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Executive roundtable

New challenges weigh on job seekers, employers

Although San Diego County's unemployment rate has dipped to its lowest point in six years, the pace of hiring is slowing and employers and job seekers alike are facing new challenges, according to hiring experts who spoke at a recent roundtable held at The Daily Transcript.

Employers have the task of finding workers with the right mix of skills and experiences, while job seekers face the quandary of how to build experience when hiring is so sluggish.

John Higgins, vice president of talent management at Bridgepoint Education, said he's "not sure whether it's an unemployment problem or more of an alignment problem, which is pervasive across the nation. There are opportunities if you're in the right place."

But the panelists agreed that the job market will improve if employers and job seekers show more flexibility about their expectations.

One hurdle job seekers face is that the nature of work has been changing, requiring more skills even at the lowest rungs on the job ladder.

"I don't think many entry-level positions exist anymore," said Seth Stein, president at the Eastridge Group of staffing companies. "For instance, nobody hires a receptionist just to answer the phones. Instead, they're expected to know how to use the computer, funnel emails and work on Excel."

Heather Whitley, director of human resources at the San Diego offices of Manpower Inc. (NYSE: MAN), said many job seekers just entering the job market -- or returning after having been out of work -- cannot understand why entry-level positions at places such as Home Depot (NYSE: HD) or Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX) have become so demanding.

Julie Brown, talent manager for SDI Staffing, said that some job seekers, confronted with the challenges of getting even a minimum-wage job, simply give up. She suggested that employers could benefit by showing more understanding and encouragement.

"These may be people with great skills, but if you don't talk to them, you'll never see it," she said.

Another problem, especially after the Great Recession, is that many job seekers have big holes in their resumes. In the past, the panelists said, if a resume had a gap of a year or so, the employers might wonder whether the applicant had spent time in jail or on the lam. These days, employers tend to be more understanding -- as long as the job seekers spent their time wisely.

"If someone's been out of work for a couple years and I ask them, 'What were you doing all that time?' and they say 'Looking for a job,' I tell them that's not going to get them anywhere," Whitley said. "It's better if they used their time by using their talent or improving their skills, whether by going back to school, getting involved in networking groups or volunteering at a nonprofit, which can provide great opportunities for building experience."

That experience doesn’t always have to be work-related.

Spencer Skeen, managing shareholder at the Ogletree Deakins employment law firm, said one recent job applicant drew skeptical stares when he came in with a six-month gap on his resume -- relatively long in the legal industry.

But that attitude changed after the applicant mentioned he had spent his time training for and climbing Mount Everest.

"Who do you want in a management role?" Skeen asked. "Someone who plodded along steadily on their job year after year? Or someone who took a chance and reached for the stars?"

Natasha Arthur, president of the San Diego chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, said that sometimes employers miss great potential employees because of the "superficiality of the resume process," including automated Internet-based resumes, which often filter out applicants who don't have the required educational level or work experience.

Several panelists said that at a time when many businesses emphasize the value of innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, personality traits can be often more important than the type of experience that shows up on resumes.

"The value of experience is decreasing," said Claudia Schwartz, founder of the HR Results employment agency. "What's more important are qualities like critical thinking, versatility, endurance and resilience."

Kate De Jong , director of people development at San Diego's Red Door Interactive, an Internet marketing agency, said that in a company such as hers, facing an ever-changing technology environment, she is on the lookout for workers with unique experiences, but "having 10 or 20 years of being at one company isn't necessarily a plus."

In fact, De Jong said her company -- which is too small to offer many paths for advancement -- sometimes encourages its workers to look for jobs where they can build their skills and then consider returning to Red Door once there is an appropriate opening.

That tactic is also being used at the San Diego Regional Airport Authority as it faces an impending wave of retirements from aging baby boomers.

By 2020, half of the airport's current workers are slated to retire, but it is very difficult to find replacements and the airport doesn't have the resources available for comprehensive training, said Kurt Gering, director of the talent, culture and capabilities.

Instead, the airport hires waves of temporary workers through a fellowship for military veterans and an internship program for civilians. The idea is to give job seekers a positive feeling about the airport before releasing them back to the job market where they can get additional experience and training.

For those who build the needed skills, "we hope to get them back to working at the airport by 2020," Gering said.

In the meantime, the panelists said companies can prepare for future hiring by building a strong pipeline of potential hires. De Jong said she is always checking with co-workers and vendors to see whether they know anyone with the necessary talent, even if no positions are open.

"Even if we don't have a job open right now, we invite them to come for coffee or to drop in on our speaker's bureau so they can get to learn what Red Door is all about," she said. "One person did that for 18 months before getting a job offer. It's like building a virtual bench of talent."

*****

Roundtable Participants

* Natasha Arthur, President, San Diego Chapter, Society for Human Resource Management

* Julie Brown, President, SDI Staffing

* Kate De Jong, Director of People Development, Red Door Interactive

* Kurt Gering, Director of Talent, Culture and Capabilities, San Diego County Regional Airport Authority

* John Higgins, Vice President of Talent Management, Bridgepoint Education

* Claudia Schwartz, Founder and Principal, HR Results

* Spencer Skeen, Managing Shareholder, Ogletree Deakins

* Seth Stein, President, The Eastridge Group of Staffing Companies

* Heather Whitley, Director of Human Resources and Training, Manpower

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