisage their professional life at a time when the structuring points of reference, both individual and collective, have undergone considerable change? Although this is not a new issue, it is one that has become very relevant today, impacting the development and even the survival of companies due to a lack of qualified and available personnel. There is no shortage of examples in our daily lives: personal service workers, bus drivers, etc. The list is getting longer. What was a debate among experts is becoming a reality for everyone to see. The many interacting factors require caution, both in our analysis and in the proposals we can put forward. Yesterday does not really shed light on tomorrow and it would be presumptuous to draw trends. So, we simply wish to address this complex issue by focusing on a few facets of the problem. We will deal successively with the acceleration of the phenomenon; the question of the attractiveness of professions; the question of employability with reference to the approaches of active mediation in employment and we will end with some proposals, particularly on the role of experience.

Acceleration and broadening of the phenomenon

A few days ago, the French Ministry of Labour published a plan showing the collective importance of the subject. This rush to address the issue is not unprecedented, as this is the second plan. The Government had already launched a plan to “reduce recruitment pressures” in October 2021. With a budget of €1.4 billion, this plan has mobilised a very comprehensive range of tools. But recruitment pressures have increased since mid-2021. In the summer of 2022, more than 60% of businesses reported recruitment difficulties, slightly more than double the figure for 2015. This phenomenon affects almost all sectors and is due to a combination of causes: the main one being that the French economy created more than 800,000 jobs in one year. At the same time, a very high degree of mobility has emerged on the labour market, between companies or between sectors, according to the French Ministry of Labour website. This plan seeks to activate several levers simultaneously: to offer training that meets the needs of companies as closely as possible; to develop new forms of recruitment, particularly recruitment by simulation; to facilitate the practice of periods of immersion in companies. In addition, this new mobilisation plan promotes a specific approach for each sector, working closely with the companies concerned in the employment areas: it has been co-constructed with the professional branches.

However, the difficulty in recruiting for certain sectors is nothing new. For many years, lists of occupations with different names have been constantly updated: occupations in tension, occupations of the future, emerging occupations. And these lists are concerned either with immediate recruitment needs or, more broadly, with the impact of socio-economic and technological change in the needs for skills in the longer term. We propose an observation of two aspects of this question: the attractiveness of certain professions and recruitment methods.

Attractiveness of jobs in short supply? Is this the only question?

To assume that skilfully conducted information campaigns would be enough to change the public's view of certain occupations is either naive or a biased analysis of our fundamental perception of work. An occupation cannot be compared to a product that can be promoted to encourage the public to buy it. We have several decades of research on the construction of professional perceptions and the well-documented data tells us that these social constructions both happen very early and are resistant to dissonant messages, especially when they are expressed by an institution. This raises the broader question of social influence and the ability to “steer” the public's desires. This is all the more paradoxical as the regulatory framework for training in France is based on a law entitled “for the freedom to choose one's professional future”.  And yet, we are describing a desire to influence people towards pre-identified needs in the professional sectors. This vision of convergence, while understandable and based on a simple idea (helping people to make informed choices in light of the reality of the world of work), seems to us to omit several points that impact on individual strategies when choosing a path.

It is assumed that there is a causal link between a positive assessment of an occupation and the decision to engage in that occupation. The reality is, as is often the case, more complex.

In a study we conducted on personal services companies, we clearly saw that these occupations could be considered very socially useful, even indispensable; that the professionals involved were considered admirable; but that people did not consider these occupations directly for themselves (and not really for their children, either). This can be explained by a well-known bias: we confuse the general appreciation of an occupation (due to the attention we pay to it) with commitment for personal reasons to this occupation (which mobilises many other factors, in particular compatibility with what we know and believe to be important to us). The energy mobilised for communication on professional sectors or trades may seem too broad. Professional decisions are multifactorial: the place of work, salary, conditions of work, the opportunities for progression, the nature of the environment and the possibility of putting in one's best effort. All these factors will play a part in the decision-making process. However, what is important is the real work situation (and not a fictional one, as a job description can be).

In the work we have done, we have formalised the need for persistent work at several levels:

 

  • At the level of the company in its ability to develop local reputational capital. It is not so much the job that served as a lever for contact and communication but rather the work context in its facilitating dimension.

 

  • This implies a reflection on the conditions of integration (development of skills, conditions of support, recognition of people as capable and of course, salary).  

 

  • We should also think of this process as circumstantial, based on a negotiation whose duration is difficult to anticipate (which is independent of the issue of the contract). Engagement in certain activities is only seen as possible if it is not “for life”. The perceived reversibility of the situation is important.

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  • And it is only once they are in the job that people will find out whether or not it is suitable for their situation. Not before.

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  • And if we follow this idea, it implies that the company must integrate a certain level of turnover (unimaginable?) and yet key to the attractiveness process.

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  • Reputational capital is developed more through local social recommendation (referrals by a peer or a friend) than through communication campaigns for professions that are too general and not very tangible.

Recruitment: moving from employability to employerability?

In a 2022 publication on the Great Resignation, DARES stated “Currently, the number of resignations... reflects the dynamic nature of the labour market́, and a situation in which bargaining power is shifting in favour of employees”.

Restoring bargaining power therefore means forcing ourselves to observe the excesses of the hyper-selective system that we have initiated for decades. The selection criteria can be piled up without any legitimacy with regard to the actual requirements of the occupation. Moreover, “overqualification” for jobs with little initiative does not always produce satisfaction on the employee’s side or even performance for the organisation. Perhaps the collective answer lies in our ability to transform a priori selectivity into a space for negotiation that balances responsibilities.  In a 2007 article, “L'entrepreneur ne fait pas l'employeur” (being an entrepreneur does not make you a good employer), Laurent Duclos noted: The truth is that employability is a difficult concept to handle. In general, it can be said that it is the insertion into employment that creates employability. Because it constitutes an empowerment to develop competence from the outset, insertion makes it possible to select the appropriate professional dispositions and behaviours in the individual. This places the focus back on the enabling function of the work situation itself and on the conditions that the work environment allows to facilitate effective mobilisation on the job. This shift from a priori employability (the person must prove mastery of very important prerequisites) to in situ empowerment is an essential concept. It is found in all the work on active mediation in employment developed for a very long time by Transfer IOD, but also in enlightening experiments such as Territoires zéro chômeur de longue durée (Territories with zero long-term unemployment.) Different, multi-actor transactions then take place. But above all, they bring out a new responsibility on the employer’s side: an entrepreneur is not necessarily a recruiter. This brings the notion of employability back under the radar. What does it tell us if not the employer's ability to develop methods of recruitment, orientation, integration, support and design of working environments conducive to the development of people's skills. More recently, the economist Anne Fretel, who has published numerous works on active mediation in employment, adds: “The idea is rather to help small companies to promote the recruitment of people who, because of their profile, have difficulty identifying themselves and who do not meet the criteria sought for the position, in terms of experience or qualifications. But how? Through a phase of immersion in the workplace”.

It is interesting to note that the recruitment plan for sectors in tension mentioned in the preamble mobilises these two levers: modifying the recruitment methods (reducing the a priori criteria and targeting the essential skills instead) and facilitating the use of experience (immersion in a company). Moreover, the impact and interest of the period of work experience (PMSMP) is clear, as confirmed in a study by Pôle Emploi in 2021.

If we continue this reasoning, we quickly see that the issue of the context in which a new professional is welcomed is decisive in terms of his or her ability to stay, mobilise and progress in terms of management of the work situation. The shift we are experiencing is simple to name. We are discovering that employability criteria placed the entire responsibility on the person's ability to cope with the demands of the work situation. What do we do when we want to direct people towards sectors in tension? The focus is on the individual, on the necessary skills, assuming that the company context and the internal mediation and integration processes will allow for gradual adaptation. We end up coming back to an idea that has been supported for several decades by the proponents of active mediation in employment.

Open perspectives

The various elements mentioned lead us to conclude (provisionally) with some methodological reflections.

  • The attractiveness of sectors or professions can be worked on in a more relevant and open manner at a micro geographical level: the territory and all its actors, including companies, of course.  Professional decisions are always multi-factorial and the priorities of choice are often circumstantial. Designing lively processes for encounter often has more impact than developing costly and sometimes disappointing awareness-raising campaigns.

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  • We believe it is essential to promote and experiment with more hybrid recruitment methods that combine selection, negotiation and integration through experience. We can now see the interest and impact of this. Because performance will reveal itself only in situation. And we also know that many highly competent professionals have never had any prior training in their field. This implies giving more and more space to experience and what we will call accompanied competence. This presupposes that employability criteria are given their rightful place and that the occupation (and therefore the company) is also considered in its learning dimension, which presupposes a reflection on its organisation. The many initiatives underway on the mobilisation of AFEST actions (workplace training activities) are very interesting.

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  • These times call for a different way of thinking. When the people contacted and supported by a counsellor come to the appointment with the company recruiting (when before, appointments were not always kept), it is not only because the “right people” have been selected, but also that their support has led to their recognition. It is a sign of confidence in the ability to succeed. And this is essential. A selective system is one where you have to prove yourself over and over again to justify that you are good enough. In active mediation approaches, people can be considered capable if the conditions are right and if all stakeholders do their best to make things work. This, of course, may not work. But this also leads us to think about support in integration (internally by a tutor, with an external mediator).

In short, how can we open up more balanced negotiation spaces? A simple and well-known triptych can be used: 1- The attention and recognition of people as capable; 2- The opening of a mediation space where stakeholders can develop trial compromises; 3- The possibility of work experience and integration support during this experience.

The risk is always twofold. That the selective criteria prevent employers from meeting people who are willing to apply (even if they do not have all the traditional elements to be flagged as competent) and the opposite risk: that people give up applying because of the discouragement generated by criteria perceived as inaccessible. Other factors interact, of course. But this leads us to believe that a right to try is more important than a right to make mistakes.                                                                                                     

André CHAUVET

 

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