Is there really a shortage of Engineering Talent or is it just the way we go about finding it? A job hunters perspective.

I am currently unemployed but hopeful about my future. Up to a few weeks ago I was the VP of Engineering at a small engineering company with a team of RF, digital hardware and software engineers working for me. I wont go into the reasons I became unemployed but just let it be said I resigned on a matter of principle so that I personally felt better, but my wallet did not.

I’m now back in the game looking for a new job. Daily, I study the jobs boards; Indeed, LinkedIn, Ziprecuiter, Dice, Monster, CareerBuilder, ElectricalEngineer, Glassdoor etc. There are many to choose from depending on your particular skill set. However, a number of these are aggregators, they search other job boards and display the jobs as their own so there may not be as wide a selection of jobs available as there first appears, but they can also save a lot of time.

You find that magical job listing and think “I can do that job” and the comes the on line application. This is often hosted on the companies own web page, but you are soon redirected to “somecompany.taleo.net” a cloud service run by Oracle based on its Taleo platform or jobs.brassring.com, the competing IBM cloud platform. There you have to complete an online profile and this is where I believe the problem lies.

Let us step back for a moment and review the talent acquisition process from a Human Resources perspective in the engineering industry. An engineering manager gets approval to hire a new engineer. For sake of argument, let say they are a software engineer. The manger probably creates a job description for the post and a set of requirements (or req) for the skill set and experience they are looking for. Typically they will write down, the minimum education requirements, the software languages that the job requires. These are pretty generic and so lots of people could apply for the job. The manager will then become more specific and detail particular other experience that the applicant must have. They put in buzz words and acronyms; OOP, SQL, HTML,CSS, Tomcat, NodeJS, JSON, plus more years of experience. Typically all these words are creating a filter which reduces the large number of generic applicants to one. This is probably describing the person that is doing that job now or a similar employee from a competitor that the manger is trying to entice to leave. Now with all the requirements documented the ‘req’ is send on to Human Resources.

Human Resource professionals are rarely engineers, so they don’t have any concept of the skills that the engineering manager is looking for so they take this finely crafted document with the wish list of attributes and enter it into a system such as Taleo or Brassring, along with all the buzz words and experience requirements, and post the job description on there company website and one or more job boards. They then sit back and wait for the applications to start rolling in.

Along comes the poor unemployed applicant, or disgruntled employee looking for a job change. They have finely crafted their resume after visiting multiple websites suggesting how the resume should look and they now have to upload it. The first thing that happens is that the import does a terrible job at populating the various fields in the profile. It then takes just as long to correct the fields as entering the data by cutting and pasting. But, oh well, the resume has the nicely crafted wording so someone will surely see that at know what a talented individual you are!

So you go through correcting the fields by hand. Education is always a good one for me. I did not go to school in the US, I went to a Polytechnic in the UK. Since then, they have been upgraded to a University, so what should I put down? The original name on my certificate or the new name? I eventually found that Taleo already had the new university name in its database so I went with that. The next problem was GPA. British Universities had no such thing as GPA, you got an degree either with or without Honors, and either a 1st, 2.1 or 2.2. How do I put this down? If I put nothing does my application end up in the digital waste bin?

Then comes experience, why is it the field for experience is only 50 characters wide? This may be ok for hiring retail clerks, or is set up for people to use there phones to fill it out, but I need to describe what I have done, and I have to get all those buzz words in. It would be nice to be able to actually read what I have written clearly, so how about having a field that is as wide as the webpage. Hopefully the HR recruiters who read this field don’t have to look at the text through the same little window or maybe they don’t read it at all!

Let’s talk about the experience fields some more. Some companies limited the experience to your last 5 positions. So for a constant job changer this could go back a few years. I don’t change jobs that often, typically it was due to Reduction in Force events (RIF’s) or sales of the company I worked for, so I had lots of experiences I have accrued over the years, which I thought made me a well rounded engineer. So I’m trying to enter all this experience at one company over a 7 year period and I find that when I submit it it is over the 3000 limit! 3000 what I ask myself. Turns out to be characters, so with the aid of my trusty Open Source word processor and word count tool, I take my nicely crafted resume and try and cut it down to 3000 characters, while still trying to make literary sense and get in all those buzz words!

Well eventually, after typically a few hours, I hit submit, and the application is accepted and I sit back and wait. And wait and wait.

I put in a number of applications this way but what I hate most about the system is a lack of feedback. My application is in a company database, I have had to create a login and profile to submit it but I can’t go back and see what the status of the application is. Some feedback would be greatly desired; How did I score in matching for the job? Has it been reviewed by a HR professional? Has it been forwarded to the hiring manager? Have I been rejected? Would it be so hard to provide this feedback? Is it available but the company does not turn it on? I don’t know the answer, but as a human being, my feeling of self worth could be greatly enhanced if someone let me know where I was lacking. I could even go out and get the appropriate training.

Let me now take a look at this from the HR side. My application is scored by the software and a percentage of suitability of a match is declared and presented to the recruiter along with all the other applicants. How this happens again I don’t know. Some propitiatory magical algorithm is analyzing my inputs and making a life changing decision for me, one way or the other. No wonder so many people feel powerless.

Once, back when I had a job, I was looking for a new hardware engineer, and I was getting very few resumes forwarded to me, by the recruiting specialist at our company. So I inquired as to why.

“We are not getting any well qualified candidates” she said, “would you like to come down to my office and review those we are getting?”

So I entered the hallowed halls of HR and stared at her computer screen for a while. There were many applicant for the job, but only one or two in the top 90% match range, yet I did not think much of their experience. Yes they hit the buzz words but the longer descriptions of what they had done left me unconvinced of their suitability. So I reviewed applicants further down the list and found a half dozen who had similar experience but had not hit all the buzz words but who were obviously talented engineers. With a bit of training and guidance any of them could have done the job and one finally did.

Engineering is a skill that is learnt, first through theoretical and then practical application. If you have a good understanding of your particular engineering discipline, just because you don’t have 10 years relevant experience in a technology that has only been mainstream for 5 years, does not mean you cannot do that job after a little training and bring new and diverse ideas to it. Just because you are a little rusty does not mean you cannot come up to speed. We speak about diversity in terms of race and ethnic background but we ignore the diversity of experience that can be brought to a company, by recruiting people from outside that narrow set of job requirements. Look outside of the top 10% of matching applicants. Look for experience in a complementary skill set, maybe passing more applicants up to the hiring manager for review. They should at least have the skills to decide if the applicant is worth spending more time on. Yes, this may increase the hiring managers work load but they are at least seeing the wealth of talent that is out there.

One of my favorite quotes is from Robert Heinlein, the great science fiction writer:-

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” 
Robert A. Heinlein “Time Enough for Love”

So have I got a job? Well nearly. I have had a number of offers and I’m now about to embark on the next stage of my career. Not as a VP, but as a humble engineer doing what I love and believe I am good at, which is designing and building stuff. Did those offers come through the cloud platform talent acquisition sites? No they did not. They came from networking with old colleagues and applying to the less sophisticated companies using good old humans to review my resume.

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