Is ‘talent acquisition’ just a fancy way of saying ‘recruitment’?

Anthony Haynes writes: One of the concerns of this blog is the language we use to talk about people and work. For example, in a previous post we discussed the connotations of the term ‘human capital’ (“What’s wrong with human capital?”, 6 June). Here I’d like to explore another key term, namely ‘talent acquisition’. The term is in vogue — but is it anything more than a synonym for ‘recruitment’?

The two terms can certainly be used as synonyms — it’s easy to think of sentences where one could substitute one for the other unproblematically. And it’s easy to see why, in those cases, ‘talent acquisition’ might be gaining ground. ‘Talent’ is one of those words everyone likes to be associated with. ‘Searching for talent’ makes the job of searching sound much classier than ‘recruiting’ — as if one might be on the phoning talking to Lady Gaga or George Clooney (it’s just that today it happens to be candidates for the regional sales manager job in the West Midlands). And, who knows. perhaps you can charge more for the service than a mere ‘recruitment manager’ could?

But though ‘talent acquisition’ and ‘recruitment acquisition’ can function as synonyms, they’re certainly not perfect synonyms. Not all jobs, after all, require talent. Shelf-stacking, for example, requires ability — and some stackers are more skilled at the task than others — but to say it requires ‘talent’ would be to strain credulity. That someone ‘has a talent for stacking’ is not something you hear.

The OED definition of ‘talent’ employs such phrases as: ‘a special natural ability or aptitude’; ‘an accomplishment’; ‘mental orders of a superior order’; and (my favourite) ‘power or ability of mind or body viewed as something divinely entrusted to a person’.

The problem with these terms is that they can only vaguely be defined (how special is ‘special’?), which makes it difficult to say where talent acquisition stops and plain vanilla recruitment takes over.

I suggest in practice that we use ‘talent’ to refer to those abilities that we don’t think we’re yet close to automating.

The corollary of that is that the definition of ‘talent’ (and hence of ‘talent acquisition’) is likely to change — that is, to narrow in scope — as such developments as AI and the internet-of-things gather pace…

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