The Pursuit of Top Talent Is Destroying the Middle Class

The Pursuit of Top Talent Is Destroying the Middle Class

When I graduated from college and couldn’t find even an entry-level job, I learned of a cool new term: top talent. It didn’t matter that you had good grades. It didn’t even matter if you interviewed well. What mattered was your network, social capital, and the prestige of the institution you’d just graduated from. Maybe even the prestige of your high school. 

I’ve been in human resources for eight years. For three of those years recruiting was a function of my role. So, I speak from experience when I say that finding top talent was the priority for all of the companies I’ve worked for.  

I use the term "top talent" in the social capital sense, as opposed to the character trait sense because that is mainly what I’ve seen. I’ve rarely been in recruiting meetings where the conversation centered on how conscientious, competent, willful, or creative a candidate is. More often than not, the conversation is centered on what school they went to, who referred them, and who they know.  

But I didn’t look for top talent, I looked for capable talent. I looked for talent that demonstrated the malleability and will to become more. Or, the will to remain “as is” and contribute greatly to the company at that level. Folks that had taken time off from employment to care for themselves or others. Folks that had suffered layoffs but didn't have the network necessary to bounce back. Folks changing careers because the job market demands skills different from the ones developed a decade ago. Folks who had experienced trauma - such as domestic violence - and had their entire lives rearranged, from job instability to frequent relocations. 

I believe there is a place and purpose for everyone. I’ve seen people aspire to top talent without being given the opportunity to get there. If we only hire top talent, we exclude those who are capable and willing to become top talent. We talk about economic indicators and the disappearing middle class but what about employer hiring practices? I’m critical of HR because I love the field. We are doing a disservice to the economy by pursuing only one type of person. 

I hope the future of work doesn’t focus solely on top talent. I hope that the future of work provides an opportunity for everyone to find their way, for everyone to earn a good salary, for many types of diverse people to get to the “top” whether or not they’re considered top talent. I hope the future of work doesn’t include discriminatory phrases like “culture fit.” And I hope the future of work dismantles unconscious bias. 

Which brings us to my main point: if we only look for top talent and then provide only those workers with high salaries, we are eliminating the middle-class. We’ll have a severe wage gap. Say, for instance, top talent comes in and is offered $115,000 to do a job that requires 4-5 years experience. You have potential employees who may not be considered top talent but are more than capable of doing the exact same job - plus have 9-10 years of experience - who don’t get that opportunity. Say that happens to them a few times. Now they’re trapped earning $40,000 - $50,000 with meager 1% cost of living increases for the rest of their life.  

In America, the middle-class is considered a family of three with an annual income of between $42,000 -$125,000.  If that seems odd to you, it’s because it is; everything is relative.  If you live in Washington, D.C. and make $42,000, you are not middle class. If you live in San Francisco and make $125,000, you are also not middle class. It’s largely dependent on the cost of living in your area. 

Having said that, my point remains that without the critical, high wage-earning opportunities usually reserved for “top talent” there is no way these families will make it to, or remain in, the middle. And when that happens we’ll only have two tiers; the poor and the wealthy. 

Reestablishing the middle class is as much a human resources issue as it is political; it starts with hiring managers who are willing to look beyond terms such as "top talent" and find those who are capable of doing the jobs. Commit to paying them more. Commit to long-term employment and development. Commit to opportunity. This is the way that we move from celebrating low unemployment, which is not a high marker of income stability anyway, to celebrating a nation of people that flourish.  

Most of us are average talent. I am only top talent when I’ve had a large cup of coffee before 8:00 AM. Some of us are top talent undiscovered because we don’t come from the privileged backgrounds that allowed for the opportunities to secure that top spot. Or life has done a number on us, and because of depression, anxiety, or socioeconomic limitations like stable housing, we couldn’t make it to the top. But if we are average, then that can be temporary if employers commit to our growth.

Photo by Olu Eletu.

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