Interview by:
Martin Burns

The world is in flux. A rapidly multiplying mishmash of trends – driven by global political shifts such as the rise of nationalism, a mutating pandemic, technological and communication changes, and a workforce that is increasingly cynical as well as inclined towards change – has delivered the tightest labor market of modern times. Historic swings in job openings, resignations, worker strikes, and approaches to what it means to work are now to be expected.

This situation will continue to evolve. To get a read on it, we turned to Dr. Liana Epstein of Cangrade. She's one of the few people in the industry who combines the educational background, global perspective, and work-experience necessary to deliver the visibility that might be able to see the signals in the noise we now call the modern work-world.

You’re Chief Operating and Analytics Officer with Cangrade, a company that looks deeply into job seeker behavior. Right now, one of the most pressing issues globally is how, well, “funky” job seekers & employees are behaving at the moment. The quits rate is historic, and multiple critical industries are struggling to both retain as well as attract staff. Along with your role, you hold degrees that give you some pretty unique strengths when it comes to looking at this complex picture. We’d love your thoughts.

First, and just to establish your background, could you tell us a bit about your field of study? You’ve got a PhD in quantitative social psychology from UCLA - which sounds fascinating. What attracted you to that area of study in the first place, and how has it informed your career?

I’ve always been interested in messy, real-world problems. I realized after first getting my feet wet in international development as an undergraduate, that if I wanted to make an impact, I needed to know how to measure that impact. In order to be able to move the needle in the real world about the things I cared about I needed a solid backbone of research methods and measurement expertise. My doctorate provided that skillset and showed me the breadth of its possible applications.

Whether in the public or private sector, my work has always focused on making solid data-driven decisions accessible and understandable to all target audiences. This has ranged from advising police departments on how to best engage with their communities, to training whole teams of local researchers to conduct evaluations, to building localized survey libraries in seven different languages, and helping keep more girls in school globally. Cangrade, for me, was a logical continuation of this same push to use data to make better choices that benefit society.

Your career has this consistent thread: a global view, with a focus on societal improvement, from programs that sought to understand and improve conditions in Somalia to reading programs in Cambodia. It seems that improving the job search and hiring process has a net-positive impact on society - do you see the work you’re doing at Cangrade as having a “mission” (for lack of a better word) element to it? Could you talk to us about that?

The “mission” to measurably make the world a better place drove me into graduate school in the first place and has been a driving force throughout my career as a data scientist. When Gershon, my co-founder, and I started Cangrade we wanted to use AI technology to make hiring better, faster, and fairer. We built our in-house soft skills assessment tool to be the most powerful tool on the market that was guided by one really simple principle: the right person for the job should get the job. Period. 

It sounds like a really simple idea, but one that’s really hard to execute well. Humans have biases baked into our brains as shortcuts to help us process information quickly. Unfortunately, this means the traditional recruiting process has a ton of bias baked in. So the wrong folks are too likely to get hired. These mis-hires are expensive and occasionally, even discriminatory. At Cangrade we want to change all of that.

Over the years, what we’re doing at Cangrade has only gotten more mission-driven as we’ve seen the incredible potential of this cutting-edge blend of solid psychological science and machine learning automation unfold. The clients we’ve had the privilege to work with have been able to move the needle on all the metrics they care about, all while hiring more diverse cohorts more quickly – even in the backdrop of the pandemic.

Okay, so elephant in the room: it’s safe to say that most forecasters' crystal balls are at best foggy, and often shattered, when it comes to predicting worker behavior at this most interesting of times. As someone who uses data to understand the world, and who’s built a career that may get you closer than most to some level of understanding here, could you give us your thoughts on the trends we’re seeing? Things like The Great Resignation, which seem to be reflected once again in the September JOLTS report.

As a data scientist in the HR space, this wave of resignations did not surprise me. Employees have enough savings after being stuck at home for a year or so to take some time off and consider their next move. Employees also discovered that you can work from home whether or not the company has previously allowed it and how much they miss out on if they go back into an office.

Overall, though, our internal research has shown that this massive wave of quitting is a result of organizations’ failure to take five key actions:

  • Make employees feel supported
  • Make employees feel valued
  • Prevent employee burnout
  • Really listen to employees
  • Avoid irritating employees

Again, it sounds simple but often these actions are seen as “nice to have” not “need to have” by organizations. It’s not about a paycheck or a branded t-shirt, it’s about keeping the “human” in Human Resources. People don’t want cupcakes, they want to be able to easily take their kid to the doctor without feeling like that hurts their chances at a promotion. All organizations have to do to prevent this wave from hitting them is to ask employees what they need to feel supported, valued, happy, and well-rested.

How are world leaders grappling with what appears to be a very fluid workforce? Are there countries that are getting it right, versus ones who seem to be only adding to their woes?

This is a fantastic question. Societal pressures and norms around job-hopping are powerful predictors of how fluid the workforce is. In countries like Japan or France, workers tend to stay with their company for decades. The U.S., however, is on the opposite end of the spectrum nowadays and the fluidity is fueled by the fact that it is now considered normal. 

On the plus side, the U.S. is much more willing than a lot of other countries to prioritize and emphasize soft skills when hiring. This does two main things that benefit employers and employees when it comes to stopping the flood of resigning workers: (1) optimizes job fit, thereby increasing performance, engagement, and retention, and (2) increases the volume of the candidate pool by screening out fewer people on hard skills requirements. This focus on soft skills and optimal job fit in particular will help to keep a fluid workplace happy and onboard for many more years. It is one thing to have a worker stay, it is another thing to have them stay while being highly engaged and productive.

What level of confidence do you have in the models we’ve been using to predict worker and job seeker behavior?

Our traditional reliance on hard skills is a critical error. Hard skill experience is not the best predictor of workplace success, soft skills are. Why? Hard skills are fairly easy to upskill on quickly. Soft skills are harder to train. We need to shift away from thinking that 5 years of hard skill experience is inherently better than 2 years of hard skill experience and instead look at the soft skills profile they can bring to the role.

Finally: In terms of worker behavior where do you see this all heading? What are the best- vs worst-case possibilities?

The more that job-hopping is normalized and accepted, the harder it will be to keep someone from quitting. Those five aspects of employee retention I referenced before will become more and more critical and companies who do these things well will emerge victorious from the pack. 

Frequent employee turnover is expensive and companies who can prevent it will thrive. It will become critical to have a way to forecast who is more likely to stay with your organization. (Coincidentally, this is a technology that Cangrade has already developed for our clients.) Assuming some of the workers in the Great Resignation do not come back to the workforce - which seems likely - there will also continue to be a bit of a skilled worker shortage. This means, again, that soft skills will become increasingly important, as will assessing them accurately and objectively. (Again, this is the very core of Cangrade’s use case.)

The silver lining for us as a company in the pandemic is that it has given a lot of organizations a bit of an extra shove towards our solution becoming a “need to have” not a “nice to have” to compete for their optimal workforce.

Finally (this time we mean it): For our readers who want to keep up with your work, what are the best ways to connect with you?

You can follow me or Cangrade on LinkedIn, read any of my posts on our blog about our in-house research and core science, or watch one of my webinars on topics like hiring equity or soft skills.