Looking for a unicorn: HR and IT recruiters are overlooking potential candidates

Over the past few years, I’ve been watching more and more IT candidates get overlooked for jobs for various reasons, despite that they are fully capable and qualified. A person can be disqualified for a job position by a recruiter or human resources representative for a number of valid reasons.

  • Not enough experience
  • Not enough experience in the right field or the right technology set
  • Not enough academic education background or lack of a degree
  • Poorly worded resume or one that just doesn’t advertise their skills
  • An overwhelming resume that is too long and contains too much info

By far the most common element I have seen over the past few years is that the HR personnel and recruiters are trying to match requirements from managers verbatim with a candidate’s resume, resulting in completely qualified candidates being overlooked because the lacked a certain keyword. The phrase “looking for a unicorn” has been used to describe the process of looking for someone to fit the exact set of requirements you have in hand. I even saw one example where a company was looking to fill a position and disqualified every candidate because the last title held didn’t match the title of the position they had an opening for. The twist here is that the title of the position that was open was unique to that company and only one person in that company had ever held it. This is like saying I need to drive a nail and I have to have a framing hammer and no other hammer will do. I don’t want a claw hammer, ball-peen hammer, sledge hammer or a rock hammer (which all of these will drive a nail, some better than others I might add) but I just have to have a framing hammer. Why you ask? Because someone said framing hammer at some point so I inferred only a framing hammer would do.

A near fit is still a fit

In IT, I see examples of overlooked candidates every day. For example, a client wants a developer with Dojo ¬†(A Javascript Framework) experience… now being a developer for many years, I understand that looking for someone with experience with Dojo is going to be near impossible, especially if I narrow my search to local candidates only. Also, as an IT professional, I understand I could fill this position with any developer who has extensive Javascript experience or ExtJS, Prototype, NodeJS, Scriptaculous or YUI Javascript frameworks. Many times though, the client is an HR representative who was given the requirement from a software development manager so they want to see Dojo experience on the resume and won’t waiver in the requirement. This results in some recruiters just tempting the developer to just put Dojo on the resume and try to pass them off. This would seem like a reasonable thing to do if the developer is confident they can just acquire the new framework quickly, but it could get you into trouble when the client interviews the candidate and starts asking about specific Dojo questions. It hurts the recruiter’s credibility and the person interviewing or the job. Honesty is always the best policy so we have to address the problem by training people to either learn a little more about technologies and how they relate or get them to lean on a technical resource to aide in screening the candidates.

No one seems willing to train anymore

10 years ago, people understood that after hiring a candidate there is a certain amount of training that is necessary, in fact, most companies were perfectly allright with hiring someone who didn’t match at all so long as they felt they could train them to do the job and had confidence that they would stay with the job. A lot of the problem ¬†lies not only with the recruiters and human resources personnel and how they match requirements to candidates but with the economy. Employers think they can afford to be really picky and not pay premium rates for IT talent, plus they don’t have the training budgets they once had back in the good ol’ days. IT is suffering the greatest shortage of talent it has ever had and if you go by the laws of supply and demand, the wages should be the highest they have ever been for skilled IT talent, but this is not the case. Wages in IT have stagnated for years after they dropped off following the .COM bust. The poor economy has affected almost every other field out there in a dramatic way, but IT hasn’t suffered as much because of mass attrition. This is due to several factors;

  • Overseas outsourcing created job losses and scared a lot of young students from pursuing IT careers and scared others out of the field
  • The .COM bomb years ago also scared a lot of people out of the field and from going into it
  • The initial hit of the recession hit IT pretty hard at first and weeded people out of the field
  • The Facebook/CSI generation are graduating to find out that IT isn’t all hacking and getting rich so they are not staying in the field
  • Larger companies have grabbed up all the IT people and paid them well, creating a shallow pool for smaller companies to choose from
  • People are staying put in this economy…IT professionals barely even poke their heads up to look around, as a matter of fact, most developers are ignorant to the fact that there is a shortage of their skills.

With such a shortage of talent, why haven’t the people that hire woken up and started to smell the coffee. Well, this is part of the disconnect; the same people who are trying to match skill for skill are also under the impression that IT is just like the other positions they are trying to fill and that there is a greater pool of unemployed out there to choose from. I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel really at this point either. These problems might just persist until the economy recovers although I hope not.

How can we fix the issues?

I’ve come up with a shortlist of recommendations that might help hiring managers, human resources and recruiters be able to increase their success with placements.

  • Look at cross-cutting skills when trying to fill a position. A good example is that Java and C# have a lot in common. In most cases a Java developer can fill a C# position with minimal effort. This doesn’t always work the other way around very well unfortunately because Java’s learning curve is steeper and it’s been around longer.
  • Use a technical resource to help screen candidates. My company is very good at this since we are a custom software company as well as a staffing company. I conduct interviews and technical screenings all week. Not only do I weed out candidates who don’t fit, I can provide candidates who are near fits that a non-technical person might overlook.
  • Don’t automatically disqualify candidates without degrees, some of the best IT people I have had the pleasure of working with didn’t have a degree or had a degree in an unrelated field. For example, I know a guy who has a doctorate in physics who has always been a talented programmer.
  • Don’t be picky in this economy when choosing a candidate. Don’t compromise, but don’t be complacent in thinking that you are going to find anyone close to perfection.
  • Don’t forget that aside from you interviewing the candidate, the candidate is interviewing you. You need to show them how happy they will be and enjoy working for you as well as try to ascertain whether or not they are a good fit for the position.
  • Don’t let archaic rules like dress codes get in the way. Look at the candidate and determine, within reason, if they attempted to dress for the interview. So what if they failed to wear a tie or jacket? The average interview these days in conducted in a polo shirt and slacks and increasingly this is changing to be jeans.
  • Do ask the candidate what they have heard about your company candidly and inform them that in no way will it affect their chances of getting hired. Intel is very useful and a person who is interviewing with you most likely has spent a bit of time researching you before stepping in the door.
  • Look at the salary landscape and take that into consideration with the lack of people available.
  • Be willing to train a capable person

OK, so I colored outside the lines a bit from my original premise, but it is definitely useful to get out in the open some of these issues affecting. In the future, I hope that more IT professionals get the jobs that make them happy and fulfill their career aspirations. I also have high hopes that the folks who are hiring get a wake up call and maybe they can learn that it is ok to train qualified candidates again and stop looking for that unicorn.