For years, there’s been a big divide between the kind of people companies want to hire and the kind of people they see when they announce the opening. It’s always a surprise when jobseekers who have worked hard for years to accumulate skills and credentials lose out repeatedly to one of hundreds of other applicants. Likewise, the response to ads is a big surprise to the manager who wrote up the position description, because he or she doesn’t find a waiting stream of people with her exact requirements.
As a friend recently told me, “The CVs I am getting just don’t appear to fit my open position. I thought with this economy the way it is that I would be seeing candidates who have the background and experience we are looking for.”
What is going on? It isn’t just the bad economy. Employers have always complained about what they see when they start looking for well-qualified technical professionals. (Not that I want to protest too loudly . . . this does create a revenue stream for third-party providers like me who get hired to fill those positions.) I’ve got to tell you, the divide between employers’ “wants” and candidates’ “haves” is real, and it’s growing larger.
In this issue’s column, I’d like to dissect this issue from both the candidates’ and employers’ perspectives. Just why do companies still have a hard time finding their ideal candidates, despite the near-record number of people in the market?
A Definition of “Pinpoint Hiring”
Two decades ago, you’d occasionally see a job ad from a company in Science or another journal, but such ads were rare. What I remember most about them was their simplicity.
I especially remember the first recruitment ads run by one of the big biotech companies after it went public. The requirements listed were minimal because at the time it was hard to get someone who aspired to be a professor to move over to the dark side. Those ads went something like this: “Ph.D. Cell Biologist needed for growing biotechnology company.”
That was it. No long list of skills, techniques, and special requirements.
A few of those aspiring professors took the gamble: They dropped out of the usual career track, became pioneers, and in many cases went on to become senior managers. Some of them tapped their stock options and became the wealthy venture capitalists we see today investing in small companies. And when they knocked at the door, these pioneers weren’t quizzed about a long list of job requirements — they were brought up to speed by on-the-job training.
Eventually, as those pioneers became hiring managers themselves, they began to “tighten up the specs.” (That’s Human Resources -speak.) We started seeing phrases in the ads calling for particular skills: “a Ph.D. Cell Biologist with experience in CHO cell line development needed for growing biotechnology company.” Later still, this became “Ph.D. Cell Biologist with experience in CHO cell line development in bioreactors needed . . .” A decade later, it mutated into “Ph.D. Cell Biologist with experience in CHO cell line development, experience with bioreactors larger than 200 liters, and a thorough understanding of serum-free cell-culture media.”
You get the point. Today, employers are no longer looking for a great brain and a world of potential. They’re looking for that one CV that lists the skills they need right now — not after six months of training. I call this phenomenon “pinpoint-hiring.”
To the candidate, pinpoint hiring is frustrating. It fragments the job market and makes it appear that there are really very few open positions with one’s specific skill set; because the job requirements all show a laundry list of skills and techniques required, the chances of an actual match are low.
To the employer, recruitment advertising has transitioned into pinpoint hiring because there is no time to train, no time to hire someone with “potential” . . . the push is on for each and every hire to fit into an existing spot on the team, where the new employee is expected to come on board two weeks from Monday and contribute immediately.
Focus On Core Talent and Recognize the Ability To Learn
“The easy answer for hiring managers in industry is to look for people who have a very specific experience. They rise to the top of that stack of CVs,” says Kevin Foley, director of Translational Biology at GlaxoSmithKline. He admits that those without the requisite list of experiences sometimes don’t even get reviewed.
Dr. Foley and I both contribute regularly to the AAAS Science Careers Discussion Forum, where career counselors and industry experts mentor young scientists. There, we learn that many of the problems young people have in getting their first job has to do with that difference between their academic training and what is expected by employers.
“There’s a disconnect between academic research and industry research,” Dr. Foley told me. “The two don’t fit together well. Lack of experience is the problem. You can get all the way to a Ph.D. and then realize you don’t have marketable experience.”
As we spoke, I realized that for every discipline there are three or four hot areas that appeal to hiring managers. In microbiology, perhaps it’s microbial physiology that allows you to hit the “pinpoint” of some employer’s interest. In biochemistry it may be protein folding. In chemical engineering it is most certainly bioprocessing, and in pharmacology it’s animal models, at least according to Dr. Foley, who hires in that area regularly.
Pinpoint hiring may start with the need to find someone to contribute with an exact set of skills — right away — but at the center of that pinpoint lies that one, core area of expertise. Applicants for jobs in today’s market must have that key ingredient (different for every position) but I believe that it is a strategic error for employers to extend this requirement into a long list of must-have’s.
After many years of completing searches with tighter and tighter job specifications, have I found that this evolution has benefited the employer? Not at all! Sometimes the best hires have been candidates who came in a bit off-the-mark, but with exceptional brain power, creativity and drive.
Yes, finding a candidate to fill a position who has every one of your eight key ingredients is a blessing, and I would never suggest otherwise. But in many niches, employers can look for that needle-in-a-haystack for eight months before finally accepting something less than anticipated. Mean-while, the company could have improved their productivity dramatically by hiring someone with a solid core who could learn a few of the sideline areas “on the job.”
How To Manage a Job Search In a “Pinpoint-Hiring” Market?
If you’re out there now thinking about a move, remember that companies want to hire you for what you are doing today. That conflicts with what the job-seeker looks for; typically, a new set of challenges is anticipated in addition to that change in venue.
That’s why it’s very possible that when you look at recruitment ads you won’t have all the specifics the employer is looking for in the specs. If this is the case, remember that employers do indeed have a tough time filling all the requirements of their open positions. So they prioritize, just as you’d expect.
This means that if you have generally 60-70% or more of what they are looking for, you’ll be in relatively good shape, perhaps earning a screening interview from H/R or the hiring manager. Use that 60-70% guideline in determining when to apply to an obvious “pinpoint” ad.
David G. Jensen is Managing Director of Kincannon & Reed Executive Search (www.krsearch.com), a leading retained search firm in the biosciences. You can reach Dave at (928) 274-2266 or via email@example.com.