At TalentDrive, a three-year-old Chicago software start-up that allows recruiters to search thousands of databases for résumés that best match job openings, there's something called a "purple squirrel." A biochemist who speaks Portuguese and lives in Dubuque, Iowa, for example, is a purple squirrel—a candidate who quite possibly does not exist. During this recession, it seems as though many openings recruiters were charged with filling required purple squirrels. The jobs were so extremely specialized they were out of reach for most people. Now, TalentDrive's chief executive, Sean Bisceglia, has a good barometer for measuring the start of the recovery: when the nonspecialized jobs begin opening up again.
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Large-scale, easily measurable job creation is something all Americans are waiting for. But today's workers cannot expect the workforce to return to what it was. Many will need new, specialized skills to accomplish what companies require as they strive to do more with less. Job seekers will need to be strategic and—hardest of all—will have to stay positive, despite suffering extra-long stints of unemployment.
Here are five ways to give yourself an edge in the recovery:
Pursue science, math, or a technical certification. Despite the profusion of job seekers and nearly 10 percent unemployment, a recent study by Robert Half International found 37 percent of executives reporting that it's challenging to find skilled professionals today. Many companies are finding a mismatch between job seekers and available positions. Last year, Manpower reported that engineer ranked No.1 on a list of the 10 slots most difficult for American employers to fill. Nurses, technicians, skilled trades workers, IT staff, and machinists also made the rankings.
Technical skills and scientific knowledge seem to top the list of what employers want and workers lack. "Coming out of the downturn, employers increasingly are going to be looking for people with credentials or certifications," says Susan Traiman, director of public policy at Business Roundtable. "I would say that math and science, even in fields like healthcare, are almost prerequisites." Students who care about future earnings should pay attention: Of the 10 undergraduate degrees with the highest median starting salaries, seven are in engineering, according to a report by PayScale. The other three? Economics, physics, and computer science.
Sweeping baby boomer retirements will hit some industries particularly hard. Many firms in the defense industry must hire Americans, but the graduate-level science courses that could prepare such employees are disproportionately attended by foreign students. And other companies that have made a practice of hiring skilled graduates from countries like China or India are now seeing many of those grads return to their native countries for job opportunities. Many of today's growth industries require a higher level of technical competence in quantitative reasoning, problem solving, and communication skills than they once did, and the United States simply does not have enough students who are getting solid math and science education in high school and then pursuing two- and four-year degrees in math, science, and engineering, Traiman says.
Take care in choosing a retraining program. While no one disputes the importance of training laid-off workers in skills that best reflect the needs of the nation's employers, retraining programs often struggle to accomplish the task. One study examining the benefits of Workforce Investment Act programs found that participants in the training program for disadvantaged adults initially had lower earnings than those who did not obtain training services, but their earnings caught up within 2½ years. The marginal benefits of training were found to exceed $400 in earnings for each quarter. Training program participants who had been laid off or "displaced," however, experienced an "appreciably smaller" return on their training, according to the authors of the IMPAQ International study. The participants who took training after losing their jobs actually earned less—for a couple of years—than a comparison group of workers with similar experience but no retraining. The participants' earnings ultimately showed no statistical advantage.
If you're a job seeker, community colleges are often quite nimble in keeping up with employer needs, but you may also check with employers or read online postings to see which certifications are increasingly required. One thing to remember: The recession's side effects can be a bit misleading, as many jobs are going to applicants with higher-level skills—Ph.D.'s in positions requiring only a bachelor's degree, for example. That shouldn't be perceived as a long-term trend.
If you're looking for work, have a plan. Researchers at the University of Missouri studied the efforts of 327 job seekers, ages 20 to 40, and found that developing and following a plan at the start of your job search and having positive emotions later in the search have a significant impact on success. Conscientiousness appears to be key.
Qualities such as self-discipline and dependability seemed to affect a job seeker's tendency to set goals and develop a plan, thereby influencing the number of offers received, the researchers report. "Perhaps, conscientious job seekers conducted better-quality job searches by scrutinizing their fit with prospective employers more carefully or more effectively following up with employers," the researchers report. Likewise, positive emotions may have helped job seekers behave more confidently or cope better with stress, "thereby responding more skillfully in interviews than job seekers with less positive emotions," according to the report.
The researchers recommend that job seekers set goals, monitor their progress, analyze their interview skills, and find ways to think more positively and handle bad news better. "Some of these recommendations seem like they are common sense, but they are just not that common," says researcher Daniel Turban, a professor and chair of the department of management in the University of Missouri's Robert J. Trulaske Jr. College of Business.
Put your search efforts into getting a referral. A common refrain in this recession was that of the job seeker who sent hundreds of résumés in response to online postings and never heard a peep in reply. A recent study by CareerXroads suggests why: Twenty-seven percent of external hires are found through referrals. It's one of the most efficient, cost-effective ways for companies to fill positions.
At global consulting giant Accenture, employees are among the best sources for finding new talent. Hires who are referred by employees are well qualified and "stickier"—they stay with the company longer and reduce attrition over time, says John Campagnino, Accenture's senior director of global recruitment. Candidates referred by employees are prioritized and get a "high touch" treatment, he says. Accenture offers financial rewards to employees whose referrals become successful hires. (In India, making five successful referrals gets an employee a free ticket to Mauritius, a paradisiacal island in the Indian Ocean.)
Accenture's reliance on referrals hammers home the importance of networking. The company's stipulations offer a little guidance, as well: Accenture requires that employees have firsthand experience of the individual they refer. So while Campagnino recommends that job seekers get active in social media, his recommendations lean toward interaction with the company's recruiters: connecting to the company's social media pages on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter; joining skill-specific groups on LinkedIn and positioning yourself as an expert; introducing yourself to recruiters directly; even referring a friend for an open position that doesn't match your skills.
Be teachable once you're hired. What it takes to get hired is often very different from what it takes to stay employed. Technical skills may win you the job, but poor self-awareness and a lack of emotional intelligence can prevent promotion or even result in dismissal. In a study released in 2005, Leadership IQ studied 5,247 hiring managers at 312 companies. The managers made more than 20,000 hires in three years. The findings: Forty-six percent of newly hired employees fail within 18 months. The causes were overwhelmingly employees' lousy interpersonal skills.
Executive search firms pay attention to interpersonal skills. Some companies help employees learn these skills by asking a coworker to give them feedback about how they communicate. One major requirement is an openness to criticism, says executive recruiter Bruce Dingman. If employees wish to maximize their potential, they have to keep learning, and they have to be willing to change.