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Opinion: Uncovering the hidden workforce

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It’s hard to imagine there are still people looking for work when employers can’t seem to fill open positions. There are easily more job openings than job seekers, a gap of 3 million jobs nationally at last count.

While there are many factors affecting the current labor shortage, such as early retirements, lack of child care, the gig economy and a population decrease, there’s still a significant number of workers who are looking for, yet not finding, employment – a hidden workforce.

Research by Harvard University shows that in 2021 there were more than 27 million hidden workers in the United States alone. These hidden workers are unemployed or underemployed and comprise individuals who may not have traditional education qualifications. This group also may also have criminal records, mental health challenges or physical disabilities. They may represent less-advantaged populations or those whose applications and resumes simply get rejected by online human resources recruiting systems. 

A job seeker’s resume plays a vital role in helping those hidden workers be seen by employers. It’s often a very simple fix in getting those resumes out of that employer resume “black hole.” At the same time, the electronic applicant tracking systems in place for many years might be part of the issue. It is estimated that nearly 10 million potential workers are being kept from even being asked to interview because the applicant tracking system has booted out the application or resume from the initial screening process.

Applicant tracking systems have been fine-tuned over the years to weed out and prevent employers from receiving hundreds of applications for a single position. Now, many employers would like to turn back the clock and would be overjoyed to get hundreds of applications. In a recent Harvard report, roughly 9 out of 10 executives surveyed admitted they know their company tracking systems are stopping them from seeing good candidates.

Employers also can’t overlook the reality that it is a great time to review job descriptions. Many are outdated, and the requirements aren’t relevant anymore. Many hidden workers may simply get discouraged with being rejected and just give up looking.

Resumes play a key role with electronic applicant tracking systems in getting a job seeker’s foot in the door. Key words are incredibly important, and everyone’s resume needs to include key words from those job descriptions, outdated or not. Gaps in employment also are causing some resumes to be rejected. These gaps may be due to the need to leave the workforce to care for family. Now, as one might want to come back to work, those gaps in employment are getting rejected. If we are to encourage and engage people to re-enter the workforce, we must recognize why those gaps in employment might have occurred. This is especially significant for women and older workers. Currently, 49% of the long-term unemployed in America are over the age of 45, according to an Accenture report on hidden workers and untapped talent. By contrast, 35% of job seekers ages 16-54 are long-term unemployed.

And lastly, for those who want their resume to stand out and look attractive, the reality is that less is more. The best way to get your resume seen is to keep it very clean and streamlined, with no lines or graphics and plenty of key words.

As organizations not only in our community but across the nation continue to struggle finding workers in this ever-changing, still volatile economy, we continue to study data and try to make sense of this labor shortage. Employers have responded by changing their corporate culture, answering the wage demand, changing business hours and more to attract and retain talent.

While we are all exhausted with COVID-19 and the many aftereffects we are currently grappling with and will for the unforeseeable future, it will take a very intentional effort by both employers and job seekers to find their perfect matches.

Sally Payne is the director of workforce development for the city of Springfield. She can be reached at


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