Thursday, November 19, 2009

Career Calculus

When I was a teenager, my friends and I gave little thought to what we would do for work. We all had vague ideas about what sort of careers we wanted, but no specifics. Part of this came from a lack of experience with the working world, but some of it came from the sense that we were still in development, which implied that once we were finished with our preparation we would find our proper role, where we ought to be. Of course, the real word does not work that way, and most of us discovered that as we finished college and tried to find work in our chosen fields. Top students enjoyed multiple job offers from prominent companies, good rewarding jobs that many people would have found satisfying, but most of us had to search and struggle to find any offers at all. Turns out that you have to have the experience to get anything but entry-level posts, and even the entry-level jobs were a matter of several applicants for each job. It was difficult to stand out, and to get a serious look you had to stand out. I mention this here, because from my experience and the stories I have heard from friends and colleagues over the years, most of us have had to work at jobs that were not our first or second choice. Not that the jobs were bad, but they were not the career path we expected.

I have always been aware that my perspective was unusual. I could not always tell if this gave me an advantage or a handicap. For instance, I have long heard that the average tenure at a job lasts somewhere between three and four years, so in 26 years of working I ought to have had about eight jobs, but in the actual case I have worked for only four companies. In three of my jobs, I stayed an average of over eight years, generally because I am a strong believer in loyalty to my employer. I have also worked in three different industries, which again is off the normal track, although I used similar skill sets in all of my work.

So after a person has worked for a while in a job, and they either choose or need to find a new position, what they find is that there is a range of choices. Two such ranges, actually, which is where the calculus comes in. Normal math is about finding a specific answer, but Calculus produces a range of possibilities, and your answer lies somewhere within that range. This is how a job search works – you determine the range of positions in which you have interest, and determine the range of positions which you fit, and the intersecting range provides your options.

So far I’m playing Captain Obvious. Everyone knows that they won’t apply to every job that is available, and that not every company they apply to will show interest in them. But understanding why you select a company for application, and why companies choose certain people for interviews and final-selection interviews, will help you refine your search effort to target jobs where you have a better chance of winning the job, as well as jobs you will be more likely to enjoy.

There are basically five stages in the hiring process:

1. Company posts a position
2. You apply for the position
3. Your qualifications are screened
4. You are interviewed for personality and skills ‘fit’
5. An offer is extended, and following negotiations accepted (if the offer is not accepted the offer falls into the 4th category, as something was not a good fit)

The fun part is that you have to prepare for four of the five stages, and to understand that you have little direct control in any of them. Instead, you may influence the decision through your choices and presentation. If you’re like me, you will send out a lot of resumes that never get response, but some will see a return, but not immediately. I sent out, by my count, over a hundred applications in two months, got calls from 8 recruiters or placement firms, met with five different such firms in interviews, had 11 phone interviews, 8 face-to-face interviews with real companies, 3 second interviews, and finally a job offer that was good enough to accept. The significance of the numbers was that my early efforts were kind of broad, but I soon learned to target my resume to specify what I did really well; Credit & Collections. That cut out a lot of jobs that I could technically do, but where my experience was not enough to make me a top contender. I still sent out my resume to jobs that were not C&C positions per se, but only one of my company interviews was for a position not tied to Credit & Collections work. And I was one of very few candidates chosen for interviews in those applications:

Co. 1: One of 4 interviewed, not invited to second interview
Co. 2: One of 3 interviewed, only 1 offered second interview, received offer and accepted
Co. 3: One of 2 interviewed, received second interview, withdrew when offered job at another company
Co. 4: One of 4 interviewed, not invited to second interview
Co. 5: One of 2 interviewed, received second interview, withdrew when offered job at another company
Co. 6: One of 3 interviewed, accepted job offer with another company before second round
Co. 7: One of 4 interviewed, offered second interview but accepted job offer at other company so withdrew

It’s interesting to see that in those situations, no more than four candidates got an interview, and twice only two were considered. It pretty much makes you a finalist right from the start if you are considered. So the trade-off is that you get a smaller pool of companies for your targeted applications, but the response for specializing is a much better rate, and those interviews are pretty close to the goal.

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