The New ‘Unemployables’: A Scary Future

Career and HR experts say a shocking number of well-qualified candidates in a wide range of fields are no longer finding work—and may never. 

For decades, the skilled, hardworking employee had little to worry about. Even in hard times, most could switch firms and find new roles. Recent college graduates might struggle at the start, and ageism might rear its ugly head for older applicants, but the notion that substantial numbers of workers might be unemployable was not something that a wide range of executives ever worried about.

But HR experts and career pros say that something scary is happening for many people: They can’t find a role, even in a relatively robust job market. For the last two years, the sidelines of the job market have been filled with competent and trained workers who are perfectly employable—people who have excelled in fields from marketing to finance to data analysis. They’re the reason experts say they’re seeing a growing frenzy to find work. The situation has become so acute that half of people report they are completely burned out by the job-hiring process. In most cases, this new group of unemployables are only just coming to grips with reality.

Indeed, since all age groups are now affected, many long-tenured workers have been caught off guard. “They could always shift jobs every six months, and now they can’t,” says CHRO guru Dan Kaplan, senior client partner at Korn Ferry, who has seen chief revenue officers in technology out of work for the first time in twenty years.

“Nothing differentiates them from currently employed people,” says David Vied, global sector leader for medical devices and diagnostics at Korn Ferry. “If they’d remained employed, they’d be fine, but they’re not, so they’re in this terrible bubble.” Worse, many are unemployed due to factors beyond their control, such as acquisitions or downsizing.

Experts say that a perfect storm of phenomena has created the glut of unemployables. At first glance, the low unemployment rate—within striking distance of an all-time low, at 4%—seems to suggest that most people are employed. But current job data also shows little movement in the labor market from month to month, indicating that spells of unemployment are lengthening. Invisibly, firms are holding onto their skilled workers in certain roles—and some skilled workers are holding onto their firms. “I’m hearing about a lot of talent hoarding,” says David Ellis, senior vice president for global talent acquisition transformation at Korn Ferry. This leads to fewer available jobs in key roles.

At the same time, firms altered their hiring for a recession—one expected to hit between 2021 and 2023—that never arrived. Some jobs were combined, while others were eliminated altogether. Nowhere is this more visible than in marketing, where budgets are down 15% from last year, and professional services. “A lot of consulting firms have changed their pyramid structure so much that it’s no longer a pyramid,” says Adam Prager, co-leader of the North America professional services practice at Korn Ferry; this is the result of thinning out both the middle and junior levels. Critically, instead of reinstating those trimmed roles, companies are leveraging efficiencies, using AI, or simply asking people to make do with less. Some of this is due to the fact that many firms still remember pandemic layoffs, and are weary of more brand damage. “They’re hesitant about committing to full-time roles,” says Prager.

Though the true impact of AI has not yet hit the workplace, companies know it’s coming. “There’s a wait-and-watch strategy in hiring, in anticipation of AI in certain roles,” says Mark Arian, chief executive officer of Korn Ferry Consulting. This means employers aren’t currently hiring in areas such as data analysis, admin, simple contract generation, basic financial reporting, and content creation.

Experts say that job applicants need to make some adjustments. First, they should focus on the key words AI filters for. The telltale sign of failing to do so is repeatedly not reaching the earliest round of in-person interviews. Tweaking résumé phrasings can help as well. 

As for avoiding a long stay in the unemployable pile, those in the know advise boning up on AI expertise throughout the industry. “AI won’t replace your job, but people who understand and work well with AI will,” says Arian. 


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