Friday, October 23, 2009

Defensive Staffing

Many job seekers get frustrated by the time and effort it takes to get a response from potential employers. Many times it seems that the HR departments of most companies exist only to prevent applicants from actually speaking to people who need new employees, and the nature of the process is not unlike a minefield – you have to find out about the position, successfully apply and make your way past the computer screener, the phone interview, the initial interview in person, to make it to the point where you are speaking to someone – perhaps – who would actually be making the hiring decision, all the while risking immediate elimination if someone inside the company is given the job, someone reaches the hiring manager personally, or the company decides not to fill the position after all. But for all of that, companies have worries as well, and the big one is the fear that someone may interview well enough to win the job, but prove a bad choice when they have locked in the position. It’s difficult for a company to let someone go once they have hired them without committing to a period of training and review, and even then the position has to be opened and applicants considered all over again, losing time and spending resources. Most companies would love some way to insure their choice, especially for a position that needs to be filled quickly but which needs both competency and a good fit with the company. And that brings me to the professional contract-to-hire position.

Many companies use contractors, but most often for low-level responsibilities and without the option for permanent hires. That is, a contractor often has to be exceptional to be offered a permanent position. This comes from budget concerns and the types of jobs filled, as many of them are seasonal or specific to a limited project. However, in recent months that thinking has changed a bit, as recruiters have offered a more enticing option – a sort of ‘no long commitment’ contract for managers and skilled professionals. The contractor in these cases would be hired for a specific project, usually lasting six months to a year, but the company would fill not only staff positions but management positions as well, and if the contractor performs up to a certain level, they might be offered a permanent position at the same level or even higher. For instance, a contractor might be hired to head a strategic project lasting six months, but if he surpasses a certain level of proficiency and ability, he might be offered the role of managing the whole department. This can be done most often in companies where managers have shifting responsibilities, and a new manager may be brought on to ease the workload of existing managers. While specifics have been closely guarded by the companies involved, informal accounts exist of even senior managers being hired in this way at some companies. While the practice is too new to be judged on its strategic value to the companies, the concept demonstrates a way by which a firm may take on high-level talent without committing for a long term until the new hire proves his or her worth.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Career Building: A Look from Reality

Every so often, I have read up on the latest books and articles on the subject of career building. The idea seems simple enough; we all understand that the ideal job situation is much more than just getting a job somewhere and hoping for the best. We all would like to believe that we can improve our opportunities and find, if not the perfect job, a position which meets our ideal or at least where we enjoy the work and its benefits. Trouble is, most of us are working somewhere where we dislike something about the job. It may be the pay, the company culture, the office politics, or maybe it’s the location or some of the specific duties, but for most of us there’s always something. Speaking for myself, I have always been able to enjoy my work and I have great loyalty to all the companies which brought me onto their teams, but even then I could not ever say the position I had was “ideal”.

Some of that was education. My BA was in English. That’s a long story, but generally it came down to indecision and a counselor who assured me that I could do “anything” with an English degree. The real world, it turns out, differed in that opinion. So, it became clear to me that I needed a better degree. Since I love Accounting, I decided I wanted to earn a CPA license, and to do that required not only a slew of Accounting courses, but also a set of Business courses as well. So, I pursued and earned an MBA with a concentration in Accounting. Did it with a 3.94 GPA too, which got me into an honor society, Beta Gamma Sigma. I felt pretty good about my progress.

The plan at the time I graduated with my MBA was this: One reason I love Accounting, is that every business needs accountants, good ones. But more, a successful business needs accountants with management experience, for the plain reason that you have to see first-hand the effect of accounting decisions. You can talk about Activity-Based Costing, or Managerial Accounting strategies, but they need to be understood at the pointy end of the business to really grasp how the decision will affect the company. That’s something I knew I could provide for any employer, the ability to connect real-world effects to theoretical decisions. So, I figured that after earning my MBA, I would try to transfer to the Accounting department at my company, maybe work as an internal auditor while completing my educational requirements to sit for the CPA exams. My manager at the time was very supportive and genuinely wanted me to succeed in this track. However, when my company was bought out by another company in May of 2009, that all changed. The new company has its own accounting staff, and they do not plan to expand the Houston staff. That left me in a sort of drift for my career plans. Until reorganization and layoffs came in late September. Being laid off changed my career search from keep-this-job-until-I-get-a-better-fit to must-find-work.

That was more than a month ago. In job search terms, five weeks is not so very long. But when you go that long without much success in even getting interviews, you begin to get tired and frustrated. Part of it is the economy; in a down economy, professional positions are not usually filled in the last quarter. Part of it is the nature of a professional job hunt; if you have higher-than-average salary expectations or specialized skills, there will be fewer positions available that match what you are looking to find. And part of it is the stress of just having to find a job; many companies which have had to fill an opening complain about how hard it is to find qualified applicants, while job seekers similarly complain about the difficulty in finding a suitable position. Since the day I was laid off, I have searched every day for jobs, read about more than two hundred positions open for employment (and screened out more than half which either demanded qualifications I did not have, or offered unreasonable compensation – who seriously expects to get an experienced Credit Manager for $30k a year?), applied for more than eighty positions, and had a total of three phone interviews and two face-to-face interviews, counting the one I have tomorrow morning. It’s not a strong return on the effort.

That’s not to say that you should not do everything you can, when searching for work. You never know when, where or just how your next job will turn up, but the one thing I can say for sure is that it won’t show up looking for you while you sit around waiting for it. You have a degree of control in your search, in that you choose what area of work, which companies to apply to, and which jobs to try for. However, unless you happen to have a pile of money from your lottery winnings sitting around, you have a limited amount of time in which to find your next job. Also, the psychological weight of not knowing exactly when your next job will begin makes the passing of time feel longer and more ominous. Intellectually, you understand how long your savings can last, but emotionally the uncertainty is poisonous to your confidence. As a result, after a month or two you begin to question whether your goals are too high, whether you are being too picky in how much you want to be paid, or whether you should accept a position that you would earlier have rejected as a bad choice for your skills and experience. As time passes, the likelihood that you will hold out for a ‘perfect’ fit decreases until, unless you are lucky or very well-connected, it becomes just another thing that would have been nice but does not happen in real life. We all want a perfect job, but we have to pay the mortgage and the bills, and for most people the idea of building a career is not really feasible.