Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What do employers want?

I am quite sure that if you do an internet search for "What do employers want?" you will get thousands of returns. Here. Let me do it for you. Google=7680 entries. Yahoo=44,800 entries. MSN=77,000,000 entries (Hmmmm. Now I know why I use Google and Yahoo so much.) My point is that there is a huge amount of information on the Webernet telling you what employers want. Some empirically researched, some not. I do not want to add to either end of the pile today, what I would like to do is dispel one giant myth about what employers are looking for. Oddly, the myth is that employers know what they looking for. That's right. The best way to give a prospective employers what they want is to assume that they do not, in fact, know what they want.

I thought I was wrong, but I was mistaken.
Let me clarify one thing before we go further with this post. I am using paradox as a literary device to get my point across. (I am hoping to use onomatopoeia too, but I haven't yet figured out where to work it in.) To varying degrees employers understand the experiences that might give a candidate a better chance of performing well in a job. Likewise, they have an idea of how they wish a specific position to take shape. The fact remains, however, that there are many qualified candidates for every position out there (particularly in this economy), but I am never surprised, good or bad economy, when a recruiter or hiring manager says to me, "I can't find anybody to fill this position."

The reason for this is that a job description is not an actual person, nor is it the description of an actual person. Job descriptions are often the result of an over-zealous HR representatives who want to be nothing is left to chance. I think I have mentioned before the University of California job descriptions that include the requirement, "Squat - occasionally; Bend - frequently." I find it difficult to believe that a hiring manager ever ponders an applicant's "squatibility" or "bendiness". That does not mean that a job requiring "high-throughput protein expression clone synthesis and validation" will ignore the candidate's lack of laboratory experience and training. So, what is the dividing line between requirements that are "drop dead" requirements and those that are less essential?

Minimally, I prefer these qualifications.
The first rule of thumb that I use for whether or not to apply for a job is, "Never turn down a job you have not been offered." The surest way of doing this is to not apply in the first place. Before I hear the sad, sizzling sighs of despair (There! Onomatopoeia!) because you now think you should have applied for that Secretary of Commerce position, let me hastily add that when you KNOW you are not qualified for a position, then you use the second rule of thumb for whether or not to apply for a job, which is, "Don't." If you remain unsure about rule one and rule two, perhaps these five guidelines will help a little.

1. When job announcements are divided into "minimum requirements" and "preferred requirements," you will want to apply if you meet all of the minimums, even if you do not meet all of the preferred. If you do not meet the minimums, don't bother. Move on the next application.

2. Anytime a job simply lists qualifications without telling you which are minimals and which are preferreds and you know that you meet most of the list, take a moment to rank order the list. For instance, actuarial positions typically require a thorough background in statistics and a college degree. My assessment, however, is that extensive statistics training would probably rank higher than a college degree. The emphasis here is on extensive training, not "I took a stat course once and didn't fail it."

3. As a corollary to the above, experience will often trump other formal qualifications or requirements. For the past twenty years, I have been hiring counselors in clinical and career development settings. I learned early that simply having a graduate degree in counselor did not make someone a good counselor. Heck, it did not even make them a good student. Applicants with extensive experience working with people, however general signifies that they are capable of handling the ambiguity of interpersonal interactions.

4. With lengthy job announcements that have more than ten or twelve qualifications listed, I typically recommend the 60/70 rule. That is, if you have between 60% and 70% of the qualifications, go ahead and apply. I was on a search committee a few years ago that included 22 separate qualifications. It was impossible for me to keep things straight from application to application. Additionally, it was very clear that we all had slightly differing opinions about which of the 22 qualifications were most important.

5. Contact the source if you have genuine, legitimate questions about the job announcement. This is getting increasingly difficult to do. The Web has become a giant buffer around recruiters and hiring managers, so good luck in actually talking with someone. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no law or rule that forbids a candidate to ask questions clarifying a job announcement. So, if an email address is all you can get, then send questions via email. Be advised, however, that there is also no rule forbids a recruiter to be rude to people who ask questions. J/K. Even when they turn down your request, most HR folks are polite about it.

The most important thing.
One of my favorite quotes is from Kurt Vonnegut.
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
I can't tell you how often that my counselors and I hear a student say something like, "I want to be sure that my resume matches their job perfectly." I understand this and, to some degree, we have created it. We tell students and job aspirants to be mindful about tweaking their resumes and cover letters to address the needs that employers appear to have. We seldom think about the impact our words are having as we create a world in which employers have highly specific requirements and they are eliminating the unqualified from their candidate pools with surgical precision. That is simply not the case.

Most employers want employees who are capable, dependable, articulate, and persistent. I think that the reason that they like college graduates is because higher education is one of the most chaotic, disorganized, out-of-touch environments on the planet. Anyone who can manage to complete a degree, whether in four, five, or nine years deserved to be considered for any job out there. Employers want employees with whom they can comfortably converse. They are looking for candidates who understand when team cooperation is necessary and when acting on one's initiative is ticket to success. Employers want us to be comfortable being ourselves. If we have to pretend to be someone to be successful on the job, then a good employer wants us to like who we pretend to be.

In the long run, being ourselves is the surest way of finding out what an employer wants.


  1. I really like this advice. Well said.

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