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Software

Perception and reality in today's job market

When you can't find a job, it's easy to believe there are sinister forces at work. But, as veteran IT recruiter Tim Heard explains, things are not always the way you perceive them to be.

Tim Heard, a veteran IT recruiter, is guest-posting this week to address some job-hunter frustrations and the reality behind them.

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As an IT recruiter, I hear a lot of frustration from his clients in today's economy. Here are a few emails I have received recently:

  • "Look just because I am over 55 and have gray hair. It does not mean, I am brain dead or I can no longer troubleshoot an ‘IT' issue or that I can do ‘IT' work at all. And I could prove this if, someone would give me the chance at a JOB! Come on, try me out at minimum wage for 90 days." (This was a comment on a personal blog from a frustrated job seeker.)
  • "I curse my father for bringing me to this country. Hopefully I will be able to find a good job overseas." (This comment was in an email I received from a US permanent resident, who has good solid experience and pretty marketable skills.)
  • "Employers always want to seek PERFECT candidates. They want candidates who can, 'Hit the ground running. They don't want to train. They want experts all the time, candidates with no supervision." (Online post from an unhappy job seeker.)
  • Tim, Corporate Shared Service Job #5388 Sr. SAN Engineer has been withdrawn. Additional comments: This requisition is being withdrawn.  We apologize for the inconvenience. (Email from a client.  19 withdrawn positions from this client in the past 7 or 8 months.)
  • "Tim, my nephew just graduated with a degree in Information Systems. He's a really bright kid. He's having trouble getting any interviews though. Do you think you could help him find something?" (I made this one up, but have gotten countless emails like it.)
  • "I'm embarrassed to say how long I've been unemployed but I have figured out why. Our government is so corrupt..." (Another frustrated job seeker.)
  • Hi Tim, Can you call me regarding XXXXXXXXX? I can be reached at XXX-XXX-XXXX. Thanks so much. (The ensuing conversation was about a recruiter with whom I had worked: A bright lady with a very contagious personality, who had taken her life.  I have subsequently heard of at least one other recruiter taking his life in the past year.)
  • "Hi Tim, Busy studying for my certification this week. How are things with your business and XXXXXXXX? Touching base just to let you know I am still beating the pavement, hitting the bricks, shaking the trees...etc." (From a candidate who I submitted to a client about two months ago. To date, they indicate they are still interested, but uncertain now whether there will be a need.)

Making sense of events in life

It doesn't take much to see that there are a lot of frustrated job seekers in the market right now.  That frustration is summed up by the comments of the job seeker who vented that employers are only seeking "perfect candidates."

Lacking additional information to help us understand what is taking place, we try to fill in the gaps ourselves. So depending on our circumstances, we might assume that we didn't get the job because we're too old, too inexperienced, foreign-born, because the recruiter lied, or because the system is somehow rigged.

This tendency to try and explain situations by attributing negative characteristics to people or organizations is called the fundamental attribution error. David Creelman describes the fundamental attribution error in a recent article.

The fundamental attribution error, is assuming behavior is driven by personality rather than by the situation. If you see a sales representative arguing with an accounting clerk, it's natural to assume it's because one of them isn't being nice - we attribute the behavior to the personality of the people involved. If you are in a nice profession like religious studies, you assume that this sort of thing simply won't happen because everyone will work hard to be good. In fact, human behavior is frequently driven by the situation rather than personality. If a sale representative feels they need to entertain clients, while the accounting clerk has been told to be strict on allowing entertaining expenses, then conflict is bound to arise. Conflict usually arises because of the situation, not the personalities.

The second damaging assumption is that rules and structure are just annoying bureaucratic practices we are better off without. This assumption occurs because we notice when things go wrong, not when they go right. We scarcely notice when our computer operating system is working correctly, but when something goes wrong we are quick to curse it. The same thing happens in organizations: the rules, the structures, the hierarchies, all come to our attention when they get in our way. Nice people think they can get rid of these troublesome traditional features of organizations.

This gets played out in a variety of different ways as frustrated job seekers seek to understand why they are unable to land positions for which they believe they are qualified. It doesn't necessarily help things, but I think that maybe it helps emotionally to be able to blame some of our circumstances on a person or entity who is "bad." So the hiring manager didn't select me because I'm old, or because she's a racist, or simply because he has unrealistic expectations. Or the recruiter wasn't able to place me because he's dishonest.  (There probably never was a position to begin with.)

We all seem to be stretched so tightly from the stress of life that we're ready to light into just about anyone who rubs us the wrong way, whether that person really did anything to deserve it or not.

Examples of supply and demand

I had a rather lengthy conversation by email with the person who was frustrated that employers always seek to hire "perfect" candidates. I noted that in any situation they want to get the best value possible. Before we look in detail and how this plays out in the job market, let's look a couple of other examples.

Video games

Let's pretend that you're a parent of a teenage boy. Some event is coming up which warrants giving him a gift. You know he loves playing video games, but currently does not own a game system. For the sake of discussion, let's assume that these are your options:

  1. An old Pong game you dug out of your attic.
  2. Xbox360
  3. PlayStation 3
  4. PlayStation 2
  5. Wii

Just for the sake of discussion, let's assume that the PlayStation 3 is the system he really wants. One could argue that the Wii and Xbox360 are equally good game systems. However, they aren't what he wants.  His friends don't have those systems, and so if you purchase another system for him, it wouldn't meet his needs. Let's further assume that both the Pong game and the PlayStation 2 can be upgraded with proper conversion kits so they can be used to play PlayStation 3 games. Let's assume that it takes about three months to upgrade the PlayStation 2 and six months to a year to upgrade the Pong game.

In this case, assuming that you don't go with "none of the above" and buy him a skateboard or football, or maybe stock in some startup company, then the "right" gift to get him would be one of the options that would allow him to play PlayStation 3 games. Your decision would be based on a combination of your budget and how long the two of you are willing to wait before he can play the games.

Let's say that your budget only allows for the purchase of a PlayStation 2 and the conversion kit. You're on eBay about to make the purchase when you hear in the news that there has been a huge overproduction of PlayStation 3 games. Analysts are predicting that the price of these games will drop considerably within the week.  Sure enough. you wait and find that PlayStation 3 games are now selling for less than what the PlayStation 2 would have cost you a week ago. When you go to the store to buy the game, do you demand to pay more than the asking price, or are you just thankful that you got such a sweet deal?  (Keep in mind that even though we're talking about game systems, there are real people who work to produce and sell those systems and lots of people are either making less or losing their jobs because of the drop in price.)

Cash for clunkers

Setting aside the issue of whether the Cash for Clunkers program was a good policy, there were lots and lots of people who took advantage of the opportunity to turn in their rusting gas-guzzlers for down payments on cars that were already selling at rock-bottom prices. I don't know of anyone who was indignant at how low the car prices had fallen and who demanded to pay full price for the cars in order to help save someone's job.

Macro and micro analysis

I want to be clear that I'm not trying to imply that there's no moral component to any of this. Just about anything we do, whether it be at an individual or corporate level, has a moral component. For example, we like to drink cheap soft drinks here in the United States. We also like to eat lots of grain-fed beef. Add to those Federal and state requirements that we start using more ethanol for fuel and the net result was rioting around the world. People were starving because there wasn't enough grain to go around. My penchant for flame-broiled Whoppers and a super-sized cola that I eat while I'm filling my SUV with ethanol makes life difficult for some kid in Bangladesh.

Does discrimination happen? Undoubtedly. Are employers unrealistic when establishing hiring criteria for their openings? Sure, sometimes. Does this explain why you're unemployed or in a job you hate? Probably not.

Mostly what's happening is that hiring managers who really need five or six people are being told that they can hire one or two people.  And typically they've been assigned projects with unrealistically short timelines.  These men and women are stretched really thin. (I have a couple of clients who regularly exchange emails with me past midnight.) Because of the mix of supply and demand, for the past couple of years, employers have been able to buy "PlayStation 3s" at "PlayStation 2" prices.  This is happening at all levels up and down the food chain. Big companies are telling suppliers that they have to reduce their fees. Federal and state governments are doing the same to prime vendors. Consumers in turn have less money to spend, and the cycle continues.

Thankfully, I think the job market is returning to the point at which a hiring manager at least has to pay full price for PlayStation 3 if that's what he or she really needs. I'm seeing and hearing about more instances in which candidates are fielding multiple job offers. Also I've seen several instances just in the past couple of months in which candidates have accepted offers because other potential employers were too slow to act.  I think we will begin to see managers who are open to considering a broader range of skills and experience when trying to fill openings than they might have just a year ago. Additionally, I think we will continue to gradually see a slight loosening of the purse strings with respect to approvals of new positions, which should allow for even more flexibility when it comes to position requirements. Gradually at a macro level, if these things continue to happen at a micro level, the cycle will reverse.

Okay, but what can we do in the meantime?

If you look on LinkedIn and elsewhere you'll notice that it has been an explosion in recent years of people who call themselves life coaches or career coaches. You might read about tapping into "hidden job markets," or steps that you can take to guarantee career success.

First, there are no guarantees. Things happen that sometimes are completely out of our control. Second, there's no hidden job market. There's not a secret web site where recruiters can go and magically learn about open positions that nobody else knows about. We learn about open positions by spending time developing relationships with hiring managers. It is true that not all jobs have posted on job boards, and especially in the case of smaller companies, some positions may not be posted at all.

Rather than fork out whatever the going rate is right now for a life coach, or paying $19.95 for a copy of How to find your next job, inner peace, and your lost car keys, in 10 easy steps, most of the job search advice you need can be found free online in articles like this: http://www.quintcareers.com/job-search_refresher.html.

In addition, consider the following suggestions:

  1. Stop being so snarky online; especially in your blogs and other public forums. Making it personal or making someone out to be the bad guy isn't productive. Even if you are 100% certain that you are not being selected because the hiring manager can somehow tell from your resume that you're a left-handed Lithuanian gypsy, why complain adamantly about how unfair it is online?  It boggles my mind how job seekers can sabotage themselves by publicly insulting huge segments of the population.  I know of an unemployed person who was a staunch Democrat, which was fine, except that just about everything he posted in public essentially was to say that all Republicans were morons.  (I privately reminded him that many hiring managers might be Republicans, and might not take kindly to the implication.)  I know a person who regularly blogs about Christian "fascists."  I have hinted to him that the Christians who *aren't* fascists, who spend a lot of their time and money trying to help others in need, might not quite understand that he doesn't mean them.  (Or maybe he does...)  One of the individuals who I referenced in the beginning quotes sent me several "letters to the editor" he has written, all which can be found online. The general theme of the letters is how terrible America is and how uncaring American companies are. All of these are the equivalent, from a hiring manager's perspective, of the college student who posts photos of himself unconscious on the beach wearing nothing but sunscreen. They are the equivalent of the report card the teacher sends home with a child that says, "Does not play well with others."
  2. DO post a resume online.  Post a copy on your personal home page, as well as one on at least one major job board.  Refresh the one on the job board at least every couple of weeks. The recruiters who don't post jobs, but do use resume databases look first at resumes that have been posted recently.
  3. DO create a LinkedIn profile. Use it. Network with people.  Get some meaningful online references.  There are many recruiters today who utilize LinkedIn as much or more as a recruiting tool than any job board. Also join some discussion groups. See if maybe there are career options that you could tap into that you haven't previously considered.
  4. Thankfully, life is not quite so black and white as to allow us to be classified as simply as Pong games, PS3s, and Wiis.  We all have valuable skills that we can offer the right employer.  We just have to stay persistent as we look for those jobs. I know how deflating it can be to be unemployed, and I really do know how hard it has been the past few years. Seriously.  Hang in there. It's getting better.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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