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Why and How Employers Hire—and Why It Matters to Your Job Search

This is the ninth article in my Transitioning PhD Blog Series, written by contributor Catherine Maybrey, PhD CDP of CM Coaching Services. 

Ah, the non-academic hiring process. If you’re thinking about it, it’s probably not in good terms. Most job seekers, regardless of their degree level, only think about the hiring process when their search hasn’t yielded their desired result—a solid offer for the job they want to do, at the organization where they want to work. People only tend to think about hiring when it isn’t working. That’s unfortunate. If you don’t think about hiring at the beginning of your search, you’re likely setting yourself up for a good deal of frustration and anxiety. The smart move is to understand how hiring works before you begin your search. Then you can adjust your search strategies to reflect the realities of your field and profession. In this article, we’re going to flip your thinking, so you can view your search from the employer’s perspective and make sure you are adopting strategies that will yield real results.

It’s Not About You

This is the first rule of understanding hiring, and it may be a difficult one to swallow, so let’s put it into perspective. Imagine that you need to buy a new computer. First, you ask yourself, PC or Mac? Should you buy a hard drive and monitor, laptop, or an all-in-one? Should it be compact for portability or large for maximum screen space? What capabilities does it need to have to begin working right out of the box, and what potential capabilities does it need for use as you go forward? These are the same kinds of questions that an employer might ask themselves at the beginning of the hiring process. If they are replacing an employee who has left the organization, they can simply repost the same job description, but what if their business or needs have changed since that employee started? What if that employee was a star, who went above and beyond the job description? Or, what if that employee was a complete mismatch from the start? How can they avoid that this time? The situation is even more complex if the employer is creating a new role, or hiring for contractually limited project-based positions. The primary concern in hiring is to ensure that the employer’s staffing needs are met, whatever those might be. Notice that you, the job seeker, haven’t even entered the picture yet. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but an important one, as it’s going to impact every other aspect of your search.

Reasons for Hiring

Employers hire for a variety of reasons, from filling vacancies to expanding capacity. In the gig economy, employers are hiring now more than ever, because their workforce is transitory. Without continuing positions, many employees are contractually limited, which means that hiring is part of the organization’s regular operation. Some larger organizations hire cyclically, onboarding new graduates from all levels into multi-year rotational programs that provide cross-training, and allow the organization to identify talent without having to immediately place them into a permanent slot. Whether an employer is hiring to fill a vacancy, manage their talent pipeline, or is simply in a growth cycle, they are always going to approach hiring from their perspective.

So what does this mean for you? Plenty! You have loads of free information at your fingertips that will help you understand why an employer might be hiring, and that information will allow you to decide if it might be a good fit. Let’s imagine that you’ve been following an employer, and you would love to work for them. You check their job board regularly and notice a series of openings for a department. Before rushing into your application, you need to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are these positions contractual? Organizations that hire people on term limits will necessarily post more frequently to maintain their staffing levels. For instance, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on governmental contracts tend to post cyclically shortly after the announcements of funds from annual budgets, and then hiring dramatically decreases for the remainder of their fiscal year. Go for it during the hiring boom.
  • Have these positions appeared before? It might seem like a dream to have a second shot at a position that you have seen before, but it might also be a warning sign. If the information is available, try to find the staff listing and see if they are expanding or if staff members have left. Constant turnover is a warning sign and can signal bad management, organizational problems, and other red flags. Conversely, if the roles are closer to entry level it may indicate that staff are not staying in the position long-term—perhaps due to promotions or an unhealthy work environment. Make sure to do your research, and let the information guide your decision.
  • Is the job description clear? If the organization is expanding, or creating new roles within an existing team or for a new venture, they might not have a clear concept of what they want in a candidate. That’s unfortunate, but not necessarily a deal breaker. New positions frequently offer you the opportunity to define a role, so don’t rule them out arbitrarily. If you go forward, be prepared to show the employer you understand their needs and direction after having conducted extensive research about the job title and organization via the organization’s website, LinkedIn, and any news you can find.
  • Is the salary commensurate? I don’t often talk about salary because it falls under the career value category, and “acceptable” varies from person to person. If the position doesn’t list a salary range, check out sites like Glassdoor, which will give you an idea of what the salary might be. Even if the salary isn’t quite where you’d like it to be, don’t forget that sometimes accepting a lower salary at the outset is a short-term sacrifice for the long-term goal of getting into your ideal industry or organization.

How Hiring Works

You already know the basics of hiring. An organization posts a job, applicants submit resumes and cover letters, select candidates are invited for an interview, and then the employer makes an offer. But that’s just part of the story. Prepare to have your eyes opened if you are seeking anything other than an entry-level role. Employer hiring practices are as diverse as you can imagine, and they take multiple variables into account. Knowing how an employer hires is as important, if not more so, than understanding why, and will give you the added insight you need to take control of your search.

Trying before Buying

The gig economy favors employers. They don’t have to pay all of the added costs of pension, benefits, or even vacation in some cases, though they do have to follow federal and state/provincial laws, so know your entitlements. Hiring people on contracts is a favorite way to onboard new employees. Employers benefit from the completed work and can evaluate their new staffer with minimal commitments. Before you roll your eyes and decide that contracts are no better than adjuncting, consider that many employers make temporary positions permanent when the contract comes up for renewal. If you like the organization and the position, and can see long-term benefits aside from the paycheck, this may be an avenue for exploration.

In the private and nonprofit sectors, contract positions are usually posted on job boards; this list of the 12 best nonprofit job boards includes my top picks for Canada and the US, and many more. More specialized positions, however, may be posted on industry sites, such as Brainhunter or Mindwire for IT/engineering positions in Canada, or The Ladders in Canada or the US for experienced roles in the private sector. If an organization is expanding its capacity in a specific area, but isn’t sure how much work there will be on an ongoing basis or they don’t want to commit yet, contracts are a good compromise. Governments use contracts as well, but they often offer those contracts through a third-party employment service that takes care of background checks and clearance as well as the mechanics of hiring. If you are interested in joining the public service, this may well be an option for you. You will need to research which agencies regularly fill government contracts and reach out to them to find out how to get listed with their firm.

Connected Hiring

Employers tend to draw on their networks when hiring because they are more eager to interview and hire a candidate who has the recommendation of an existing employee. In other words, hiring from their networks reduces both the likelihood of hiring a dud and the cost of paying to post a description to job boards. Some organizations have formalized Employee Referral Programs, where employees are rewarded for referring new hires. ERPs allow organizations to maintain a strong pool of candidates, lower the cost of advertising openings, and create good morale. People won’t refer family and friends to a lousy workplace, and they also aren’t likely to recommend people with poor work ethics. Definitely keep your eyes open for these programs by checking the HR pages of your preferred employers. If you don’t know anyone who works at a company with an ERP, you can incorporate that into your networking strategy.

You can take advantage of this hiring practice—hiring someone who is referred by an existing employee—by building strategic networks in your industry. Once you’ve identified an organization with an ERP, you can build a strong networking presence by starting with a single person and asking for suggestions of others who might be open to sharing their experiences with you. If you’ve been following this series, you’ll already be familiar with this type of networking, often called informational interviewing. Remember, the stronger your relationships, the likelier it is that your network will give you advance notice of upcoming positions before they are posted, and support your candidacy. Engaging in this type of strategic networking helps you tap into the elusive “hidden job market” of unposted openings.

Building a Talent Pipeline

Smart employers view hiring as a way of onboarding employees at the start of their career with the goal of training and developing them to become the next generation of leaders. Organizations with formal training programs tend to hire cyclically, creating a cohort of new employees, and they often have long time gaps between applications, interviews, and starting the program as a paid employee. Outcomes for employers with rotational programs are extremely strong, and they tend to have low staff turnover, so be prepared for a competitive application process. Some of these employers, such as Boston Consulting Group, even actively recruit PhDs from across all disciplines. Check with your campus career center if you have access to one to find out which employers will be visiting your campus to discuss their rotational programs.

Postdoc Anyone? 

Surprised I’m discussing postdocs? Give me a moment to explain. Not all postdocs take place on university campuses. Some postdoc-granting organizations in the US and Canada place fellows at organizations or have them conducting research in collaboration with an industry/organizational partner, like Mitacs in Canada, or the American Council of Learned Societies. If you want to pursue a career in research outside of academia, a professional-focused postdoc may give you the opportunity to move forward with your plans while making great use of your skills and knowledge. It also gives the organizations the opportunity to test you out with minimal risk since most postdocs are subsidized. Traditional academic hiring rules apply, so dust off your CV.

Conduct Your Job Search Strategically

Now that you’re armed with a stronger understanding of why and how employers hire, we need to look at how this will impact your search strategies. Approaching your search tactically will help you to make more efficient use of your time and resources, and should yield better results.

Look in the Right Places

One of the first things you should determine in your search is the geographic location. If you’re open to relocating, what are your must-haves and deal breakers? Just like academia, you may have to move if you want a specific job in the field of your choice with one of your preferred employers. Why? Because the jobs are where they are. Let’s say that you’re an oceanographer. You’ve just finished your PhD and returned home to Nebraska, the most landlocked state in the country. You will need to relocate if you want a position as an oceanographer.

The same philosophy goes for every other industry. You need to become familiar with your chosen profession by reading industry reports and identifying the organizations in your field that might hire you. Where are they located? What is the hiring market like in those locations? Is the market flooded with your professional colleagues or is it a tighter market for employers? Ideally you want to identify regions and organizations that have reported hiring difficulties in professional surveys (unfilled positions) to give yourself the most leverage in your search. Professional associations for your chosen field will usually post survey results on their sites, under research, and that will give you an overview of your profession. For broader information, you may want to search for “human capital,” “employment trends,” or “hiring trends” along with your geographic location to find research from consulting firms, government, recruitment agencies, and other organizations that will give you insight into the labor market.

Take Alberta, Canada, as an example. A few years back the oil sands were booming. Alberta couldn’t get enough engineers, and businesses there were paying top wages so everyone headed west like the infamous Gold Rush. We all know how that turned out, don’t we? Much the same thing happened in Alberta. The price of oil dropped, employees were let go, wages returned to normal, and the market was glutted with engineers fighting for a position after the boom of the oil sands ended. If those engineers checked the industry reports on Engineers Canada and Randstad, they would have seen that the east coast was desperate for engineers. Everyone headed west, leaving the east coast hard-pressed to fill open positions. This example, from my side of border, perfectly illustrates why you need to do your research and be flexible in your must-have list. If jobs in your profession are scarce in your location, you can’t change that fact. You can change your location.

Use Your Skills to Refine Your Job Search

Deciding on which jobs to apply to can feel overwhelming, but the task can be more manageable if you focus on your skills. Employers have needs that they must satisfy, and that’s where your skills come into play. Large organizations frequently use software to screen applicants based on skills, along with the amount of experience they have and their qualifications. The software will parse resumes and search for keywords—which are often skills. While it might seem scary, the software actually helps you set parameters around your search because you’ll quickly realize it’s likely not the best use of your time to apply to a job if you don’t already have at least most of the desired key skills. In other words, it’s not always sufficient to be able to learn a skill; sometimes you really do need that skill before applying to a job.

If identifying your skills feels just as daunting as the application itself, here are four tips. First, scour job descriptions and industry reports that align with areas you think you’d like to work (whether they are for a specific company, job title, or industry). Take note of the skills that are used repeatedly (they will likely be considered keywords by the employer). Second, I recommend doing a skills inventory that details all of your current skills, with examples of when and how you used them, to help you accurately evaluate your skills. Third, search LinkedIn for the generic job title and filter it to your sector. Are you seeing any trends in people’s profiles? Did they enter the field with certain competencies or develop them on the job? Fourth, reconcile your findings: Does everything you’ve found point to you needing project management skills, yet you have none? If so, create a plan for either acquiring that skill or adjust your expectations in terms of how long it might take you to find a job. Conversely, if you find that you have most of the skills needed, you’ll have insight into what to highlight in your application.

Final Thoughts

While we, as job seekers, approach the search from our perspective, employers do the same and look at things from their perspective. Understanding that viewpoint can help you implement strategies that will advance your search. Whether you choose to develop a strategic networking campaign to access the hidden job market, target employers with rotational training programs, or begin with a skills assessment, these strategies will allow you to position yourself in a more favorable light with employers. Reviewing the sector research, and taking the time to understand their motivations for hiring and the industry trends will help you to craft stronger application materials, and move forward in the hiring process. Your process of earning a PhD and working in academia has granted you valuable knowledge, skills, and experience. Now you have to communicate that value to employers in their own language, so they can better understand how you can help them meet their needs. Because solving the employer’s problems is the ultimate goal of hiring.

About Catherine Maybrey, PhD CDP

After completing her PhD in 2005, Catherine experienced the joys and frustrations of retraining, and changing career paths from academia to career development. With 10 years’ experience in the field, Catherine has worked at and with organizations and universities in Canada and the US, and with individual clients to deliver high quality, customized coaching programs and career services. Combining research on hiring and labor market trends with insight on higher education and career development, Catherine is a regular contributor to the Academica Group Rethinking Higher Ed Forum. You can email Catherine, and find her online at CM Coaching ServicesLinkedIn and Twitter.

Heidi owns and operates Career Path Writing Solutions, a communications consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals and businesses communicate when it matters most. She delights in helping job seekers navigate career change and guiding business owners to present their value proposition persuasively. Heidi earned her PhD in history from Duke University and teaches professional development for various university programs and organizations. She holds certifications in resume writing, interview preparation, and empowerment coaching, and sits on the Certification Committee of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches.

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