American employers have a variety of job vacancies, piles of cash and countless well-qualified candidates. But despite a slowly improving economy, many companies remain reluctant to actually hire, stringing job applicants along for weeks or months before they make a decision.
If they ever do.
The number of job openings has increased to levels not seen since the height of the financial crisis, but vacancies are staying unfilled much longer than they used to — an average of 23 business days today compared to a low of 15 in mid 2009, according to a new measure of Labor Department data by the economists Steven J. Davis, Jason Faberman and John Haltiwanger.
Some have attributed the more extended process to a mismatch between the requirements of the 4 million jobs available and the skills held by many of the 12 million unemployed. That's probably true in a few high-skilled fields, like nursing or biotech, but for a large majority of positions where candidates are plentiful, the bigger problem seems to be a sort of hiring paralysis.
"There's a fear that the economy is going to go down again, so the message you get from CFOs is to be careful about hiring someone," said John Sullivan, a management professor at San Francisco State University who runs a human resources consulting business. "There's this great fear of making a mistake, of wasting money in a tight economy."
As a result, employers are bringing in large numbers of candidates for interview after interview after interview. Data from Glassdoor.com, a site that collects information on hiring at different companies, shows that the average duration of the interview process at major companies like Starbucks, General Mills and Southwest Airlines has roughly doubled since 2010.
"After they call you back after the sixth interview, there's a part of you that wants to say, 'That's it, I'm not going back,' " said Paul Sullivan, 43, an exasperated but cheerful video editor in Washington. "But then you think, hey, maybe seven is my lucky number. And besides, if I don't go, they'll just eliminate me if something else comes up because they'll think I have an attitude problem."
Like other job seekers around the country, he has been through marathon interview sessions. Sullivan has received eighth- and ninth-round callbacks for positions at three different companies. Two of those companies, as it turned out, ultimately decided not to hire anyone, he said; instead they put their openings "on hold" because of budget pressures.
At one company, while signing into the visitor's log for the sixth time, he was chided by the security guard.
"He thought I worked there and just kept forgetting my security badge," Sullivan said. "He couldn't believe I was actually there for another interview. I couldn't either! But then I put on a happy face, went upstairs and waited for another round of questions."