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Tooling Up: The Big Disconnect

For years, there’s been a big divide between the kind of people companies want to hire and the kind of people they see when they start running ads. As one hiring manager recently told me, “The CVs I am getting just don’t appear to fit most of our positions. I thought with this economy the way it is that I would be seeing candidates who have the background and experience we are looking for.”

This is likely to seem very surprising to job seekers who have worked very hard for years to accumulate skills and credentials that would make them valuable to employers, only to lose out repeatedly to one of the hundreds of other applicants for every job.

Today, employers are no longer looking for a great brain and a world of potential. They're looking for that one CV that lists the skills they need right now -- not after 6 months of training.

What is going on? It isn't just the bad economy. Employers have always complained about what they see when they start looking for well-qualified technical professionals. Not that I want to protest too loudly: This does create a revenue stream for third-party service providers like me who get hired to fill those positions. But, I’ve got to tell you, the divide between employers’ “wants” and candidates’ “haves” is real, and it's growing larger.

In this month’s “Tooling Up,” I’d like to dissect this issue from both the candidates' and employers' perspectives. When approaching the job market for the first time -- an experience that still lies in the future for many readers of Science Careers -- it will be useful to know what you're up against.

From the candidate’s perspective: “pinpoint hiring”

Twenty-five years ago, you'd occasionally see a job ad from a company in Science or another journal, but such ads were rare. What I remember most about them was their simplicity.

I especially remember the first recruitment ads run in Science by one of the big biotech companies after it went public. The requirements listed were minimal because at the time it was hard to get someone who aspired to be a professor to move over to the dark side. Those ads went something like this: “Ph.D. Cell Biologist needed for growing biotechnology company.” That was it. No long list of skills, techniques, and special requirements. Wouldn't it be nice?

A few of those aspiring professors took the gamble: They dropped out of the usual career track, became pioneers, and in many cases went on to become senior managers. Some of them tapped their stock options and became the wealthy venture capitalists we see today investing in small companies. And when they knocked at the door, they weren’t quizzed about GMP (good manufacturing practices) or about how to run a certain assay a certain way. They were just invited in.

Eventually, as those pioneers became hiring managers themselves, they began to “tighten up the specs.” (That’s human resources–speak.) We started seeing phrases in the ads calling for particular skills: “a Ph.D. Cell Biologist with experience in CHO cell line development needed for growing biotechnology company.” Later still, this became “Ph.D. Cell Biologist with experience in CHO cell line development in bioreactors needed.” A decade later, it mutated into “Ph.D. Cell Biologist with experience in CHO cell line development, experience with bioreactors larger than 200 liters, and a thorough understanding of serum-free cell-culture media.”

You get the point. Today, employers are no longer looking for a great brain and a world of potential. They're looking for that one CV that lists the skills they need right now -- not after 6 months of training. I call this phenomenon “pinpoint-hiring.”

From the employer’s perspective

“The easy answer for hiring managers in industry is to look for people who have a very specific experience. They rise to the top of that stack of CVs,” says Kevin Foley, director of Translational Biology at GlaxoSmithKline. He admits that those without the requisite experience sometimes don’t even get reviewed.

“There’s a disconnect between academic research and industry research," Foley continues. "The two don’t fit together well. Lack of experience is the problem. You can get all the way to a Ph.D. and then realize you don’t have marketable experience.”

As Foley and I spoke, it occurred to me that in every discipline there are three or four hot areas that appeal to hiring managers. In microbiology, perhaps it’s microbial physiology that allows you to hit the “pinpoint” of an employer’s interest. In biochemistry, it may be protein folding. In chemical engineering, it is most certainly bioprocessing, and in pharmacology, it’s animal models, at least according to Foley.

“I just hired a postdoc from Children’s Hospital in Boston to take over in-vivo pharmacology here. It was a tough search. I ended up hiring someone coming right out of a postdoc because that scientist had strong experience in animal models, which is an area we were very interested in. He had no drug development background, no industry expertise, but he had the animal modeling background we needed,” Foley says.

And the key, of course, is that he could immediately get to work. This fellow had developed skills in a particular animal model for a specific disease of interest. Even without industry experience, to Foley's company, that was a winning combination.

That's what pinpoint hiring is all about. The applicant must have that key ingredient (often, a series of ingredients, different for every position) that allows her or him to go to work 2 weeks from Monday. This hiring pattern has taken hold in the complete absence of on-the-job training.

Yes, hiring managers in industry look for specialists. Pinpoint hiring is real. But Foley’s example shows that this pinpoint experience can come from your academic training and not just by working for a company.

To gain that experience, you need either a bit of luck or a lot of foresight. The best situation is if you already know what kind of industry job you want to end up in. One great way of lining up all the necessary ingredients to hit the pinpoint is to become an expert informational interviewer. Talk to people who are just a few years ahead of you in a job you're interested in. Take note of the day-to-day skills they offer their employers.

Then you can seek experience that will increase your odds of landing a pinpoint match in a specific type of job.

Is employer training completely obsolete? Almost, but not quite. There is at least one sector where the words “on the job training” are still heard in the corridors and interview rooms: in "tools" companies where the development of proprietary techniques, instruments, or reagents means that training is simple expediency: Proprietary techniques are secret, so you can't learn them in graduate school.

Per Grufman, senior director of research and development for Cepheid’s lab in Sweden says that the company’s proprietary PCR chemistries require special training. “While many candidates come equipped with the basics" -- that is, they know PCR -- "we still follow up new hires with some on-the-job training. For us, hiring comes down to bringing people in who know these basics and then ensuring their personality fits our culture. Of course, they must also have a good interview,” he says.

These days, companies hire credentials, not people. If they can find someone with the exact skill set they're looking for, and that person interviews well, that person will get the offer. In today's job market, the employer attempts to find a near-perfect match. But it isn't always possible, so occasionally someone with a good CV, a broadly appropriate skill set, and the ability to interview well still gets hired.

Is this "big disconnect" ever going to change?

I spoke with Cory Bystrom, a group leader and hiring manager at a West Coast medical diagnostics employer about his views on this disconnect between industry and academia. “What I think is missing from the academic experience is the opportunity for people to spend time getting a taste of industrial work while also earning their degree," Bystrom says. "So many graduates have moved from B.S. to M.S. to Ph.D. without ever doing, seeing, or experiencing anything related to the commercial application of science. ... So, when they search for work or even land an interview, they are completely out of their element. This makes landing the first post-Ph.D. job much harder these days because there is so much less slack in the system now to get people up to speed.”

In my next month's "Tooling Up," I'll address internships and new degree types that offer such programs.