The Problem Might Not Be the Hiring Manager. It Might Be You.

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Amber E. N. Jacobs/ReleasedYour talent acquisition team has been tasked with finding someone to fill a tough, high-profile, technical hiring need in engineering or science or information technology. The position is open for a while and your company’s senior leadership is getting nervous because the skill set is urgently needed on a mission-critical project.

Qualified candidates aren’t applying. Significant man-hours are being put into sourcing and recruiting for the role. Finally, an interested candidate is identified whose resume looks promising. She does well on her initial phone screen and is brought in for an interview. Things look good but then comes the hiring manager’s feedback.

“She is close but not quite right technically” or “she has 70 percent of what we need technically but she is missing …” At this point, the hiring manager lists several specific technical skills that the candidate is lacking. Frustrating, right? The first reaction is often to push back and make the case for hiring the candidate anyway and then training them on the missing 30 percent. Maybe you even try to sell executive leadership on making an offer.

We all know that hiring managers can be too picky. There are a lot of people (like Peter Cappelli at Wharton) out there making the case that companies should put more emphasis on training and less on experience (sometimes called the “perfect-candidate” problem). This is doubtlessly true in many cases (Peter Cappelli uses a great example of a cotton candy machine operator job that required previous cotton candy machine experience).

So, going back to my example, it shouldn’t take that long to get someone up to speed on the missing 30 percent, right? Why not go ahead and make the hire? This kind of thinking can be a mistake. The problem often isn’t a hiring manager who is too picky; it’s HR underestimating just how long and steep the learning curve for many technical skills has become. Part of this is related to the usually incorrect assumption that, because many technologies are rapidly getting more and more end-user friendly, the tools and knowledge needed to build them must also be getting easier to master. However, in more cases than not, the opposite is true.

Almost all areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have become more specialized and more complex over the past few decades. This increased specialization and complexity has made learning curves longer and more difficult to master. Biotechnology, control systems, medical device design, propulsion technologies, photonics, antenna design, fluid dynamics, machine learning, signal processing, etc.

The list just goes on and on and on of STEM-oriented disciplines that have grown much more complex and where subject matter expertise has necessarily become more specialized and specific. And you don’t have to dive too deeply into the world of engineering and science to see what I’m talking about. Just look at the computers we all use for work and entertainment.

When I started programming computers in the mid-1980s, most business programs for PCs were written by very small teams or even individuals. Same thing for video games (one person would often do everything from the design to programming to sound, etc.) By 2000, because of increased processing power and, thus, increased complexity, building a game took a whole team and cost up to 4 million dollars. These days, multiplatform games average between $18 and $28 million to develop with headline games often running over $40 million. Why? Because you need lots of people with very specialized skill sets. Skill sets that take a long time to learn and master.

Look at almost any STEM-related business (there are a few exceptions) and you will see the same thing. Higher levels of performance (and ease-of-use is a factor of performance) means greater complexity behind the scenes and requires more specialized and difficult skill sets.

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To go back to my example, how long could it take to fill in that missing 30 percent? Years. In some cases, many years.

It’s strange that recruiters generally intuitively understand this when it comes to some skill sets but badly misjudge the learning curve when it comes to others. For instance, when a large medical practice tasks their talent acquisition department with finding a top-tier cardiologist, how many recruiters would try to make the case that they should hire a neurologist (because that’s what is available) and then train that neurologist in cardiology? Absurd proposition, right? But neurologists and cardiologists have very similar academic backgrounds when it comes to their four years of medical school (their undergrad backgrounds are also going to have a lot in common).

The differences in specialized areas of, say, electrical engineering can be much, much greater. And the “real-world” learning curves for many engineers, scientists, and technologists can be significantly longer than in medicine. So, from a business perspective, hiring the “70 percent candidate” can be a big mistake when it comes to STEM work. Instead, more energy should be put into finding a better candidate.

Yes, hiring managers can be too choosey. And there are technical exceptions to my above points (for instance, frameworks like Rails that are designed to have speedy learning curves). Particularly when it comes to hiring entry-level STEM employees, the important thing is having good material to work with (smart, motivated, etc.) Organizations shouldn’t be looking for a perfect fit when it comes to early career hires. But a lot of what I hear recruiters say makes me wince because they so often underestimate just what is involved in learning a particular skill or subset of a technical discipline.

The same is true when it comes to all the talk about not posting job requisitions that focus on very specialized skills or knowledge qualifiers. The move to “generalized” job descriptions that are written from an employer marketing perspective is great, unless your organization actually needs a specific skill set. Then, from both a practical and compliance perspective, it makes sense to be specific in your description. A laundry list of technical requirements will not replace J.K. Rowling on anyone’s late night reading list and your marketing department might prefer a different approach. But if line management requires specific skills to build a product or complete a project, then these skills should be included as position requirements. What is needed is needed.

So how does a talent acquisition professional know when a STEM hiring manager is being too picky versus when they are just being sensible? By having some idea of what is involved in what they are recruiting for, or by partnering with someone outside the stakeholders who understands what is involved. Too many recruiters just throw around the buzzwords without having any sense for the depth of what those buzzwords represent. For STEM recruiters who like to learn, this is good news. STEM recruiters should always be learning more and more about the skills they are recruiting for. And the best ones will enjoy doing so. For those who don’t like learning, maybe they should consider recruiting in a different area. After all, there are cotton-candy machine jobs that need filling.

Doug Friedman has corporate, agency, and vendor experience in recruiting, sourcing, employer marketing, and full lifecycle recruiting software development. He is currently a partner in EngineeringReferral.com, a web based recruiting tool designed to eliminate the need for companies to pay agency fees for engineering and IT employees, and he consults on a variety of technical recruiting and crowdsourcing projects.

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8 Comments on “The Problem Might Not Be the Hiring Manager. It Might Be You.

  1. Great article. I completely agree. It goes back to the round peg, square hole mentality. You may eventually get it to fit, but it will never be the perfect fit. And while the individual ultimately placed may not be that perfect fit, considering the specifics of the 30% is what’s most important. Defining your must-haves and preferred qualifications is a great start. Understanding the position needs is critical. Knowing what your hiring managers needs are is obvioulsy important. Rather than sell a less-than-qualified individual who may never be able to meet the need is costly and does not bode well for your abilities and how you are perceived by your hiring managers. Identify the skills your candidate is lacking and make an honest assessment of how they can or won’t be successful.

    1. Thank you. Your point about clearly defining what is a necessary skill versus a desired skill is a great one that should have been included in my article. Clearly understanding those distinctions up-front, as well as understanding just how quickly your organization needs the person who gets the job to be “fully operational”, is essential to getting the search process off on a good footing right from the beginning.

      Doug Friedman
      EngineeringReferral.com
      LinkedIn Profile

  2. Good article, it’s an important distinction to make. I think many recruiters are so overwhelmed with Perfect Candidate requests that are of the picky variety that they begin to assume this is the case in all such requests, when that’s not necessarily the case. Seeking some understanding of the skills outside the HM/Recruiter context to get an idea of the training and learning curve issues is a good idea.

    1. Thank you. You make a good point. It’s certainly true that recruiters can feel overwhelmed by unrealistic “perfect candidate” requests and this can make identifying the legitimate concerns more difficult. Some companies even have corporate cultures that encourage a less than helpful “I’m only satisfied with perfect” attitude in their leadership. The more recruiters know about the skills they are recruiting for, the easier separating the hollow bellyaching from the useful feedback becomes.

      Doug Friedman
      EngineeringReferral.com
      LinkedIn Profile

  3. Impossible to get the “perfect” candidate : everyone has to learn something new… But what I do not get is the unwillingness of the majority of recruiters to simply… answer.

  4. Douglas – well thought out points here. There are two specific items that I would like to add.
    1) It is the recruiters role to set expectations that the perfect candidate generally does not exist. To your point, if they would spend some time learning what the buzzwords mean, they would know if the industry supports what the hiring manager is seeking. I recently had a hiring manager ask for “5 plus years” of experience with a specific technology – the only problem was that the technology was only three years old! A quick google search give me the details I needed and allowed me to educate the manager.
    2) a general problem is that few recruiters really perform an indepth intake session with the manager to really understand what they need. Sure we ask some basic questions and we get basic answers. Its not until after the interview as described in your example that we learn what the manager really needs based on what the candidate does not have. We complain that the manager didn’t tell us up front – I would argue that the recruiter didn’t ask the right questions upfront. The managers job is to answer our questions – they are not recruiters!

    1. True on #2, but unfortunately there’s lots of sales types who know that pushing too much might cause a client to disengage. Hiring managers, like all people, prefer minimal demands on their time, so an agency or internal recruiter who takes an order and runs with it is seen as less of a hassle and preferable, even if it means a longer and more expensive process. And that holds true because most managers aren’t accountable for the costs of turnover or prolonged vacancies except in the vaguest and least quantified manner.

  5. This article beautifully puts the Case for Definitive Briefing.

    Once recruiters have been precisely focused by the Hiring Manager, the Final Decision Maker and any Subject Specialists their task becomes remarkably straightforward.

    It takes those with in-depth knowledge of the real job requirements less than 20 minutes to individually do their analysis. Thereafter with speed and precision and no more than 3 client interviews Definitive Briefing delivers client and candidate delight.

    A Stitch in Time Saves Nine.

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