The Outlook for Total Talent in 2021

by Lamees Abourahma

total talent outlook

In early 2020, with the U.S. economy at its highest expansion points in history, I spoke with three leading talent acquisition experts about the state of total talent (TT) and where they saw it heading. Obviously, a lot has happened since we held that panel discussion!

Recently, I wanted to revisit the topic and find out the current state of total talent in light of the pandemic. In particular, I was interested to know what effect the pandemic’s had on the adoption of TT in the marketplace. I caught up with two original panelists, Kim Pope of WilsonHCG and Zach Chertok of Columbia University, and also spoke with Jen Spicher of LevelUp to get their insights and thoughts on the current state and the outlook for total talent in 2021. Here's a summary of the experts' insights and outlook.

The State of Total Talent in the COVID Era

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on hiring practices and strategy. Many organizations have been forced to radically change the way they hire and adopt to new solutions they might have avoided previously. Total talent is one of these innovative hiring solutions that became most relevant in the current labor market and hiring environment. 

Total talent acquisition (TTA) is an emerging model of talent acquisition that integrates a full range of talent sources and helps employers find workers based on skills and qualifications rather than on job classification. Early adoption of total talent was challenged by a few barriers. As organizations were already taking steps to integrate digital transformation, globalization, and talent mobility, many companies, as our panelists originally shared, were struggling to take on another unconventional talent solution. However, the adoption of total talent acquisition was starting to gain some momentum before the pandemic as organizations realized its advantages in dealing with hiring challenges. 

How did the pandemic affect the adoption of total talent in the marketplace? 

Spicher, who’s been talking with clients about TTA for the last five years, told me, in her experience, the TT conversation has been “coming in a lot stronger on the managed service provider (MSP) side.” The conversation has been much more prevalent there, she says, because TT includes contingent labor, independent contractors and project work, which typically doesn't originate with an RPO solution (recruitment process outsourcing).

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RPO has proven to be a robust talent solution during the pandemic due to its agility and flexibility. According to the Everest Group and Grand View Research, RPO growth projections are 16 and 18.5 percent, respectively. In dollars, this would translate into an estimate of between $15 billion and $21 billion by 2027. So even with the setback experienced with the initial pandemic lockdown, due to the flexibility of this talent solution compared to other traditional options, RPO is expected to see appreciable growth.

Though LevelUp had started to take on and do more MSP work itself, Spicher does see the pandemic as having put a “complete halt” on a lot of progress companies were making with TT. She chalks that up to the focus obviously going to “just trying to get work done” in a situation where literally no one was in the same building.

For his part, Chertok says the health crisis has exposed the “lack of transition readiness” of many organizations. He told me “it’s fair to say who could have expected a pandemic to come along,” but it doesn’t take away from the fact “there should have been some readiness.” He pointed out there are certain sectors that have talent availability but many others that still have talent scarcity. Like Spicher, he has observed the healthcare and technology sectors still doing well.

Chertok adds that because so many people are currently working from home, companies now realize they can broaden their search and hire from anywhere for anything, with maybe the exception of high-degree collaborative talent. Certain sectors he says are seeing talent scarcity the likes of which they hadn’t expected because behemoths like Amazon are soaking up support and warehouse staff so companies like grocery stores and Lowes can’t find enough talent.

In response to my original question on the state of TT, Chertok says it’s “kinda all over the place.” Now, more than ever, he says, it’s important for recruiters and talent acquisition specialists to make sure they understand the specific verticals of talent they’re hiring within and that maybe it’s time to expand the scope of talent they can borrow skills from. He also believes it’s “really, really important” right now to expand the locations from which skills can be borrowed for the positions companies are looking to fill. In his view, organizations need to revisit their onboarding process to make sure it’s sufficiently digitally-facilitated.

In my conversation with Pope, I asked what impact she thought the pandemic had wrought on TT, especially since this time last year we were looking at 3.5 unemployment and a candidate-driven market. Her view, surprisingly, is that COVID has catapulted the adoption of TT in many ways. She says organizations who in the past might have been slow to embrace change have found themselves having to do just that, and quickly. Those changes, she tells me, “have really merged the approach when it comes to the discussion around TT. That, she says, “is really exciting for us,” because we’re now working with holistic partners.”

For WilsonHCG, the renewed interest has varied by region with some coming back sooner than others. For instance, APAC and North America have been faster than, say, Europe to welcome TT conversations. It also varies according to industry, with those in high-tech and consumer goods more open to TT. In her experience, even hard-hit sectors like airlines and travel, though, are starting to refocus some of their models.

Getting Clients on Board

I asked Pope if the TT buy-in she was seeing was with existing clients or was it happening even with new ones? “It’s a mixture of both,” she told me. Her firm is seeing current [RPO] clients scaling up on the contingent side relatively quickly because they need the variability and flexibility. They’re also seeing RFPs coming in or having conversations with new clients who see TT as a viable solution.

Spicher sees things a little differently telling me that while TT in her opinion is “super sexy in the marketplace,” it can be challenging to get clients completely onboard with it. Having implemented TT programs many times with global companies, “it’s a lot of work when done right and takes a very strong mandated company culture to get to TT.” 

TT: Short or Long-Term Solution?

I was curious to know whether based on what they’re seeing today my experts view TT as more a short or long-term solution.

Spicher firmly believes her clients are getting back to their core and once again outsourcing non-core functions like recruitment. She’s spoken to many clients who have told her this is their goal for 2021. The biggest change she’s seen is that the focus is now much more on short projects with tighter timeframes. For instance, LevelUp recently took on three clients who, whether it was for acquisition, growth, or regional expansion, needed approximately 25 people hired in 60 days.

Chertok’s view is that there’s been enough disruption that at the end of the day, everyone’s going to have to abandon the idea of “getting back to normal.” The pandemic has gone on too long to return to doing things the way they were being done. If there’s an upside, he says, it’s that the pandemic exposed weaknesses that, moving forward, can be addressed and improved on. As he sees it, the bottom line is that talent affects everything in the world so you should always be planning around it. Maybe not in a short or long-term way, but being focused on retaining the people that you’re going to hire.

An Uncertain But Hopeful Future for TT

My reaction to what I heard from Pope, Chertok, and Spicher, is that while it’s unfortunate the pandemic might have hindered the progress we began to see in total talent last year, there is good reasons to hope as we move into the recovery stage of the pandemic that more companies will get back to considering and adopting TT. I certainly agree with Pope when she says “it's exciting that we are seeing more adoption” because it will help those of us in the RPO industry drive change.

For more insights on talent challenges and outlook for 2021, access this expert panel .

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