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4 ways to become a worker companies will fight over

Rick Newman
The Exchange
OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 08: Students participating in Pacific Gas and Electric's (PG&E) PowerPathway Pole Climbing Capstone course climb utility poles at the PG&E pole climbing training facility on June 8, 2012 in Oakland, California. Students who are aspiring utility workers from Oakland's Cypress Mandela Training Center and Workforce Institute, a Division of San Jose/Evergreen Community College District, are participating in PG&E's PowerPathway program Pole Climbing Capstone course, a three week course that teaches skills to better prepare individuals to compete for jobs such as pre-apprentice lineworker within the utility industry. The free course is held at the new pole climbing training facility at PG&E's Oakport Service Center. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

At some rarefied level of the workforce, there’s apparently a “war for talent” in which companies beg workers to sign on, throw money at them and ply them with perks to lure them from competitors.

You might assume this type of offer applies only to a few Mark Zuckerberg types in Silicon Valley. But companies increasingly struggle to fill certain jobs, and a recent survey by Payscale, a compensation-research firm, found 57% of firms say retaining workers will be a top concern in 2014 up from just 20% saying that in 2010.

“The war for talent is heating up,” says Cathy Shepard, a principal in the talent practice at Mercer. “I see it in specific functions or job categories, where there’s just enough labor and you have to pick off folks from your competitors.”

There are a few familiar storylines about the shortage of skilled workers in certain fields and the mismatch caused by an economy rapidly shifting from traditional fields to digital everything. STEM workers — those with science, technology, engineering and math expertise — are clearly in high demand, for instance. Healthcare is supposedly recession-proof. Data is the next big growth industry. Programmers rule the world.

There’s some truth to all that, but these oversimplified storylines exclude important caveats and nuances that help explain why some workers ought to be thriving but aren’t, while others are getting ahead with relative ease. Digging deeper into job trends reveals a few myths that lead some workers astray, while highlighting some of the real advantages desired workers have — and others can develop. Here are four overlooked factors that can help turn mediocre workers into indispensable ones:

Location, location, location. Most job advice focuses on skills you need rather than where you put them to use. But where you live has a huge impact on your job prospects. Payscale crunched some numbers at our request, and found, for example, that the need for workers in a given industry varies widely from place to place. In New York state, for instance, 46% of healthcare firms report having a job open for more than six months, a sign of scarce labor and good job prospects. But in California, only 18% of healthcare firms report the same thing. There are similar state-by-state variations in other fields such as manufacturing, finance, insurance and professional services.

For job seekers or people hoping to make a career change, it’s important to keep in mind the job opportunities near you in a given field could be considerably better or worse than they are someplace else. And what you hear about national trends may not apply where you live. Like real estate and politics, job opportunities are local, so do your research accordingly.

Size matters. In most fields, a larger proportion of big companies than small ones seems to have job openings. And big companies are more worried about losing workers than small firms, which suggests there’s more turnover and more job opportunities at the top of the corporate food chain. But not everybody lives near big-company operations, putting far-flung workers at a disadvantage. For somebody willing to relocate, it might be worth scouting out cities with a variety of big employers.

Changing fields may generate better opportunities. With the economy growing again, more companies are thinking strategically and hiring beyond their narrow area of expertise. Healthcare firms need technology experts, for instance, to manage a mushrooming flow of digitized health records. Tech firms may need sociologists or anthropologists to help understand their consumers better. While many jobs are based on a discrete set of skills, Shepard says, others require behavioral skills, such as negotiating savvy or management finesse, that are hard to demonstrate on a resume. Combining such soft skills with harder technical capabilities is one way to get employers’ attention. If you can develop a reputation for effectiveness at something in particular, even better.

Get out your spreadsheet. Put all these factors together, and finding the right job suddenly involves a matrix of decisions involving skills and other qualifications along with where you work, what size firm you work for, and what industry you work in. That might complicate the whole process of finding a new job or transitioning into a new career, but it might also help you target the right kinds of employers offering real jobs. The war for talent will never be a nationwide campaign. It will be a series of tactical skirmishes, with shrewd workers seeking the battlefield instead of waiting for it to find them.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.