The Market is Boxy: Resistance is (Almost) Futile!

Round pegs in round holes.  Any disagreement that this has become an increasingly accurate description of the modern economy and the types of employees companies today are seeking to hire?

A great many job seekers I work with complain bitterly about this phenomenon.  They wonder why companies aren’t more open-minded about hiring people based on potential and who offer a more generalized track record of working hard, learning new things quickly, and solving various kinds of problems.  “Why don’t companies see my transferable strengths?” they cry out in frustration.  “Why does every advertisement seem to demand some superhuman list of highly specialized credentials?”

Historically, I suppose we could assign some of the blame to Henry Ford for coming up with the whole “division of labor” thing back in the early 20th Century or whenever it was.  Or we could lambaste Adam Smith for his role in forming the capitalistic society we live in, centered around the profit motive.  But the real blame for this phenomenon, I feel, lies largely with ourselves.  We’ve all played at least some small role in perpetuating the incredibly prosperous, yet demanding consumer culture we live in today.  As consumers, I think it’s safe to say we’ve all pretty much come to expect instant gratification–at the cheapest possible price.  When the pipes explode at our house, we don’t put the word out for a reasonably smart, competent person who just might be able to learn how to use a monkey wrench in a jiffy.  We start freakin’ and call Beacon.  We call a plumbing expert.  Heck, these days we might not even just call a generally good plumber if we can help it.  We might insist on working with a certain specialized type of plumbing expert, such as one that concentrates on house re-piping, drain unclogging, commercial plumbing installations, etc.

So that’s my point.  As consumers, we’ve become incredibly spoiled and picky.  And not surprisingly, employers, as “consumers” of labor, are starting to act in the exact same fashion.  Why take a risk on a “person with potential” when you can likely find and hire somebody who has a proven background working in your exact same industry and tackling the exact same problems that are keeping you up at night as a business owner or hiring manager?

This reality, albeit undeniable, is highly discouraging to many folks.  Obviously, not everybody falls into a perfect “round peg” career track or happens to develop a highly specialized toolbox of skills they can dangle in front of certain employers, like catnip.  But that’s the trend out there right now in the marketplace and I doubt you, I, or any other individual is going to single-handedly change it.  So rather than fighting this state of affairs, no matter how unjust or limiting you feel it is, my advice is to embrace the “boxy” concept.  Wholeheartedly.  Stop complaining about being boxed in, pick the “box” in the market that fits you best, and go for it–with both guns blazing!

At the end of the day, I suppose a “generalist” or “maverick” can win the day every once in a while, but I don’t think this is happening all that often right now.  Roughly 95% of the jobs out there (I’d estimate) go to those people who focus their career around a clear job title or category — be it Business Analyst, Credit & Collections Manager, Organizational Development Specialist, or Enterprise Software Sales Executive — and they then bust their butt to develop/acquire the skills necessary to compete effectively for these jobs.

And in case there’s any confusion, job hunters don’t get to make these boxes.  Employers do.  They create them and hold full naming rights, since they’re the ones footing the bill!

In a similar vein, you’ll find me frequently referring to myself as a career counselor and marketing myself under that umbrella, even though I don’t really see myself as a “counselor” in the conventional sense.  Career coach is probably a better word for what I do.  Or career strategist.  Or job search consultant.  But most people don’t have a frame of reference for these other terms and since I can’t deny that career counselor is the conventional, time-tested word for people in my field, I choose to embrace this term and leverage it, rather than butt my head against market realities and stubbornly try to invent a whole new job category all by myself.

So if you’re struggling to figure out your career direction, or flailing among a couple of different options, perhaps it’s time to stop fighting, figure out the box that fits you, and embrace it with gusto.  Again, if you tell me you’re a Consumer Products Marketing executive or a SharePoint Architect, I know what to do with you — and what types of leads/referrals to pass along.  If you tell me you’re a good problem-solver with some management experience, a little bit of supply chain background, and a passion for sustainability, however, I really DON’T know how to help you much — or point you toward any appropriate opportunities.  And most other people won’t, either!

How do you figure out what “boxes” are out there today?  Study job ads.  Notice what companies call things.  Poke around on LinkedIn and see what job titles are held by other people who do similar things to what you do.  Find some “proof of concept” out in the market that will help you label yourself appropriately as a professional.  Ultimately, most job hunters in today’s world will have better success if they try to fit the molds that are out there, instead of trying to break them!


6 Responses to “The Market is Boxy: Resistance is (Almost) Futile!”

  1. Douglas Renfield-Miller March 10, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    I second your comments and offer my recent experience to back it up. I just completed a stint as interim Director of Finance and Operations at a non-profit where I’ve been Board Vice Chair. I was asked to step in to address some financial issues while also recruiting a full time replacement. I advertised the position in The FENG newsletter and on the NBOA (National Business Officers Association) website. Within a few days I had about 30 resumes to go through. (FYI, emailed Mat Budd of the FENG a while back echoing his comments about how often applicants fail to follow directions, fail to read the job description, have typos in their cover letters and resumes and even fail to change the addressee on their cover letters!) Sorting through the resumes drove home what has been written about how recruiters look at resumes and what I have been up against when I’ve been sending out my resume.

    I quickly divided the resumes into two piles. One pile comprised about 25 resumes of well-qualified candidates who probably could have done the job but didn’t merit further attention. A second pile of 6 resumes comprised candidates that fit the job description to a T. They had done the exact job I was looking to fill. To my dismay I realized that I would have put my resume in the “reject” pile. There I was, doing the job I was recruiting for and excelling given my broad skill base, yet my resume would clearly have landed in the reject pile because there were 6 round pegs available that exactly fit into the hole.

    Given the above experience and the excellent advice in The FENG newsletters, I have been increasingly tailoring my approach to new opportunities. Rather than describe my broad experience and skillset I try to be very specific – here is what I can do for you and here’s an example showing that I’ve done it before.

  2. Nailed it, Matt, and you did so with sincerity and out of concern.

    I have concluded just as you have, or as you did, but are reminding us, long ago.
    Read the posts, adapt your resume language and connect the dots, as recruiters no longer read for content,they and the machines scan for a MATCH. However, that is not to say, as you and the responders point out, there won’t be wonderful opportunities once inside the screening gate.
    We should all be our own project managers and sell our vision, create the selling profiles that show the prospective employers we are a MATCH. We are the resource, the human capital, they need to get the job done. Organizational Development Specialist or Program Development (as in LinkedIn) seem the best round holes for me. All of the other skills are what is done when a person executes in the organizational development specialist or project manager role.
    You are just reminding everyone to do what all the resume gurus have been saying, “Ensure your resume speaks to the job. Incorporate the descriptive words found in the job posting and be sure you can show positions that support them.”
    Sometimes, it truly is a matter of semantics, but a very important matter for sure.

  3. Gary: Thanks for your comment and no argument whatsoever with everything you said from a societal standpoint. Will this kind of “checkbox” behavior lead to a mechanical, humorless society where something precious gets lost? Or is it just the “new normal” and people will adapt to it? Impossible to say (at least for me) but for those people who can’t afford to take a stand on principle, against the entire marketplace, I think they’ve got to embrace the reality and do their best to play the game as it’s currently being played. Hopefully once enough conscious people get hired back into the workforce, we’ll start seeing some change and some restoration of decency/humanity from the INSIDE of various organizations.

  4. Great points, Matt. I agree wholeheartedly. A common mistake I see on candidate resumes is branding themselves as a generalist and the ability to be all things to all people. I have never been asked to recruit for a Generalist. Never. Specialization is the name of the game for most jobs out there.

    An analogy I like to use is to perceive organizations with jobs as heavily fortified bunkers with occasional “round pegs” in their walls. The most likely way for candidates to infiltrate these organizations is to be that round peg (bunker buster). Once inside, wow them with your breadth of experience/skills, but do it once you are inside the org. The shotgun approach will only result in your buckshot bouncing off the walls with hardly a glance from the hiring managers/recruiters.

  5. I agree with your analysis, Matt. However, it is (in my opinion) morphed into a non-personal, less human process of filling in the check boxes on a form. That is thanks (entirely) to our “instant gratification” addiction to the internet. No personal contact = no enthusiasm, energy, values, passion in the hiring equation.
    I’m a realist. I’ll play the game like everyone else, and I’ll land the job I want. When people can’t get their noses out of their I-Phone texting as they walk down the street, I have to consider what this will evolve our society into further down the road.

  6. Your are dead-on Matt.
    To land a job I had to focus on a specific Job Title (Project Manger). Yet, my strength lies well beyond the limits of the job description. In fact, less than 1/4 of the actual work has anything to do with strict project management. I have had several project manager jobs in the past where there were similar mismatches. However, to get past HR and land that first interview, I had to look like a perfect match to whatever job description they happened to use for the job posting. After hire the job evolved into substancial Business Analysis, Leadership, and general operations functions. Thus posting for a PM was really missing the mark. Also, in my company the title of Project Manager and Internal Consultant differ in only 2 or 3 fairly minor sentences in a 2 page job description. So, I bet there are a lot of good PM’s out there who miss the postings for Internal Consultant because they have not done their homework on the company as you suggest. So being a Jack-Of-All-Trades is probably very useful in most positions. However, that is NOT usually what companyies post nor what they screen for. Thay want that perfectly shaped round peg. So, give it to them, then do the real job!

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