Andrew Sullivan posts a letter today from a reader in England who was laid off a year ago and hasn’t had much luck finding a job since. Here’s the concluding paragraph:
Several things I’ve learned: You can’t apply for jobs well under what your previous job was; you won’t be taken seriously and will be considered over-qualifed. You must fall completely to the bottom and get the occasional minimum wage, temporary job. No one will commit to any training for a new position. If you’ve done exactly the job advertised before, you’ll be considered. But you’ll be considered incapable of learning anything new. General experience will not be considered. Stuff learned on your own will be denigrated or discounted. University degree qualification doesn’t matter. Age discrimination is alive and well.
Italics mine. This is a surprisingly widespread attitude, even in the white collar sector. Back when I had a real job and frequently hired new staff members, I always looked for people who had the right general background (product management, say, or tech writing) but I didn’t worry too much about whether their background precisely matched what they’d be doing for me. This was, however, decidedly not the attitude of most of my peers. Many of my job candidates were interviewed by a few others in the company as well as by me, and I was always surprised by the number of people who would say “But he only has a hardware background” (we were a software company) or “she’s never worked in document imaging” (we were a document imaging company). And the folks who said this were consistent when they were hiring for their own departments: they were really meticulous about looking only for people who had exactly the background they needed, whether that meant selling high-volume scanning software (for a sales job) or knowing the precise set of technologies we used to build our software (for a programming job).
This attitude wasn’t universal, but it was surprisingly common. And it betrays a real laziness. Sure, someone with exactly the right background can be a plus sometimes, but most of the time all it gets you is a slightly faster learning curve for the first month or two. After that, the more talented person will be better no matter what their background was. (Within reason, of course.) A good product manager can learn a new product line and a good programmer can learn a new set of tools.
Of course, I’ve always wondered if I was wrong about this. Maybe I overestimated the ability of most people to learn new things. Maybe my department (marketing) was more forgiving of long learning curves than others. Maybe even good programmers struggle with new tools for a long time unless they’ve previously used something pretty similar. Maybe things are entirely different when you take a step down from the knowledge-intensive jobs that I’m most familiar with. It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong about something. What say you, readers who are also hiring managers? How close a fit do you usually look for in new hires?