5 thoughts on “Against Credentialism”

  1. When my wife went out looking for jobs after grad school, she had a miserable time… she’d taken a year off and worked at a thrift store (which was really good for her) and then applied to a whole host of local tech firms. She applied to the whole range of jobs, from $10/hour tech support at ISPs to salaried ($40-50K) software design for amazon.com, and never heard back from a single one of them. I think two things hurt her in the search: first, she’d taken a year off and therefore wasn’t “fresh out of school”, so she didn’t fit into some people’s narrow expectation of “graduated this year”, and second, she didn’t have industry software experience. She’d done a lot of programming on her own, but hadn’t worked on any actual software development programs, especially not using the specific tools those companies were using.

    After a while, a childhood friend who’d moved to the area and was working on software for Boeing suggested she should apply there. Within a month, she had two programs asking her to choose between them because both wanted to hire her. They saw that she had a masters in math and interest in programming and they were willing to bring her up to speed on the specific things they worked on. Instead of looking for someone who met a super-specific mold like “has 2 years experience with this specific software package and 3 years experience with this type of management”, they looked for people who showed the general attributes that make for good software developers, and were willing to spend a little time training her on the specifics they needed.

    The program that hired her has gotten its money’s worth and then some. My wife is an excellent researcher, and has quickly become her team’s expert on a number of very technical subjects. Had they been looking for someone who already had that expertise, they’d have been looking for an awful long time. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the companies that turned her down are still looking, or settled for someone far less capable.

    IMO, the original post is right on — far too many companies have very specific expectations for the people they hire. They’re looking for people who’ve trained on someone else’s dime who can plug right in to the program, rather than looking for people who will take a little while to come up to speed but will be significantly better in the long run.

    In their defense, with the advent of the internet, the hiring pool is much larger, so they can target people with much more specific experience. If I need someone with experience in 3 specific systems, I can use one of the huge internet job boards to find someone who has that experience quite easily, whereas in the past I’d have had to settle for whoever saw my ad in the paper and happened to have experience in one of the 3 systems.

    One additional point: I think a lot of companies look for very specific training, not because they think people are like machines and unable to learn on their own, but because they know people switch careers pretty often. They don’t want to hire someone and spend 6 months training them only to have them leave in month 7. They want people who are already trained because they don’t want to dump resources into training someone who’ll never contribute.

    As a possible future employee, one thing I (or many others) can do to ease a company’s worries over that scenario is offer to work as an unpaid intern for a short period (say, 3-6 weeks) before officially hiring on. This moves the break-even point back significantly for the company — they need to invest fewer resources in me initially, and they should have a great idea of how I’ll perform before they’ve ever given me a paycheck. This won’t work with all companies, but there are some where the break-even point is their main consideration (especially engineering, and doubly especially software) and this sort of offer changes the dynamics with them quite a bit.

  2. As a small business owner I am often amazed at many practices in large corporations. The hiring process is one. I always look for honesty and work ethic when hiring my sales force – I can and will take care of the rest. I sincerely believe that you can take a good salesman from, say the pharmaceutical field and train them to sell locomotive parts. Sales is sales. What they are selling is secondary.

  3. Thanks to Monster.com the number of applicants has skyrocketed. The old, human intuition-based filters that worked for 5-20 applicants did not scale. Naturally the HR managers lept on to the first thing they thought of (credentials). The filters will improve with time, but it will have to start with someone thinking to ask applicans the right kind of questions.

    Monster.com could probably be improved by looking at dating sites; and then asking the HR people specific, less open-ended questions about what they’re looking for. The job sites need to become specialists not just in listing, but in eliciting exactly what both applicants and HR managers are looking for in that ‘perfect match.’ Jobs are primarily relationships.

  4. A lot of creditialism springs from CYA on the part of companies both for internal and external accountability.

    Internally, individuals need some kind of idiot metric to justify hires to superiors who lack the specialist knowledge to know whether an individual is competent in a particular field without the metric. Externally, companies need to prove that they have no biases in hiring so they use credentials as a means of justifying why they hired who the did. As long as they hire in the same ratios of applicants who meet the pre-stated qualifications, they are largely safe.

  5. I saw the original WSJ article and it definately hits on a problem. In tech, hiring managers more often than not do not understand the credentials of their own employees. For instance, I’ve lost count of the number of postings on monster.com that are looking for a Cisco engineer with “CCNA, and CCNP”.. the CCNA is a prerequisite for the CCNP, and the lack of knowledge of this elementary fact, and the idea that my career might be placed in the hands of someone with that little familiarity with my credentials, makes me shudder. Indeed, I contend (and the article implies, I think) that many hiring managers do not even know for what they are asking. And as our workforce becomes ever more knowledge-based and specialized, the problem is only going to get worse.

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