Thursday, May 13, 2010

Economy: Flexibility Key to Hiring--Right

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Sometimes, there is little to do except at laugh at employment columns in trade magazines. It's hard to blame reporters when they write things that are completely contrary to my experience in industry and those of the peers with whom I network. All the reporter can do is interview people in industry--and those that are allowed to talk will say what their employers want everyone to believe. In many cases, the leadership of those companies might well believe what they are telling their spokespeople to say, even when the reality down in the ranks of their company is different.

The one that really floored me recently was when Chemical & Engineering News focused an entire article around the concept of flexibility as a key to finding a role in the biotechnology industry. "Candidates who have [core skills] coupled with strong communication, information technology, or leadership skills, along with an affinity for teamwork 'may actually find themselves in a power position.'" Yeah, right.

Talk to most recruiters these days--certainly the ones that I talk to--and you'll get a very different story. Rather than hiring flexible employees with broad skills that can adjust to new roles as business needs change, companies these days let go of old employees and hire new ones with previous experience in the new needed areas. With so many unemployed people and a healthy recruiting industry, the new expert can be found quickly and it's actually considered the most cost-effective way of proceeding. The "old way of thinking" is expunged from the company, which is perceived as having more intangible value than people who understand where the business has been.

Granted, recruiters are most often retained by companies that want to fill a hard-to-find niche, but they are also retained to find talent, period. One of my favorite recruiters knows that I am perhaps the quintessential twenty-first century-style Renaissance worker, able to move in to fill "white spaces" in technology companies and get things done. Of the dozens of jobs related to the field in which I used to work that he has seen in the past year, only one employer would even entertain talking to "a talented generalist" at the phone screen stage. This is a job market all about experience, not about flexibility or the ability to learn and adapt. In an extreme case, I am aware of one employer that was so dead-set on finding someone with the absolutely perfect background with about six elements involved--I had four or five, depending on interpretation--that the position stayed open for more than six months, and apparently was still unfilled when a radical corporate restructuring took place.

It's not just me. The people I know that have changed positions during the recession have mostly done so on the strength of specific experience, the only exceptions being those who have started their own businesses. I can cite at least two other very flexible workers that I know who want to change positions but cannot get interviews and are effectively stuck with their present employers.

Interestingly, the Chemical and Engineering News article didn't miss this reality entirely, but just seemed to misplace its emphasis. A key "flexible" candidate they highlighted was described by her new employer as having the "correct technical background" (read "experience"). They note that "there's no substitute for technical excellence." They seem to use every euphemism for experience except the word itself.

Don't be misled by the rhetoric. Being flexible is not an asset in today's job market; being specialized in a hot niche is an asset. It's all about experience, and I really feel sorry for recent graduates who have none at all.

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