Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A New Kind of New Hire

Executive Summary:
Each generation has its quirks and behavioral trends.  Our HR professionals pay close attention to these.  Combined with economic influences, our Generation X is producing a whole new type of new employee; the re-invented recruit.

The Rest of the Story:
I’m not a recruiter, nor a Human Resources generalist, but my business and my role grant me exposure to businesses, problems, and people across a broad spectrum.  It appears to me that, more and more often, a whole new type of new recruit is showing up at business doorsteps and our old hiring habits might be causing us to pass some excellent opportunities by.

The new employee opportunity I’m seeing, specifically, is what I will call the re-invented recruit.  They are individuals who have re-invented their career visions and are looking to do something different.

Throughout time, there have always been those individuals who have left their trades or career paths for periods of time, then tried to return only to find themselves falling into the classification of “unemployable.”  They may have left for any number of reasons:  health, to take care of family, sabbatical, missionary work, or even lay-off.

The problem has always been that when these individuals, who have been out of the workplace for more than a year, find it difficult to break back in.  Potential employers will look at that gap in the employment record and wonder if these individuals have lost their work ethic, if they have behavioral or focus challenges that caused the gap, or if they will be able to resurrect or learn the necessary skills.

There is also the doubt in the back of a potential employer’s mind about the salary expectations and staying power of these re-entering veterans.  The concern is that the candidate might be accustomed to more pay than the position offers, but will take the position in order to re-enter the workplace.  If so, will that new employee jump ship as soon as they find another job closer to the one they left a few years ago?

In any case, trying to re-enter the workplace after an absence of more than a year can be very difficult for someone more than 30 years old.  However, our current economy and Generations X and Y are creating a whole new group of re-entering employee candidates and our old concerns should not be applied to them.

The Baby Boomer generation was famous, or notorious, for ambition and chasing that next step on the corporate ladder.  In fact, many U.S. corporate cultures still harbor an expectation that up-and-coming leaders should move their families to anywhere the corporation asks them to go in order to get the exposure and experience the corporation values in its leaders.

Generation X, however, is not so inclined.  Generation X is much more heavily biased toward families with two working parents, many of whom possess equal earning potential and career stability.  Try to get one of those parents to move his or her family because a corporation, with little or no apparent commitment to its employees, expects them to move for a new role and you will likely be disappointed.

Generation Y is motivated in different ways yet.  Generation Y is more interested in the community or global contribution of their roles than in titles or pay than any generation prior.  It is also the most technologically enabled and comfortable and will look at moving as an outdated idea of the workplace.

Naturally, I’m oversimplifying, but my point is that the current generations in their 20’s through their 40’s have some behavioral trends that, combined with current economic pressures, are driving them to re-invent their careers rather than battle to get back into a role that either no longer exists in their area, or that was never overly inspiring or prosperous.  They are re-invented recruits.

I can identify of a hand-full of colleagues and friends immediately, without thought, that fall into the re-invented group.  In fact, the more that I think about it, the more I realize that a great many of my colleagues fit this category, including myself.

My neighbor has been a homemaker since her first son was born and is just now re-entering the workplace as an employee of a local charter school, something for which she has no prior experience other than the volunteer work she did at the school.  Another friend of mine moved with her husband to be nearer to his family and ended up becoming the Marketing VP of her father-in-law’s company.

I met a couple a while back, who turned out to be fellow alumni from my engineering school, and who walked away from engineering to open a coffee shop.  They are now successful restaurateurs and own several businesses.  One of my high-school fellows got his degree in high-altitude climatology and decided later to get into the role of software and database developer.  Now he has a leadership role in a small start-up that has nothing to do with the weather.  My brother-in-law is another successful software developer with a chemical engineering degree.

I’ll be willing to bet that my readers can also identify a plethora of colleagues, friends, or coworkers who have re-invented themselves too.  It’s common, but the old problems of getting started still exist.

Many who re-invent do so because an opportunity presents itself and they jump at it, or they just go with the flow and find themselves doing something they never anticipated.  That would be me.  However, some re-invented recruits made a conscious decision to do something different, took the time to learn the skills, and now wish to begin their new careers.  Unfortunately for these individuals, old biases and concerns pose a huge problem.

I have a friend who is one of the deliberately re-invented.  He worked as a construction and renovation laborer for many years.  He now has a degree in software development, something that was a hobby of his prior to the degree, and is now trying to get his first official software-development position.  Unfortunately, he is losing the battle to other fresh college grads in their early 20’s.  He is in his late 30’s.

He even shared with me one “bite-me” letter that blatantly explained, in undisguised words, that the role is open for younger employees and that his age was the reason he was not selected.  This was from one of our bigger aerospace corporations by the way.  Certainly, he has an obvious case of discrimination in this specific letter, but to what end?

He certainly won’t go to work for the company now that such values have been demonstrated.  Neither will I, for that matter.  He could try and get a settlement or to paint a black mark for the company by filing a formal complaint, but the business obviously has more money to spare on legal actions than he does.

My point is that our concerns about hiring seasoned individuals into entry-level positions clearly persist.  However, I would caution us against allowing these old habits to cause us to pass over potentially exceptional employees, or worse yet, inviting discrimination cases against us.

I’ve already pointed out that many of our colleagues, friends, and coworkers fall into the category of the re-invented.  I expect that many of those that you can think of are certainly worth their pay or are even exceptional.  Let’s take a quick look at the common concerns and see if it really makes any sense to choose a fresh graduate in his twenties over a graduate from the same class in his thirties or forties.

Obviously, they all graduated in the same class, so one is not going to have a skill set advantage; or is that true?  Is it possible that the more seasoned individual might have some skills from prior careers that would apply to the new one?  What about some leadership potential, skills dealing with customers, or greater proficiency with basic, fundamental work systems?

Supposing that skills are indeed equivalent, that leaves us with selecting on personality and performance potential.  Our natural tendency might be to choose the younger candidate on the grounds of fresh ideas and more energy.  Let’s look at that carefully.

Which candidate is more likely to roll with the punches, know how to deal with daily frustrations, and have the stronger work ethic, the one who might not have worked more that a summer internship, or the one who already has 20-years of experience working hard in environments of diversified personalities and difficult bosses?  Let’s also ask this.  Why would the individual who decided to walk away from one career and gamble on another, probably a career about which they have discovered some passion that drove the decision in the first place, have fewer new ideas than the younger graduate?  Might they have more instead?

Last, lets look at the “energy” argument.  That’s a hard one to pin down.  We all know young sloths and old fireballs.  It’s not much of a reason to begin with, but we can even play devil’s advocate with it too.  The current generation exiting college, nation-wide, is less healthy and more obese than the generation of executives they would be working for.  I know it’s an equally weak argument.  It’s probably best for us to just not even bring up the “energy” argument at all.

There’s concern for compensation expectations or staying power.  Let’s think about that carefully too.  If you have access to the seasoned candidate’s prior employment list, it will tell you if they stayed with an employer for several years, or if that candidate jumped around.  It they stayed, you have a good indicator.  What indicator do you have with the younger candidate?  As for compensation, be assured that the seasoned candidate probably has the more realistic expectations and knew what to expect when the decision to change careers was made.

If you are facing the decision of re-inventing yourself, or if you have just done so, then be forewarned.  The old biases persist and you will need to battle against them to get the attention of potential employers.  If you get that attention and feel that they may be gauging how you will stand up against the younger candidates, be ready to make your case with some of the arguments I presented above.

If you are reviewing candidates for entry-level positions, instead of passing up a candidate because of an old, irrelevant work history, put that application in your pile deserving a second glance because it does have the other work history.  Chances are that the re-invented recruit has more to offer for the same salary than a younger recruit.  At least give yourself the opportunity of talking with the re-invented candidate.  You might be surprised by their passion as well as other, bonus skills and work ethic they have to offer.

Stay wise, friends.

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