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Fake job listings are a growing problem in the labor market

Fake job listings are a growing problem
Fake job listings are a growing problem in the labor market 04:09

Even as job openings have receded from their peak and layoffs cascade in some industries, one saving grace of the labor market is the plethora of open positions, with 1.8 openings for every American who is looking to get hired.

Indeed, the high number of openings is a favorite economic figure of the Federal Reserve, whose chairman Jerome Powell repeatedly cites that number as a reason to keep hiking rates. As recently as last month, Powell called the job market "very strong" and indicated worry at the high number of openings, which were 10.8 million as of January, the latest available data.

But there's a catch. Many of these openings might not be real.

For several years, economists have long expressed skepticism of the number of monthly job openings reported by the government. Plentiful free job-listing tools have made it much easier to list a job, while the boom in remote work during the pandemic has pushed the figures even higher, leading some businesses to duplicate listings across the web. 

And that's before considering the number of employers who are deliberately advertising for jobs they have no intention of filling — something that's more of a concern today as some companies try to take advantage of the churning job market.

10 job openings, two hires

"There are companies that have 10 job listings and are only hiring two people at the moment, but they want to have a strong pipeline of candidates. They want to have inbound leads floating through their door," said Michelle Volberg, CEO of Giledan Search, an executive search firm working in tech, health care and packaged goods. 

The post-pandemic economic climate, in which employees are switching jobs much more freely than before, is likewise leading some companies to over-list, she said. 

"I think that is happening more now since people are being laid off, they're jumping ship, they're moving," and businesses fear having to fill a job last-minute. "They want candidates coming in all the time," she said. 

Simple duplication is are also a factor in making the hiring market seem unusually strong. Many hiring managers told CBS MoneyWatch that they have started listing jobs in multiple locations to expand their pool of candidates. 

"I've had the best success since I shifted my job listing strategy to posting more frequent job listings across multiple sites," Andre Kazimierski, CEO of home-improvement startup Improovy, said in an email. "I think variety is key, so advertising multiple positions on multiple platforms can really help give your candidate pool some depth."

Other hiring managers said they listed multiple openings to "cover all our bases" or for specific roles that have high turnover. According to Volberg, over-listing jobs is most common in New York and Los Angeles, and for jobs in engineering, sales or customer-service positions.

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Remote work means more duplicate postings

The pandemic's boom in remote work has also created what ZipRecruiter chief economist Julia Pollak calls "job opening inflation," in which employers post the same job in multiple geographic regions.

"Employers are nervous about posting a job as remote, because it might not show up everywhere. So they post it in Denver, and post it in San Francisco, and post it in New York, and it shows up everywhere but it's just one job," Pollak told CBS MoneyWatch recently.

She added that the job market of recent years, in which workers are much more likely to quit, is also spurring desperate employers to "open the tap" of potential job candidates. 

"When you have fewer candidates per opening, you have to be more creative, create more job titles for positions," she said. The high openings figure "does partly reflect recruiting intensity, and not actual roles and seats and slots."

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Perpetual job openings: Why?

The top reason hiring managers give for keeping job listings open for months, according to a Clarify Capital survey, is that the company is "always open to new people," which was the answer of half the managers with openings. Other reasons were "to keep current employees motivated," "to have an active pool of applicants in case of turnover" and "to placate overworked employees."

The popular blog Ask A Manager recently shared the story of a worker whose high-turnover company "adopted the policy that everyone's job is posted online all the time."

"So, no matter what your position is (unless you're an upper-level manager), you are at risk of being replaced and it only takes your manager opening the bank of applicants to move forward with replacing current employees," the worker wrote.

Another reason for companies to post unreal openings could be to create an image of health — something particularly prevalent in the world of venture-backed startups eager to demonstrate their strength. 

"The most nefarious thing that I've seen is companies that want to continue to show off to the market that there's great growth prospects for their business" by acting as if they're hiring, said Sid Upadhyay, CEO of Wizehire, a small-business hiring platform. "These are behaviors that we as people, as consumers, should not be condoning," he added.

To be sure, plenty of recruiters discourage employers from this type of "motivation." 

"You have to think a lot about your hiring brand and how critical that is. Think about the impact of your hiring brand being affected by something that's not authentic," he said.

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Eye listings skeptically

The current pullback on hiring in some sectors appears likely to exacerbate the wishful-listing problem, at least in the short term. 

One reason is bureaucracy and slow communication: It can take time for information to travel in a big company. "Say there was a budgeting decision made January 1, but the job opening that it's affecting, the hiring manager doesn't hear about it 'til February 15," Upadhyay said. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on this frequent a mismatch between actual jobs and posted openings at large companies, which the Journal dubbed "ghost jobs."

The recent wave of tech layoffs has also inspired some companies to cast a wider net in hopes of snagging technology talent, said Volberg, of Giledan Search.

"The companies that are hiring and that are growing … they are open to just meeting really interesting talent, regardless of whether or not they have a job for them," she said. "We've just been writing job listings, 'if you've been laid off, or if you're passively looking, come talk with us.'"

So what's a job-hunter to do? Look at all listings skeptically, the pros advise — and try to verify listings on third-party sites, like Monster or Craigslist, with the company itself.

"The only way to know if it's a real job opening or it's not, is to figure out who the hiring manager is," Volberg said. "If you're an engineer, figure out who the head of engineering is, or the VP or director, and send them a note on LinkedIn. Seven times out of 10 you won't get a reply, but sometimes people will reply to you."

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