10/08/2012 02:50 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

Networking Hurts Our Workforce

In the past, climbing up the ladder of economic opportunity was based on outperforming one's peers. Fast forwarding to the 21st century, the American workplace now values relationships over talent.

To the detriment of productivity, networking has become the focal point of the hiring process. Millennials are continually encouraged to earn a college education, pursue an advanced degree, and even work unpaid internships in hopes to secure future employment. After acing exams and volunteering to gain experience, Generation Y struggles with the new, vague career advice of "just network."

When a hidden job market exists and up to 90 percent of positions are never posted, job seekers are forced to leave their livelihoods up to chance, not credentials. A Kauffman Foundation poll indicated that finding qualified candidates "is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of continued growth for 40 percent of American companies." One can only wonder if these companies are making a good faith effort to market their needs to the public or simply depending on recommendations.

Networking has become the resurrection of the "old boys' club." It eliminates competition. Employers are more focused on how they feel about a potential candidate, rather than the candidate's ability to add talent to the team. Critics argue that it costs the employers too much time and money to post jobs and that it is easier to hire someone who knows a person in the company.

Roycee Kerr, a director with St. Charles Consulting Group, says that personal networking does not necessarily enhance the recruiting process. "The hiring sponsor or manager has likely not focused on the specific capabilities needed to be successful in this role," she writes. "Often the hiring sponsor is operating from the context of the talent that is currently in place, not what is needed for the future or even what would make someone most successful in this role now."

The U.S. Labor Department reported that 3.67 million jobs are available, yet more than 12 million people are unemployed. This employment gap could be closed if employers sought to hire talented individuals within the youth labor market. Several organizations across the country have been championing the hiring of young Americans.

In late May, Year Up, the Boston-based job-training and education program, hosted its 2012 Walk for Opportunity. The purpose of the event was to spread awareness about the talented pool of young people who can help galvanize the economy. The bipartisan campaign Opportunity Nation also recommends that businesses read the Employer Toolkit for Connecting Youth and Business, which explains workplace strategies to engage young adults.

Skeptics argue that companies should hire for attitude and train for skills. However, Bill Fischer, a contributor at, offers a different approach. He states, "[A]ttitudes will only get you so far, and when real change is needed -- innovation, for example -- then attitudes are not likely to be enough to get you to where you want to go. In such situations, you need skills, and lots of them."

If businesses desire the best of the best, then they must increase competition with a fair, objective hiring process. Companies must focus on hiring trained human resources professionals. Non-HR personnel are prone to asking inappropriate, sometimes illegal, questions. As Americans, we focus too much on who would be a great drinking buddy after work, instead of who will be the most productive.

Networking must not be a major indicator of why someone receives a job offer. When HR receives a candidate referral, the individual should still have to compete with other potential job seekers. "[C]ompetencies create a common language for aligning all stakeholders in the hiring process," states Kerr. Hiring managers win when a rational basis for evaluating and prioritizing a group of qualified candidates exist.

Companies need to be flexible when integrating individuals into the workforce. Hiring managers often encourage job seekers to explain how their skills at previous jobs are transferable. However, are employers placing value on transferable skills? For instance, a stay-at-home parent will likely possess skills in budgeting, child development, and property management. Employers must have a greater understanding of how certain skills are assets to the workplace.

Organizations also must follow their own rules. When a job posting states that a candidate must have three to four years of experience in criminal justice, then a hiring manager should select an individual with those qualifications. No one expects the new hire to be a biologist when attorneys who meet the requirements were disregarded.

So, what's the bottom line? The hiring process is not meant to find a best friend but to locate a competent employee. Hire based on talent, not connections.