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Mavens & Misfits: The Haystack Got Bigger

In this video podcast, Heather Polivka and Chris Gustanski of Due North Search discuss how the haystack for the most in-demand talent just got bigger, and yet there are no additional needles to be found.

Listen to the podcast here:

Read the transcript here:


Welcome to the mavens and misfits podcast series. I’m Chris Gustanski. This is the third in our series. The title of today’s podcast is “The Haystack Just Got Bigger”. We are going to discuss perceptions versus reality when it comes to availability of talent particularly in MedTech and High-Tech industries. Once again, I am here with my good friend and partner in crime Heather Polivka founder and CEO of HeatherP Solutions. She helps businesses succeed by ensuring their employees are set up to succeed. By helping them close the gap between who they say they are and how they are experienced by their employees. Thus, ensuring that their employees can deliver what their brand promises to their customers.


Hello everyone! Great to be here with my friend Chris Gustanski! Chris is a marketer who became a recruiter after realizing that recruiters had no idea what marketers do. He is the founder and CEO of Due North Executive Search. For more than a decade, Chris has helped MedTech, and High-Tech leaders build world class marketing and product management teams across the US.


Thanks Heather. If you recall, about a year ago in what I have come to call the “Before times”, the economy looked pretty good. Employment was at an all time high. Top talent in many fields was in short supply, particularly in MedTech and High-Tech industries. Employers were desperate to fill roles across a variety of functions. Then in February 2020 the world changed.

Suddenly, we went into forced shutdowns. Millions of people lost their jobs.

It was during this time a MedTech client of mine was wondering why they were still having difficulty filling critical roles across their organization. He said to me “With the unemployment rate this high, why are we having difficulty finding qualified candidates for our managerial and technical positions?” I responded “The haystack just got bigger. That doesn’t mean that there are any more needles in it.”

After this conversation I penned an article called the haystack just got bigger. Did you happen to see it Heather and I’d be curious to know your thoughts at the time?


Yes, Chris….I saw that article! What is interesting is that while you posted it in May…so early in the pandemic, this is not a new conversation for those in the talent space. In fact, there was a US labor report that was released in Jan 2020 before the pandemic and the toughest jobs to fill…literally the top 10 toughest roles to fill…. were all technical or healthcare talent. When you talk about Med-Tech, it is like the perfect storm of where those two converge!

And remember, that was in Jan 2020, before the pandemic. Given how this economic slow down has been driven by the pandemic, health care needs grew while the available talent did not. Given how all of us…as individuals and organizations… have gotten thru this pandemic has been enabled by technology….those needs, also, only grew while available talent did not

So you are talking about talent pools that have a choice about where to apply their talents. And whether they choose to work at your organization is entirely dependent upon your employer brand, your reputation as a place to work, and how you best meet the needs of the in-demand talent. And that is usually the case with in-demand talent. It is a Buyers world, to borrow from our real estate friends!


Agreed Heather. (Like I’d ever disagree with you). Another trend that we noted is that there are many highly desirable candidates that have pulled from even passive consideration of new roles during the pandemic. This phenomenon has been dubbed “sheltering in role”. Meaning that because of the lingering economic uncertainty, Covid-19, and other issues, great candidates have chosen to stay with their current employer until the storm clouds have passed. According to a recent LinkedIn survey, 74% of employees are riding out the pandemic by sheltering in role.

And some candidates seem to have the same opinion as employers regarding the job market. They will say things like “With unemployment so high, the only opportunities out there must be bad ones”. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but these perceptions exist.

As an employment branding guru, I bet you have come across issues similar to this. Right Heather?


For sure. Again, this talent has a choice….but that does not mean they are immune to the various factors that create some sense of trepidation for everyone. Even if you are in-demand, you don’t want to put yourself in a position to be let go! But just because the macro environment has challenges, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some golden opportunities within.

In this case, with my company clients, I recommend and help them develop two approaches: First, you have to create a sense of security and confidence in the performance of your company. Second, ask existing employees who are part of the in-demand talent pool to talk about why they joined and why they stay. Uncensored, unsupervised and as they see fit…. So have employees share the full scoop, the pros and the cons.

With in-demand talent, you do not want to be anything but 100% authentic about the work experience, otherwise you lose credibility. And once you lose credibility with an in-demand talent pool, word gets around and you’ve just made a tough talent challenge, an impossible one.

But I digress! I wanted to comment on the “more hay” aspect. What happens in an environment like this is there is more demand for talent that is already in short supply. At the same time, with high unemployment…people take a chance and apply for jobs they aren’t really qualified for. Cuz why not? Most people really believe that if they could just get a shot or talk to a human, they could do the job. And I get that sentiment.. I really do. Unfortunately, that is where the “more hay” comes in for recruiters and companies. Same amount of talent, or needles, but the hast stack is bigger because companies have greater needs and increased volume of resumes that don’t meet the requirements.


(I will work on the transition once I have your input). So, in addition to there being more hay and fewer needles in the haystack, there also are more companies looking for those needles. MedTech and High-Tech companies are some of those that continued to grow during the pandemic for a variety reasons. Now that vaccines are rolling out and economic uncertainty is declining, more of these companies will be looking to hire additional staff soon.

As a matter of fact, LSI (a leading MedTech Market research firm) forecasts a growth in hospital cases of 28% this year. On top of that there are brand new therapies being introduced and non-traditional competitors like digital health companies that are all vying for the same talent pool.


Right! The good news is that economic downturns like this can be AWESOME catalysts for innovation and startups. Think about getting in on the ground floor for What’s App, Venmo, Uber, Instagram, Slack or Square…just a few of the startups that came out of the 2008 Recession!

Tagging onto what you are saying, I think THIS recession will lead to similar groundbreaking business models in healthcare and technology. Great opportunities for that in-demand talent, but only exacerbating the shortage of talent that is already painful for ALL companies.


So, I think that should put to rest the notion that there is an overabundance of appropriately skilled talent just sitting on the sidelines for many industries. The flip side to candidates sheltering in role is that many are again just biding their time. As vaccines, stimulus money and personal savings built up during the pandemic hit, it is very clear that a big boom in hiring will commence. As a result, those same top performers companies relied on to get them through what has arguably been the most difficult year in a generation, will dust off their resumes and call their favorite recruiter.

Not to be Debbie Downer here but just as we all should breathe a sigh of relief that a really ugly year is in the history books, business leaders are going to be faced with a major retention problem.

What are you hearing regarding this Heather?


Yeah. As you & I have pointed out, after the 2008 Economic Collapse, talent sheltered in place until economic confidence returned, then we had a massive retention problem. And Business Leaders are expecting the same here.

The good news is that some Leaders are thinking about retention, and engagement earlier. The other good news is that engagement is exactly where it was pre-pandemic….so unchanged as far as the overall engagement levels go.

But now for the bad news: Engagement for women is a solid 30 points lower…yes, I said 30 points lower…than for male talent.

Also, bad news: The hemorrhage of female talent that has left the workforce during this pandemic. In the US, we are at the lowest levels of women participating in the job market since 1988. 50 years of progress wiped out. And that is at the overall level, impacting both women WITH and WITHOUT kids. Women have borne the brunt of this pandemic for so many reasons we won’t get into today, but companies need to look deeper into their engagement by employee population, because not all engagement is equal, which means not all retention risk is equal.

But wait, there’s more: You dig deeper into the numbers for Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous women…the numbers are even worse.

There are A LOT of companies who have taken a stand for equality, equity, and inclusion, particularly very public stances after last summer. Now, they have their work cut out for them to RETAIN the diverse and female talent they have, much less RETURN workforce representation to pre-pandemic numbers… not to mention making the GAINS that are necessarily to have a workforce that embodies the customers they serve and representation at all levels of an organization.

Tech talent was already struggling with diversity and representation pre-pandemic. That challenge just got bigger, too.


While this is no doubt great news for anyone seeking to change roles, by now I would guess that we’ve depressed enough listeners that are on the talent management end of the equation. Perhaps we should chat about what business leaders and HR teams can do to better weather the storm. Otherwise, we may never get another listener. 😊


(laugh) Good Point, Chris!


So, without further ado, here is the list:

1. Admit this is happening. Your best people will be recruited. They will get offers of more money, better title, etc. Be proactive and figure out what you can do to retain them but admit that you will have some attrition.

2. Be clear about opportunity for career progression opportunities particularly for your top performers. Don’t over promise.

3. Check your employment branding alignment and awareness. (The biggest issue many companies have is that they are unknown. For some, they may be known but they have a broken employer brand.)

4. Be a first mover. Don’t wait for every competitor to start recruiting your talent. Start your hiring initiatives now!

5. Understand where your engagement and retention risks are at, dig beyond the high level numbers by employee population.

6. Take care of your people.

Heather, care to take the first one?


#1 Admit this is happening. What is the old saying, the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging you have a problem? That holds true here, too. Most companies and leaders should be admitting they have a problem right now. So ask yourself: who do you not want to lose? Who is critical to your business model? Who helps drive competitive advantage? Who gets ‘er done? Who are your future leaders for your company? Then have a “Stay” Interview with each and every one of them. Use pulse check surveys. And this is a great area to use predictive analytics to anticipate departures.


#2 Be clear about opportunity for career progression particularly for top performers. Of course, you should never over promise but you should share what you can about your desire to help your top performers to grow in their careers. Remember, these are the very same people who sheltered in role during the pandemic. They will be very open to recruiting calls if they are not already.

For many, even a change in scenery is going to sound attractive after a year of Zoom calls, home schooling and what I have come to refer to as dress sweats. So, if someone approaches them with an elevated role and more compensation, they will absolutely listen.


#3 As we covered in our last episode, Chris, the employer brand, reputation and perception as a place to work can make or break you with in-demand talent. So the first thing to do is go back and listen to our last episode! (laugh).

If I were a company, I would reach out to someone like you, Chris, to understand if their employer brand is in need of some repair with in-demand talent. Then connect with someone like me to help them make the repairs.


#4 Be a first mover in the employment market. I realize that we are not yet out of the woods but remember, time to fill (a key metric in Talent Acquisition) takes about 80 days from opening the job req to start date. So, those that start now, could expect those hires to start in June right when many are expecting the hiring boom to begin.

Its kind of like the reverse of the child’s game musical chairs. Instead of fewer chairs as the game goes on there will be more. And having empty chairs in your organization will be costly for you and your organization.


#4 Understand where your engagement and retention risks are…not just at an overall level, but at a deeper level by employee population. In addition to In-demand skills like Tech, look at your employee population by gender, and Black, Latino, Asian and Indigenous talent.

As you look ahead to how your work experience will evolve after a majority of people are vaccinated, this is the golden opportunity to design a work experience that will be more attractive to all of these talent pools. Whether it is remote or hybrid work models, or office hours that run from 9-3 to give flexibility to working parents, or many other options…any and all of these decisions can help mitigate retention risk and increase your engagement.


#5 Take Care of Your People. Heather started touching on this in #4, but retention is impacted by engagement, and engagement is an outcome of the work experience. Companies who take care of their people and make them feel valued outperform those that don’t. It’s that simple.

The #1 job for Managers and Leaders right now…and really always…is supporting people. Manage the outcomes, not the work itself or micro-manage people in doing the work.

Heather is an expert at helping companies evaluate and address their work experience, including how Leaders can show up as great people leaders. She can help you adapt your work culture to be remote-first or remote-friendly to take care of your people.


Thanks, Chris. And in addition to helping companies understand if their employer brand is in need of repair, you are a great resource to talk to about the needles….the in-demand talent….to better understand what companies are up against in finding those needles and what they need to be doing now to be a magnet for those needles in the very near future when more chairs get added!


That does it for this edition of the mavens and misfits podcast. Remember, in the war for talent the haystack just got bigger, the number of needles is the same and soon, there will be many more hunters in the haystack! Please join us next time for a conversation about how People Leave Managers OR What It Means to Manage Remotely.

Until then this is Chris G

Heather: And Heather P signing off!

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