During a tough job market, it is not uncommon to find two extreme versions of propaganda. On one hand, we might read about the absence of any jobs, and on the other hand, we might find academic institutions promising paths to riches by obtaining a degree or the latest certification in underwater basket weaving. Each scenario gives job seekers something to hang on to: hopelessness or a vision. Neither extreme is accurate; the problem lies in that each statement is believable and may be taken at face value, with very little questioning about the relevance of the statement to any particular person’s circumstance. There are several other factors to be taken into account.
Relying on certifications as a measurement of value
As an example, an MBA degree might be an attractive addition to someone’s calling card, but if the person truly doesn’t have an understanding of the business needs of the employers they are pursuing, the assumption that the MBA adds value tends to be off target. A dressed-up resume may allow some people to talk their way into a role that superficially looks like a match, but they can easily end up being in over their head.
So, what happens when people are not realistic about their capabilities or performance? After a running start, the candidate may find themselves unemployed again when their true applicable knowledge and skill level are recognized by the employer. When it turns out someone is not performing as anticipated or desired, some employers take an easy way out. The underlying issue isn’t necessarily visible because the employer may be reluctant to go through the process of documenting performance or coaching. In some cases, it is much easier to group someone into a “layoff” scenario, simply to avoid the work involved in removing them through performance coaching and documentation.
In my experience, the number of times I encounter a situation where the person has a greater perception of their capabilities than a position warrants and subsequently loses their job occurs about as frequently as I hear someone complain they have been unemployed for an extended period because there are no jobs. The similarity in these situations is that each represents an unrealistic expectation about the marketplace for particular skills or the availability of dream jobs that match desired criteria.
It’s important to recognize the difference between a “challenge” and “in over your head.” It may mean one thing to the candidate and yet another to an employer who has clearly defined expectations of the outcomes they desire. It gets even more complicated when the employer has not clearly defined his expectations and the candidate has no real understanding of the role and is left to intuit their way through. To ensure the highest probability of success, it is critical for candidates to understand the business goals of the organization and where their role contributes to the organization’s mission and objectives. On the flip side, for an employer to ensure their resources are being used to the fullest, it is extremely critical to set clearly defined expectations.
Relying on passive job search or passive recruiting methods
Many candidates using a passive search process will miss out on learning what is needed before they enter into a situation. Job descriptions may describe functions but not necessarily goals. In order to fully grasp what they are getting into, candidates need to conduct extensive research and talk to insiders to get a real-life perspective of the overall market, a particular industry, or a particular organization. With this preparation, they are much more likely to gauge the value or return on investment (ROI) of certifications or extended education. Through strong relationships and an internal connection who is willing to speak to the overall skills someone brings to the party, it is more likely a person will be able to apply a newly acquired degree or certification without an exact match to stated job requirements. Employers who encourage employee referrals are much more likely to open the doors to people who share the organization’s vision and are a fit with the culture when candidates have existing relationships with top producers who have demonstrated as much.
On the flip side, hiring managers who rely only on the identification of key words, certifications and degrees as a measure of value may be unpleasantly surprised by poor performance later. It is critical to develop sound questions to be able to assess someone’s ability to do the job, and to do the job the way the employer wants the job done. It’s amazing how many times people are still hired on assumptions.
Being behind the curve when needs change
Another hurdle for a candidate to face is when an industry, organization, or a hiring manager’s expectations change due to changing business needs. This situation arises when the candidate is seeking employment, or it can happen after they are hired. Either way, if someone is unable to quickly change priorities to address business needs and immediate opportunities, they will be left on the sidelines. Regardless of how hot the job market is, or how hot the newest certification program or designation is, if a candidate is not flexing with the underlying business need, will be left behind.
In a slow job market, it is even more critical to recognize that what you want right now may not be attainable immediately or as planned. It might require a different strategy or short-term concessions and, most importantly, the flexibility to do what it takes to get on track. Building in the time to develop connections and hands-on experience may allow for a greater ROI from new certifications/degrees in the long run. It is also critical to stay on top of changing needs to make sure what you offer is still considered of value as you move forward.
The internet is seductive. It is so much easier to believe it holds the answers to life’s mysteries, than to imagine what it would be like without it. Granted, it really does hold a HUGE amount of information, but it still cannot replace our feelings, values or perceptions of what we hold dear. You might be thinking: what in the world does this have to do with business? And I would have to say: almost everything.
Whether you are looking for candidates, employers or service providers, making assumptions about their ability to fill a need can get you in hot water if those assumptions are not checked out. Trusting the words without evidence can backfire. Leveraging established relationships with trusted resources can help point a candidate to the right company, an employer to the properly skilled and personality matched candidate and a customer to the right service provider. In order for the recipe to work, each source needs to be accurate about their skills or needs and stop relying on “key words” as the answer.
Relying solely on information and processes devoid of real human connections tends to leave us at a disadvantage when we are attempting to build relationships. Although the written word can explain a great deal, proof comes from observable action. It is the evidence of consistent behavior that builds trust in relationships. Being able to thoroughly articulate skills/abilities, then substantiating them with evidence goes much further than using “key words” or SEO to get someone’s attention.
Candidates that are unclear about their direction or are unable to articulate their value accurately may end up in roles that are a complete mismatch. Likewise, employers that inaccurately or incompletely describe the roles they need to fill may end up wasting considerable time trying to identify the correct solution. A company that describes a culture that is contrary to what people actually experience is another source of potential conflict. The internet can provide a vehicle, but passively using it as the destination without digging for input from real, live people can lead to huge wastes of time and resources.
Although a profile can present descriptions of a person’s competence or skills, and a website can expound on an organization’s culture, learning about real life perceptions of a situation or actions requires a conversation. The proof of the pudding comes from people that have engaged with the person or business in question. It requires advance research over time, not a click and a quick connection. Passing on referrals or chasing job postings because “key words” sound familiar is insufficient. To thoroughly understand the needs of all parties and make real matches requires more thoughtful evaluation; otherwise it ends up the same as throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.
If you have been engaged in a passive search (mining databases for job postings), or if you are a recruiter relying on databases to solve your staffing needs, or if you have a business and are trying to find the right customers, it might be time to take a different course:
- Try asking tough questions of hiring managers, team members and customers to learn what’s really under the surface before you proceed. Find out where the real pain is generating from.
- Get out and talk to people, or should I say, listen to people. Networking is more than schmoozing. Prepare thoughtful questions to ask people at networking events.
- Show interest and concern. It isn’t all about you.
- Pay attention to what people/companies need before you ask for something or try to “sell” something.
- Help others. Find ways to pay it forward.
If you have received a job announcement from a recruiter that had nothing to do with your skill set, a resume from a candidate with few skills related to your needs, or spam from a business offering a service that you nor anyone in your network would be interested in buying in a million years, then I think you know what I am talking about.
Tell them to stop throwing spaghetti at the wall.
Unemployment is the product of a recession, not the cause of it. Unemployment numbers will continue to climb long after the official start of a recession, and typically will take considerable time to correct after the official end of a recession. The very simple and short explanation is that this recession dropped further down than past recessions, and consequently, the correction will take longer. I am not pretending to be an economist or an analyst, but I think these statistics are pretty widely known and accepted.
A deeper issue to examine after the end of a recession is what happens to employment numbers when people who have accepted roles that were less than their former roles (underemployed as opposed to unemployed) make no attempt to plan their way back through their own efforts, and assume the change in the economy will ultimately fix everything. The assumption is that life will get back to “normal” (whatever that is) by magic after the declaration of the end of a recession. The job they took as a barista to “get by” will no longer be necessary and the “good” jobs will open up again.
There is an inherent problem when people won’t take jobs that pay less than what they receive on unemployment without considering the skills they could gain or the contacts they could make to position themselves for the future. They often wait for their dream job to mysteriously appear, and when it doesn’t, they then may accept any job out of shear desperation. Without a plan for how they will get back to where they need to be, the cycle is likely to be repeated. My prediction is that many will find a way to leave these lower level jobs once they earn enough hours to claim unemployment benefits again, assuming it will be easy to find something better. I also predict that unemployment numbers will continue to stay high because the change in the market has been more than just the dip in the economy (production).
The way of doing business has changed in the same span of time the market has fallen. We may be gaining jobs, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to “less competition”, as one might believe. People who assume they will “get back to normal” may be completely out of touch with the new skills required to do their old jobs, or similar jobs, making them less competitive than they are now. The newly trained may also find themselves at the back of the line if they are not currently interning or actively planning their move back into the workplace through networking and research.
In the past many months, as I see money invested in retraining, I am not seeing a decline in competition for the “good” jobs. It appears to me that the number of people missing the experience and practical skills needed to be competitive for the good jobs is staying the same as it was in the middle of the recession. In contrast, those people who took jobs more closely related to their experience, or jobs in lower positions, but in line with what they aspire to do with the intent of growing, are already positioned to get fully back on their feet. People with new skills in a new industry or job function, without prior experience, will often be viewed as having an “entry level” skill set. They may also be faced with the contradiction of appearing “over qualified” due the person’s apparent age and number of years of employment. Unless a dedicated plan is put in place to connect a person to their target roles/companies during the time they are retraining, it is very likely they will be in the same position as they were prior to the retraining.
For those of you who are still struggling to get on track, here are some tips for getting started:
1. Research - Find out what industries are growing, what companies are hiring, and what skills are needed. Investigate work options that may allow you to enter your field in a lower/different position than what your goal is. Learn who you need to know to get a foot in the door in your target organizations and how you can meet them. Identify the contacts you have that can be of assistance in making introductions. Note: this needs to be happening long before you actually discover a position you want to apply for.
2. Assess your status - Learn how far off you are from being competitive in your chosen field or role. Identify what you already have (skills, experience, connections) and what you need to have to be competitive, and chose the path that will most likely lead you to employment in your field. If you are currently working in an unrelated job, identify what you can take away from the experience to add to your value in your chosen field.
3. Plan a course of action - If you are unemployed or underemployed and there is no value to be gained by staying where you are, then it is time to take action to get on the right path. Develop a plan with measurable goals, objectives and timelines for getting you where you want to be. Be realistic about the amount of time it will take to accomplish each objective, and set realistic time frames for larger goals.
4. Develop your network- See #1. Your network needs to be developed before you spot specific positions you are interested in pursuing. By showing genuine interest in advance, developing relationships and forming trusting bonds before you need them, you are much more likely to be referred and highly considered for roles that might be a stretch if you remain an unknown.
5. Don’t give up- Sometimes it is hard to see the forest through the trees. Progression towards a “Plan A” job may not be fast or easily visible. It takes persistence, patience and flexibility. I can assure you that if you stay focused, dedicate the necessary time to work your plan and adjust your goals as needed to respond to market changes, you can find meaningful and satisfying work in spite of a slow economy.
If you are currently under employed and moving towards your target role, please briefly share your thoughts about why you have chosen the path you are on or your strategy for getting where you want to be.