Friday, 5 June 2009

Job Application Burn Out

With redundancy about 7 weeks away I am obviously flat out in terms of job applications, but it is frying my brain. Back in 1998-9, I did 126 job applications in about seven months. These days my rate seems a lot slower because I have only completed 17 since February. The expectation when you sign on for unemployment benefit is that you apply for at least 2 jobs per week. I suppose it gets harder as you get higher in companies. I have been in my profession since 1994 and am on the cusp of senior managerial roles, so I guess there is a lot more to write than when I was applying back in the late 1990s. My hit rate has improved. I used to get 1 interview for every 25 applications I made and now I have had 3 out of 17. I suppose the higher you move up the pyramid even in these times of rising unemployment, there are fewer candidates in the field. I remember applying for a civil service job back in the late 1990s and they had a total of 5000 applicants for about 40 posts and had had to extend the deadline and print more application forms to cope.

At least these days electronic applications means I do not have to spend a fortune on printer ink, large envelopes and postage. There was a fad in the late 1990s for employers to insist you sent in at least 4 copies of everything, and for some reason Scottish employers I encountered insisted on 8 copies. You wondered if they had heard of the photocopier. Anyway, did encounter one employer recently who asked for 4 copies of the paper form and I just did not bother applying as I thought who wants to work for such a backward organisation? One employer who does provide electronic applications then has a complaint that they get too many applications by email so insist you print it out and post it in. They say this as if it was the fault of the applicants, but if I worked there I would look at what I was putting into my job advertisements and specifications that are encouraging such a strong response. I know most employers just want one perfect applicant so they do not have to deal with the sifting process, but that is unrealistic, especially when so many people are out of work and the number is rising, and we are again being encouraged to apply speculatively as well as in response to advertisements.

I think that with the move to Essential/Desirable requirements there has been a real inflation in what you have to write, though it is clear that some companies recruiting do not understand the implications of this. The record so far is from a company in London which had 36 Essential requirements and 10 Desirable ones, but a new twist came the other week when one company wanted me to demonstrate ('with evidence' as they state clearly) my abilities in 26 areas, fine, but they gave me only 4000 characters (including spaces) on their electronic form, probably about 800 words or less, making about 30 words per requirement! How do they expect to get an understanding of applicants from that?

Anyway, for those application forms which actually allow you to address the specifications I am averaging about 5000 words per form. I was a bit worried that I was writing too much, but I checked in with an employability advisor and she said that if they say something like 'write no more than 4000 words in this section' you should be at least writing something over 3000 words. These 3-4000 words addressing the specification are then supplemented with me having to detail all the different jobs and education I have had. I am rather stunned how many employers ask in immense detail about study I did so long ago. I cannot remember on what day I took an exam in 1998 let alone in 1984. What is the likely impact on me being a senior manager if I got a 'B' grade or a 'C' grade for 'O' level Mathematics twenty-five years ago. They do not even teach 'O' levels any more and presumably my career since I entered the profession is what should be under consideration not what choices my parents made in terms of my study back in the late 20th century. I have at least another 23-26 years of work, by then they will be expecting me to remember stuff from half a century ago.

I am finding that each application is taking me 3-4 hours to complete and now I am close to my limit. It is really draining writing mundane stuff out repeatedly (each of the 17 applications has required a different format, often with embedded macros, making it hard to cut and paste the basic information across from previous forms) and then having to tax my brain to address the numerous weird specifications. I am really getting burnt out, but if you admit this you are seen as lazy. I am trying to be tactical and limit myself to 3 applications per week, still up to 12 hours work, but target the ones I think I am best suited for. I am at a real crossroads. I earn £37,000 now, and am applying for jobs that range from £28,000 to £60,000 so whichever one I get could mean a real change in income, for the better or worse and may mean that my career now goes on to the next stage or drops back to a lower one, which would compel me to start applying again as soon as the economy picks up. However, given that I have lived in 4 houses in the past 5 years it would be nice to settle in one place for a bit, but in the current climate it seems unlikely.

The inability of recruiters to write what they actually want from a job is one I have long known. Two things happen. First everyone who has a stake in the new post insists on certain requirements being included which is why they mushroom in number and in fact there are often overlaps, but the everyone involved wants their specific take on a skill included. Then there is a misunderstanding about what the job entails. This is very common among senior managers who are often behind the recruitment. A colleague from a different unit yesterday told me how they had recruited all the wrong people. They had wanted staff with line management experience, but the way they had written the advertisements they had got people with project management experience. Of course, there is some overlap but project management often involves dealing with non-human aspects of the work to a greater extent than pure line management. Due to this matching with criteria in the recruitment process (at the initial stage often done mechanically by human resources staff even before it reaches those who know the job area) if someone matches the job as described they almost have to be recruited. Often I have encountered managers thinking a job involves something when in reality it involves something entirely different and this comes to the fore when they are recruiting.

I did a posting recently about the unfeasible things that job specifications list. Often this is simply that there are so many and in such diverse areas that the work would normally be covered by 3-4 people in different posts. For example, some jobs want you to have line manager, project manager, marketing, market analysis and research skills. However, I have encountered a few gems of specific skills that in themselves seem bizarre. In a good workplace you should only ever assign activities the success of which can be determined, and in this age of training, in theory should allow people to be trained in them rather than stemming from some inherent ability. So I laughed at the specification which said 'must be able to command respect in the room', on that basis simply being a thug, 2 metres tall you could achieve that. You cannot train that and it depends who is in the room at the time. It was clearly a thing to filter out any external applicants who would be unknown by the existing staff. How do you measure 'respect' anyway. It reminded me of the 1980s comedians Hale & Pace who used to have two characters, who seemed to be night-club bouncers who called themselves 'the management' in a thuggish tone.

Even if you get beyond the stage of the specification you find the interviewers are obssessed by one particular thing and ignoring the list of specifications, make all their judgements on one basis. I remember having six interviews at the same company but gave up when I realised that the lead interviewer always immediately categorised everyone on the basis that they were 'a born administrator' or not and if you were not perceived to be part of the Elect then you stood no chance of getting a job and conversely, someone lacking many of the abilities but seen to have that particular nature was let in. The other case was a woman who judged everyone on the basis of what time management software they used. This was utterly foolish because there are a range of methods of time management and any piece of software is liable to be obsolete in 2-3 years anyway.

The other specification which made me laugh was because it was wrapped up in meaningless management-speak from the 1980s, it said 'you must be able to engage people through vision'. I could have a guess at the meaning, but surely they could be more explicit. Just because unemployment is rising again it does not mean that we have to return to the meaningless style-over-substance approaches of the 1980s corporate culture. I do hope that I can get a senior managerial position and begin to address some of this foolish behaviour in at least one company. In the meantime, for now, it is back to writing out what exams I took in 1984.

P.P. 16/08/2010: The record for the number of requirements in a job specification of a vacancy I have applied for has now been broken.  The total was 51 requirements, though a number were effectively the same skill stated in different words.  There was no indication which of the requirements was essential and which was desirable, so I guessed they were all essential.  In total it took me a little over 4 hours to complete the application; I must be getting faster!

No comments: