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Hairstylists Need Not Apply

November 1, 1996
Anyone—anyone at all—can edit a magazine. Or design one. Or sell ad space in one. That’s what I’ve learned in more than a dozen years of hiring staff members of Personnel Journal. Do you doubt it? Just ask the candidates.

In cover letters sure to amaze and amuse, candidates go through contortions to rival anything seen at "Cirque du Soleil" in an effort to demonstrate how they’re qualified to work as publishing professionals.

Those sports columns written for the high school newspaper 20 years ago? Ample qualification to write a magazine cover story. That unproduced play filled with scintillating dialogue? Surely more or less the same thing as reporting. And if you haven’t noticed the remarkable similarity between our cover stories and technical manuals that explain how to take apart a photocopier and reassemble it, job candidates have.

And those were the prospects with relevant skills. They certainly came closer to the mark than the myriad other people who argue—sometimes with a fervor that almost compensates for their missing credentials—that they are just perfect for us: The hand model tired of being exploited for her beauty, the food stylist weary of sculpting mashed potatoes, the mortician looking for a job with a little more life in it. (I promise you, I am not making these up.)

I particularly admire the candidates who have no faith in our ability to see the connection between previous work they’ve done and the available job and clarify the link for us: The auto mechanic whose cover letter assured us that fixing carburetors and grammatical errors employ essentially the same skills, the housewife whose handmade Christmas cards always elicited praise (as our covers surely did not), and the Girl Scout cookie sales champ who was ready to work her magic on ad sales.

I’m sure that you’ve read equally inventive job applications; anyone who has done any hiring has. What’s alarming to me is that, proportionately, these applicants now dominate. A decade ago, these candidates were the oddballs that offered a welcome smile while sorting through stacks of resumes from qualified applicants. Today, these off-the-wall prospects outnumber the serious applicants. I cringe every time we have turnover (which, mercifully, isn’t often) because finding qualified people to hire gets harder and harder.

Part of the problem is that we’ve all raised the bar. As knowledge has become the currency of today’s marketplace, we’ve redefined jobs to focus as much or more on thinking as on doing. We want people to take risks and work autonomously within the parameters of our corporate culture, and to keep up with a faster and faster rate of change. It’s no secret that the number of people prepared to meet those challenges is not as large as we would all like.

Fortunately for all of us, Contributing Editor Shari Caudron has found some HR professionals who have taken giant steps toward solving the problem. Her report offers several ideas that were new to me (and will be put to use next time I’m faced with a stack of resumes from short-order cooks) and I hope will be helpful to you.

As with most HR issues facing business today, there is no one solution. But working together, and sharing ideas, I do believe that we can make progress. If you have other ideas for how to face the staffing drought, we’d love to hear from you.

Personnel Journal, November 1996, Vol. 75, No. 11, p. 4.