Are good employees really that hard to find?

By Mike Cook

For The Bellingham Business Journal

You’ve probably heard me say it here on more than one occasion: The number one complaint I hear from employers these days is how hard it is to find good people. But are they — good people I mean — that hard to find?

If you read my post from May 9 you may recall what I offered on the topic:

Let’s start with the term “good people”, often spoken as though there was some universal standard for this category of potential employee. Used to be, when I was in my youth, in a different economy, the standards for “goodness” were pretty easy to satisfy.

Many job requirements in that economy looked something like: two, hands, two feet, two eyes, can follow basic instructions, will show up and do as they are told etc.

As we look out at the present economic landscape, we still find some open positions for which the “two hands, two feet, two eyes, can follow instruction”’ qualifications still apply. And as you know these opportunities are declining in numbers, not growing.

In addition to a continuously changing profile of what constitutes “good people” employers and job seekers alike are faced with factors that add to the complexity of the issue.

Nationally the unemployment rate is right about 4.7 percent. In Whatcom County, the rate is around 6 percent and trending downward from a high of 11.1 percent in mid 2010. Never mind “good people,” the simple fact is that people looking for work are getting harder to find. And…as one of the places in the US that has legalized marijuana use employers are now faced with an additional challenge, potential employees testing positive.

Colorado is a bit ahead of Washington in the legalized marijuana experience but both states have seen increased positive testing results following legalization. An article which appeared in the Washington Post recently, ‘Companies Need Workers – But People Keep Getting High’ cited the following.

Colorado and Washington, which became the first two states to legalize weed in 2012, showed the largest growth in positive tests. Urine screens that detected pot rose 11 percent in Colorado and 9 percent in Washington, the first time either state outpaced the national average since residents could lawfully light up a joint.

Of course, statistics  can be used to make headlines in any number of ways, and these cited are no different. There is no doubt positive marijuana testing is up, however, not to a total of 9 percent, rather a 9 percent increase, from about 1.6 percent of the total job seekers being tested previously.

Nonetheless, employers with job vacancies, scrambling to fill those slots are no doubt tempted to grab onto these statistics as salve for their anxiety. But even if we all agree that it is too bad about the epidemic of positive drug testing (which, by the way, we do not have) the vacancies remain just that, vacant.

So, is there a straightforward answer for employers?

Personally, I think the response is more complex than most of us would like it to be. It is hard to find good people because of a multitude of factors.

The article “Economists are puzzled about why incomes aren’t rising — but workers have a good hunch” offers this:

“As long as employers can keep their wage bills low by replacing or expanding staff with lower-paid workers, labor cost pressures for higher price inflation could remain muted for some time.”

So now we have at least two sources to blame for the lack of “good people”, increased positive drug test results and stingy employers trying to grab all the profit they can. If we keep looking, we will no doubt be able to find several more villains before the witch hunt is done.

And the vacant positions will remain vacant.

This looks like a sucker’s choice to me, i.e., we will settle for a good explanation for why the problem exists rather than continue to work the issue.

Where we need to look is at ourselves, all of us. What exactly is it that we will protect, at all cost when the going gets really tough? Our beliefs.

And I do personally think that the solutions we are looking for lie in our willingness to confront the limitations of our beliefs, that which we defend fiercely before we will consider change — especially our economic and social models.

If you’ve read to this point you may be disappointed, especially if you thought there would be an answer. But now maybe you are thinking, and I can only do so much in 800 words.

Lastly, consider this quote from Voltaire, a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher.

“When it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion.”

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at

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