Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Growing Into the Role

If you had to apply for the job you have now, under current criteria, would you be qualified?

Would you have been qualified for each job along the way?

These questions hit me earlier this week as I was reviewing job descriptions for some positions we hope to post soon.  Over the years, the job descriptions have become ever more particular, and the drafts of the postings reflected that.  Since our postings typically separate “required” qualifications from “preferred” ones, over time, many of the “preferred” ones have made their way over to “required.”

In a way, that’s good.  Over time, we’ve become clearer on what the jobs actually entail, and have written descriptions and postings that reflect the background that we honestly think the right candidate would have.  Any candidate who actually meets every condition in the current draft should surely be capable of doing the job well.  But that person is probably looking for a job a level higher.

A tightly defined posting makes the first-cut screening easier, but it does so by rejecting some people who probably could have done the job quite well.  Do we really need five years experience, or would three years do for the right person?  If we require supervisory experience for first-level supervisors, how could staff in the area ever break through?

“Rigorous” and “rigid” can shade into each other if we aren’t careful.  

This is becoming more of an issue as the generation that built community colleges retires.  Years of minimal hiring and a certain amount of, um, how to say this politely, blocking of the pipeline, have left a thin bench.  Frequently, the younger folks simply don’t have the levels of experience of their predecessors, since their predecessors were hired early when the barriers to entry were far lower.  

That’s not a shot at anybody; it’s just a description of how things worked.  I noticed it when I left Proprietary U; the ad to replace me listed a level of experience that would have ruled me out as a candidate.  That wasn’t a backhanded criticism; it was just that they were trying to match the rules elsewhere.  Had they made that move a few years earlier, my career would have been very different.  Since plenty of other places already had, plenty of my cohort were shut out of the roles in which now they’re faulted for lack of experience.

Hiring for talent, rather than experience, brings some risk.  Talent is necessarily a judgment call, and frustrated applicants (or frustrated members of a search committee) who decide to get litigious or political can always claim that the judgment call in question was really motivated by something nefarious.  (Racism and/or excessive anti-racism are the usual favorites, but there are others.)  Bright-line rules -- even overly rigid ones -- hold up well in court.  The squishier the criteria, the harder they are to defend in a deposition.  

Beyond the legal issues, though, there’s the need for real mentoring.  Lean organizations often don’t have (or don’t think they have) the spare time and energy for meaningful mentoring in a new role.  It’s easier just to hire someone who’s already fully formed and good to go.  

But those folks are getting scarcer, and new perspectives are obviously necessary.  That means taking a deep breath, trusting some judgment calls, and hiring some talented people who may need a little time and help to grow into their new roles.

I left a civil service job to take my present academic position. Despite the fairly rigorous job descriptions in state civil service, the tasks I performed during my years in a state office had been shaped by my talents and experience. The executive director of our agency drafted a job announcement to solicit applicants for the vacancy created by my departure. However, she made the job description so specific to exactly what I had been doing that applications were scarce and none matched the requirements. They eventually threw out the job description and went back to basics.
When I was looking for jobs a few years ago, I came to see the experience requirements as a shorthand to make sure someone could do the job. That's less necessary with internal hires; you just ask Jane, who has chaired various committees and comes through with whatever she is asked to do, and is respected by her colleagues because you know she can do it. If Jane were an outsider, you'd want three years of chair experience.
You noticed the nasty little catch-22 about experience? I thought I noticed you noticing.

You want people to work their way up the ladder, gaining experience, and hopefully staying with the company. However, position rules/budget issues/bad bosses keep people from ever rising to the next position because they can't get the experience needed. They can't get it, so they can't apply. So you don't have the pool of candidates you need.

I thought about apply for my boss' position when she left. She even encouraged me to apply for it. However, due to the experience requirements, I missed the cut off by one year. I've been working in higher ed since I graduated from college. I could not have any more experience than I do. So, instead of getting a person with a MS and 6 years of experience (me) they could get someone with a BS and 7 years of experience for an AVP position.
In the academic law library realm, I've noticed how the same directors and department heads are frequently shuffled around the different schools, sort of like NBA coaches. This trend makes it difficult for the "younger" generation to catch a break on the experience requirement.
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