Hunting the Five-Pound Butterfly

(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.

8 thoughts on “Hunting the Five-Pound Butterfly”

  1. Even better, I sometimes see advertisements where they require five years in the same job they’re looking to fill. My take is this: if your ideal candidate has just spent five years in the same position without getting promoted, and is looking to make a lateral move, what do you think you’re going to get? My guess is that you’re going to take a problem off someone else’s hands.

  2. As an engineer, I’ve even seen ads asking for five years experience in something that was invented two years ago…

  3. i suspect this has led to an explosion of lying on resumes. ironic if so, because then companies will be getting neither the experience they think they need, nor the all around good qualities that are even more important.

  4. The first job board that succeeds in presenting candidates in ways that go beyond the checklist will reap enormous rewards. I suspect that this issue will get ironed out as bandwidth costs drop and we move to alternate resumes that are more than just a checklist.

  5. The system is stupid. Partly this is a defense against litigation. Partly it’s because of the limits of current computerized-search technology as it applies to job boards. I think also that a lot of it is due to the general low quality of the people who are hired to work in HR departments. And a lot of it is due to the difficulty of predicting who will do well in any particular high-end job.

    If you are unable to predict who will do well, but you need to screen a large population of applicants, many of whom are probably qualified, the easiest course of action is to 1) require more credentials and 2) only consider applicants who have experience in the same (or a closely similar) position as the one you are trying to fill. Doing it in this way arbitrarily screens out a lot of qualified prospects, and that makes HR’s job easier. It may take a long time but eventually HR will find someone who fits, and the overdone screening procedures provide an appearance of due diligence that will insulate HR to some degree from being blamed for any unsuccessful hires. (Never mind any costs the company bears by not filling important positions in a timely way.)

    How do we know that I’m right? Easy. Look at the industry of authors, coaches, seminar givers, consultants, columnists, etc. — all focused on teaching job applicants how to bypass HR departments and otherwise game the system to gain fair consideration of their abilities. If the system worked well, the best course of action for qualified job seekers would be to approach HR directly. Currently, in many cases, this is only a good course of action for a small subset of qualified applicants who happen to have the right mix of arbitrary credentials.

  6. I’ve seen ads for “entry-level” positions that require specific experience.

    On the other hand, the company I work for used to hire actual entry-level lab people who would be trained for a couple of months and then put on a shift by themselves. Bad idea for many reasons, including safety. When I signed on I refused to do that.

  7. “due diligence that will insulate HR to some degree from being blamed for any unsuccessful hires”

    When has an HR department ever been blamed or otherwise held responsible for unsuccessful hires? In fact, when has there ever been a concession or admission that a given hire was unsuccessful? I think human organizations are incapable of that degree of candor.

  8. I once scored a few points below the minimum score required by a prospective employer on a computerized MS Word test. I also typed a bit slower and remarked to the job recruiter at my employment agency, “You know, this list is like a teen girl’s idea of the perfect man.” We both had a good laugh. Point was, I knew I could do the job but because I didn’t meet the rigorous standards list, didn’t even get an interview; despite the fact that I had the experience needed and a B.A. in English. Sigh…

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