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Employers across industries bemoan the difficulty of finding qualified talent. With Baby Boomers retiring in droves and a smaller Gen Z cohort entering the workforce, many companies face real skills shortages. Yet, at the same time, legions of capable workers, especially caregivers, find themselves shut out of employment altogether due to inflexible employer attitudes. The solution? Forward-looking companies willing to be flexible and reimagine traditional career paths stand to gain access to a deep well of hidden talent.
Employers are failing an underutilized talent pool
The numbers tell a clear story. Women have borne the brunt of caregiving duties in most societies, and they continue to do so. Per a new paper based on research conducted jointly by the Harvard Business School and global consulting firm Accenture, while women make up roughly half of the full-time U.S. civilian workforce, they comprise a sizable 72% majority of part-time workers. Looking closer, an overwhelming 91% of part-time workers caring for children under 18 years old are women.
With the costs of high-quality childcare skyrocketing year after year, many parents, particularly mothers, find themselves unable to justify full-time employment. At the same time, populations are rapidly aging in numerous advanced economies. More and more of these “sandwich generation” workers must care for aging parents in addition to their own children. These pressing caregiving obligations frequently force highly qualified, experienced professionals to accept part-time jobs when they would prefer full-time work.
The researchers from HBS and Accenture discovered that nearly 30% of part-time employees work reduced hours specifically due to caregiving duties. Moreover, over 40% of part-time workers surveyed indicated that they would work more hours if their personal circumstances allowed it.
The data decisively indicates that vast numbers of capable, eager-to-work professionals, most of them women, find themselves underemployed in part-time roles or out of work entirely because of inflexible employer norms. With the right workplace policies emphasizing flexibility, this underutilized talent pool could contribute so much more.
Other evidence supports this study. For example, according to a white paper by health and wellness product retailer Carewell, that surveyed 1,000 working caregivers, on average, spent 21 hours a week providing care, so the equivalent of a half-time job. Nearly 70% wished for more flexible hours or remote work opportunities to allow them the freedom to give better care to loved ones. To gain such flexibility, 40% would take a reduction in their pay. Moreover, 64% said caregivers need remote jobs.
A peer-reviewed essay in the Journal of Applied Gerontology provides further evidence. Focusing on older working adults (55 to 70) who were either caregivers or not. It finds that older adult employed caregivers were more likely to use flexible options — flexible work hours, flexible schedules and time off — compared to non-caregivers, even after controlling for other variables, such as demographics.
Flawed hiring practices are dismissing qualified candidates
In recent years, companies have increasingly systematized and centralized their talent recruitment methods. Large teams of corporate recruiters rely heavily on applicant tracking software and algorithms to screen potential hires.
These technologies filter out candidates based on blunt digital parameters and arbitrary determinations of “culture fit.” Applicants who don’t precisely match the job description or expected credentials face almost certain rejection.
Too often, employers cling stubbornly to restrictive preconceptions regarding what roles should entail, both in terms of required abilities and time and location commitments. They automatically dismiss qualified candidates whose backgrounds don’t align with these ossified role conventions.
For example, a company looking to hire a full-time accountant might immediately reject the application of an experienced part-time bookkeeper and mother of two, even if she possesses all the required accounting skills and more. This candidate’s proven talents get dismissed simply because she doesn’t fit the employer’s backward-looking notions of what a proper accountant “ought to be.”
Because of these flawed hiring practices, huge numbers of seasoned professionals get unfairly left out of consideration, even as openings go unfilled for extended periods. Business leaders everywhere bemoan talent shortages, yet their own deficient recruitment strategies actively manufacture these phantom gaps.
Instead of writing off applicants based on inaccurate preconceptions, employers should focus on identifying candidates with the most relevant capabilities. They should recognize that the traditional 9-5 office model no longer suits the diversity of talented people eager for meaningful work. The path forward lies in pragmatic flexibility, not rigid orthodoxy.
The forward path
Progressive companies and managers need to acknowledge that the traditional 9 to 5 office schedule no longer makes sense as the default template for most roles. Savvy leaders increasingly recognize that adaptability and open-mindedness represent the keys to accessing overlooked talent pools. They understand that worthwhile candidates come from a wide variety of backgrounds that don’t necessarily align with outdated corporate conventions.
First and foremost, tapping into underutilized talent means providing flexibility regarding when and where work gets accomplished. Modern technology enables remote collaboration, and output matters far more than physical presence in cramped office cubicles. That’s what I tell the 5-10 leaders who contact me every week to explore flexible work models for their organizations.
Indeed, the winner of the most recent Nobel award for economics, Claudia Goldin, argued in a recent interview that what she called “greedy jobs” — high-paying, high-pressure roles that demand workers be available at unusual times outside of their contracted hours typically occupied by men — are increasingly available to women due to remote and hybrid work. In turn, return-to-office policies may undo some of that progress.
Employers seeking hidden talent should develop robust training programs to help part-time workers transition into full-time roles. Compensation and advancement potential should depend solely on contributions and capabilities, not on arbitrary distinctions between “part-time” and “full-time.”
Some innovative companies have found success by cross-training employees across multiple departments. This enhances workers’ skillsets while empowering them to cover for one another as needed. Nimbleness is essential in a volatile world where personal circumstances can shift suddenly.
Most importantly, business leaders must take a hard look at their own prejudices. Is a given role truly full-time? Could a strategically minded part-timer handle key aspects of that marketing job, especially from home?
Asking these probing questions will help erode the baseless biases that prevent managers from recognizing great talent that falls outside of their preconceptions.
Some traditionalist business leaders may view these proposals as unrealistic or threatening to corporate norms. However, thoughtfully expanding career flexibility promises benefits for both workers and companies amid the complex realities of modern life.
Skeptics argue that part-time workers lack commitment or that flexibility erodes accountability. In truth, part-timers appreciated for their contributions often reciprocate with loyalty. Output and consistency matter more than physical presence when evaluating performance.
Critics also contend that reconfiguring roles undermines efficiency. But thoughtfully leveraging part-timers’ specialized skills boosts productivity. Furthermore, the costs of unfilled openings due to misguided selectivity exceed any hypothetical inefficiencies.
While adapting workplace practices takes concerted effort, the long-term gains for talent recruitment and retention outweigh the growing pains. Savvy companies will get ahead of the curve.
Rather than reacting fearfully, decision-makers should view flexibility as an opportunity. A diversity of personalized roles attracts top talent. Retaining professionals with caregiving duties builds valuable experience.
With empathy and communication, customized roles minimize friction. The future favors those who rethink work to empower people’s full participation.
Unleash human potential
The coming years represent an enormous opportunity for visionary leaders willing to redefine outdated workplace paradigms. Vast untapped talent awaits employers able to see beyond antiquated ideas about career progression.
The real obstacle is not an actual shortage of skilled workers but rather a lack of creativity among managers constrained by legacy hiring practices. To build thriving businesses, companies must design work models that enable employees to fully apply their skills while balancing meaningful lives.
By focusing on capabilities rather than credentials and judging applicants based on their potential contributions instead of misguided stereotypes, employers will open the floodgates to overlooked talent reservoirs. They stand to benefit tremendously from seasoned professionals who want nothing more than the chance to apply their hard-won experience.
Fundamentally reimagining the nature of work won’t just unlock hidden talent pools. It will catalyze the full spectrum of human potential across society. Workers will gain flexibility and fulfillment. Companies will overcome hiring challenges and boost productivity. In short, a win-win scenario for all.
The future is now for business leaders ready to discard outdated conventions and write bold new rules for the modern workplace. The time has come to unleash human potential by empowering people to contribute their best through work designed for the realities of today.