(This is an old Photon Courier post which I dug out in responding to a post about skill shortages in manufacturing and thought might be of interest to the Chicago Boyz readership.)
The Wall Street Journal (11/16/05) covers the growing tendency of companies to do hiring based on a long string of highly-specific requirements. The article deals specifically with engineering jobs, but the same trend can be seen–though maybe not quite to the same level–in other fields, such as marketing and sales.
A couple of examples: A company that makes automobile bumper parts was looking for a shift supervisor at a plant in Pennsylvania. They eliminated all candidates who didn’t have a BS degree, even though many had relevant experience. They also insisted on experience with the specific manufacturing software that was in use at the plant. Although the job came open in February, the woman who finally got the job wasn’t selected until August. That’s six months.
Wabtec, which makes components for railcars and buses, needed a mechanical engineer. They wanted a BS and appropriate work experience; they also wanted experience with a computer-aided design system called Pro/Engineer. And they would only consider candidates who had experience with Pro/Engineer Wildfire, not an earlier version of the software which was called 2000i. “The basic difference between Wildfire and 2000i is not that significant,” says Mike Sylvester, VP at the recruiting firm that handled the search. “I say smart people can learn sister applications, but there is a reluctance among hiring managers to see that. If they use a SAP database system, they won’t even look at someone with experience with a PeopleSoft system. There is a major fear of having to bring someone up a learning curve. They want them to hit the ground running.”
Wabtec’s HR VP says that the company usually specifies jobs more broadly, and is willing to train new employees, but that in some cases “you get in a jam where someone left and we have a very specific search.” Maybe so. But I suspect that if a newly-hired mechanical engineer doesn’t work out, or does less than a stellar job, the cause will usually not be his lack of experience with the latest version of a CAD system. More likely, it will be a lack of good design intuition…or poor interpersonal skills…or an inability to integrate mechanical design with electrical and electronics aspects of the same product…or fit with the cultural style of the organization. Maybe he comes from an environment where he was closely supervised, and the new environment is more open and requires more self-starting…or vice versa. These things are not easily represented in “checklist” form, as is knowledge of a specific software package and version, but they matter a lot.
Mike Sylvester says that there’s a lot of this sort of thing going on. He was asked to find an engineer to oversee a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system at a hospital. “A pump is a pump and a duct is a duct, but they wouldn’t even look at candidates who had HVAC experience in a mill instead of a hospital,” he says.
The WSJ article blames much of the claimed “shortage” of engineers on such overly-specific hiring requirements. “Companies are looking for a five-pound butterfly. Not finding them doesn’t mean there is a shortage of butterflies,” says Richard Tax of the American Engineering Association.
The article doesn’t mention it, but the same kind of excessive specificity in hiring is also happening in fields other than engineering. I’m quite sure that there are talented salespeople who won’t be hired this week because of a lack of experience with some particular sales automation or customer resources management system…representing knowledge that they could have easily picked up during their first couple of weeks on the job.
And for the employer, this kind of thing has real costs. It’s a basic reality of life that you can’t optimize everything at once. So, if you insist on a perfect fit for certain things, you are probably getting less of some other attributes–and these may be ones that matter more. I’d personally rather have a salesman who has demonstrated (for example) skill at managing the customer politics in a large and complex sale than one who has specific experience with the Snarkolator CRM system. It’s a lot easier to train for the second than for the first.
Why this increased focus on “checklist” items? The WSJ article blames it largely on Internet job boards, which encourage a flood of resumes and enable the use of keyword screening as a means of coping with that flood. That’s certainly part of it. I also think that fear of litigation has led hiring managers to focus on more “objective” criteria and less on intuition, and that this tendency has now been internalized to the point that people do it without even understanding why they do it.
But I think there’s something else, too. Our society has focused so much on the importance of education and training that we have to some extent lost sight of just how much people can learn on their own. Human beings are not some kind of special-purpose machine that is manufactured with a fixed program and can’t do anything else without going back to the factory for rewiring, and too many people seem to treat them as if they are.
To further develop Richard Tax’s analogy: There are many beautiful butterflies in the world, and success in hiring will go to those who develop an astute appreciation of butterly beauty. It’s not easy, and it can’t be learned entirely from books–but it’s very worthwhile.