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The looming crisis of Hidden Workers


March 14, 2023

There is a growing disconnect between workers and work in the post-pandemic economic world. As most countries reopened one after the other, new business needs emerged, requiring additional workers across virtually all organizations. You’d think this was good news for the unemployed. Yet, despite the many job openings, our research shows that thousands of unemployed or underemployed workers say they can’t seem to find any work, or they just want more hours. For me, this disconnect was a major surprise.

I was hopeful that the ‘Hidden Workers’ problem identified by the Harvard Business School (HBS)  Project on Managing the Future of Work and Accenture[1] before and during the pandemic would be sorted out as we emerged. Hidden workers are people who are eager to work and have the ability to participate in the workforce, if only employer hiring practices did not raise obstacles to their access to jobs with more hours, or full-time work[2].

In fact, quite the opposite is happening. Particularly of concern are the supply/demand gap is at an all-time high in the US market—two job openings for one unemployed worker— and the labor participation rate is exceptionally low.

The fact that the problem is getting worse is concerning. Even now, millions of workers may actually leave the workforce and become hidden workers themselves. With so many job opportunities, how is it that so many workers are still not finding work?

With so many job opportunities, how is it that so many workers are still not finding work?

To understand how this disconnect persists, HBS’ Project on Managing the Future of Work and Accenture decided to revisit our hidden workers research. We performed an in-depth analysis of three main categories of hidden workers; people who could make invaluable contributions to organizations if only their skills were recognized and their specific situations were addressed: part-time workers, caregivers and people with disabilities.

In the report published this week, we focus on part-time hidden workers. They amount to one out of six hidden workers in our sample (17% precisely) and would like to work full time. These part-time hidden workers are disproportionately female and older than other workers.

Among the variety of barriers they face to find full-time work are caregiving responsibilities, a lack of advanced education and health issues. Many of the part-time workers surveyed for the report believed that the criteria employers use to evaluate applications “hide” them and prevent them from advancing through the hiring process. The biggest factors were the strict requirements for years of experience in any given role and having employment gaps in their resume.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the issues uncovered through our analysis, and each type of hidden worker requires a reevaluation of current recruitment and employment practices. Regarding the part time workers, recommendations we think can work to lessen the disconnect:

  • Shift to a skills-focused hiring process; Focusing on what hidden workers can do rather than what credentials they have removes recruitment barriers for job seekers and provides a deeper pool of qualified candidates to employers.
  • Flexibility, both in terms of remote work arrangements when feasible and hours worked, makes a substantial difference in allowing workers to take on additional professional duties.
  • Clear communication, from the job description to day-to-day interactions between colleagues, is crucial for adequately supporting part-time workers and a deeper sense of engagement

Gaining full time employment can be a life-changing situation for the chronically underemployed or unemployed. Additionally, enhanced hiring practices can bring skill, diversity and engagement to companies with openings to fill.

About the research

The “Hidden Workers, Untapped Talent” research was conducted in partnership with Joseph B. Fuller, Professor of Management Practice and co-lead of Harvard Business School’s Project on Managing the Future of Work and Manjari Raman, Program Director, Project on Managing the Future of Work. It focuses on quantifying the business case of hiring the long-term unemployed and identifies the hiring practices that restrict individuals from employment and stop them from realizing their full potential in the workplace, especially people with disabilities, caregivers of children and/or other family members, or people with a history of long-term unemployment. The research is based on both official labor market data, as well as proprietary surveys of over 2,000 employers and 8,000 employees across Germany, the UK and the US. Learn more.

[1] Fuller, J., Raman, M., Sage-Gavin, E., Hines, K., et al (September 2021). Hidden Workers: Untapped Talent. Published by Harvard Business School Project on Managing the Future of Work and Accenture.

[2] Each individual’s story was unique but, at the core, hidden workers tend to fall into one of three employment narratives: "Missing hours" eg Working one or more part-time jobs but could or would like to work full-time, "Missing from work" eg Unemployed for a long time but still seeking employment or "Missing from the workforce" eg currently not working and not actively seeking employment, but could be working under the right circumstances.


Francis Hintermann

Global Lead – Accenture Research