job interview applicants

James Reed, CEO and Chairman of Reed, the recruitment consultancy, recently wrote about the importance of candidates having the right mindset – perhaps signalling a challenge to the traditional search for relevant experience or skills. At a time when organisations such as the CIPD and the CBI warn of impending skill gap shortages (the UK Commission for Employment & Skills reportedly estimate 1 in 5 jobs suffers from skills shortage), Reed raises an important subject; one which is highly relevant to our current market conditions; and to both job seekers and recruiters alike.

Change in the workplace is accelerating. Over fifty years ago, Reed was established in response to growing post-war prosperity: Baby Boomers experienced unprecedented growth in employment opportunities and choice, and there began a rise in the accessibility of Further and Higher Education to the general British population during the 1960s and 70s. In the last thirty years (and particularly, the last ten years), however, it is technology which has entered into a golden era; with capabilities imagined and insights delivered, at a dizzying pace.

We are now at a juxtaposition between these two trends, one which forces employers, recruiters and candidates each to make a decision concerning the best way to identify and fill employment opportunities.

Whilst on the one hand, we have seen a proliferation of recruitment agencies, consultancies and outsourcing providers; on the other hand, Human Capital solutions are no longer just an emergent technology or niche player, but the subject of growing investment, speculation and acquisition.

“People are your biggest investment and your greatest advantage — if you can build a workforce that outperforms the competition” states a recent email I received from SuccessFactors (“an SAP Company”). The implication, of course, is that this technology will help with this. Around the same time that SAP acquired SuccessFactors, Oracle snapped up Taleo and, more recently, Deloitte brought Bersin and Associates into the fold. All these companies seek to fill a gap in their clients’ talent portfolio: IBM’s Kenexa, for example, delivers an end-to-end workforce management platform which covers areas such as recruitment (acquisition), progression (leadership), learning (optimisation), payroll (recognition) and planning (analytics). And interest is high!

As organisations prioritise, and benefit from, such insights; so too has the candidate experience changed, since that of the Baby Boomer generation… Playing to the Millennials’ sweetspot, having a LinkedIn profile, an online footprint or digital presence, is of growing importance and needs to be managed carefully.

So, if everything seems to be flowing in the direction of technology adoption, why does it matter how we find our talent? The potential impact of this question is actually quite material: automation generally relies upon existing, pre-programmed rules and principles which may soon be considered secondary (or even obsolete). Keyword searches, phrase recognition patterns and even more advanced prescriptive algorithms and analytics are aimed at matching the right vacancy to the ideal candidate; however, Reed may consider that those keywords and phrases aren’t necessarily to be relied upon…

He would not be alone. Laszlo Bock, Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations was recently reported as saying “G.P.A.’s [Grade Point Averages] are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless…We found that they don’t predict anything… Google has its eyes on much more.” He outlines five criteria by which candidates are assessed for suitability: general cognitive ability, emergent leadership, humility and ownership, and finally, expertise. (Very like the IBM offering described above, don’t you think?)

Reed and Bock might advise hiring managers to identify the right “kind” of resources, first, before expending energy and resources into guiding and shaping them into future high performers. Because the alternative could mean plugging gaps, temporarily, with a workforce who may be apathetic, disengaged and looking for the next move…

It could be argued, of course, that a person might not be well-suited to a role, regardless of their positive and affable nature; and my response to this would be that, in this scenario, it is the recruitment function which is broken, not the individual. Perhaps Dr Meredith Belbin would support me, here, I think: that there is a place for useful personalities; but that it is the job of the employer to find them and motivate them. This may sound like paternalism, but isn’t that part of the contract between the workforce and the employer? The workforce brings the skill, knowledge, expertise and energy; whilst the employer guides, promotes, develops and delivers opportunity.  In the case of young people entering the workplace, of course, they have little in the way of applied skill, knowledge and expertise – therefore, what they need in abundance, is energy…

But how many of us can say that they have experience of this in practice? Through my experience of hiring, interviewing and mentoring; I have presided over assessment centres and have worked with experienced new hires, interns and graduates. Given the competitive state of graduate positions, currently, it’s unfortunate that I don’t get a sense of enthusiasm from many recent graduates.  Instead, perhaps, a feeling of entitlement…They have worked hard to achieve a good degree (whilst maintaining those all-important extra-curricula activities), but the focus on their CV makes it difficult to find the right fit between candidate and employer. I recall one graduate I interviewed, musing aloud, whether he would be a bigger asset to my firm, or one of our rivals. On that occasion, I was happy to let our rival solve that dilemma.

Perhaps, though, I have my own reasons for questioning the fit of skills to jobs, which should be addressed. I do have experience of measuring this relationship, internally, but it wasn’t always the case: I was once an aspiring archaeologist – evidently, not very good one! – unable to find a (paid) job, until I was placed by a recruitment agency at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Concerned that I may reflect badly upon the recruitment agency, because I had very little experience of this type of work, I was given two pieces of advice, which I credit very highly, still:

  • Be enthusiastic about everything
  • Get involved in as much as possible

In that environment, and with that mindset, I thrived and my career took off in a new direction. For me, the key was to be open, approachable and willing to learn (point 1) – but, the crucial element was that this needed to lead on to becoming “necessary” (point 2) – to the point where the employer dare not stop renewing my contract because of all that depended on the knowledge and skills amassed in a short space of time. So, if Reed termed it “the skill to acquire new skills” – this resonates strongly with me (and, probably, will be how I phrase it from now on!)

Although seemingly unrelated, my degree gave me a grounding in how to accumulate and assimilate knowledge; as well as an understanding about how (and when) best to apply that knowledge; it was one of the most important building blocks of my early career. And so, when I hear about the importance of STEM education to our economic competitiveness, I feel compelled to offer a note of redress. Something I perceive that many of those disciplines lack is the ability to think, creatively: to be able to form a reasoned business case, based upon innovation and potential impact, for example.  In my opinion, economies such as ours thrive where rules, protocols and policies are challenged, disruptively – that’s where we need a workforce that is enthusiastic and energetic; one which will be eager to learn and then ask the controversial questions to open up new channels for trade and revenue generation.  Those workforces must align with ever-changing goals, organisational transformations and re-focused operating models; yet remain enthusiastic and innovative to be successful. Industrial growth is certainly an important step to recovery, and already manufacturing, oil and gas  and the automotive sectors are starting to grow. Increases in STEM subjects will help these areas, as well as Financial Services, to a point.

Crucially, though, it will be those who seize the opportunity to innovate that will make the difference between leading organisations and economies; to grow value and, truly, to differentiate from all others. Such is the potential impact, as I see it, for James Reed’s prompt to consider placement strategies for the future.

Mark T Lawrence is Learning Intelligence Leader, with a major Multinational Bluechip Organisation @mtlawrence