The Job Search in the first decade of the 21st century is a chaotic mess for all involved. Job-seekers, employers, and vendors have found themselves stuck in a bewildering terrain without landmarks or signposts to guide their way, and very little conceptual understanding of how the structural stresses on the model are leading to inefficient, frustrating outcomes. Two factors have contributed to our losing our way.
The first, and by far the large, has been the arrival of the internet revolution. The creation of a nationwide information network, with zero monetary or time cost to search for job information and apply for jobs, unleashed new and unwelcome behaviors from job-seekers who understandably took the advice — that the job hunt is a numbers game — to heart.
The secondary factor has been the continued evolution of career paths away from lifetime employment. Job-seekers switch companies more often, have taken responsibility for (though not accountability for) their own career paths, and have become increasingly mobile.
These shifts have contributed to a wholesale change in behaviors of participants and characteristics of the system. Over the past fifteen years, the utilization of the internet in a job hunt has grown from less than 1% of the population to substantially every job-seeker. And to this new experience, job-seekers have brought their old preferences. The institutions responsible for transmitting and processing this behavior, however, have changed much more slowly. Institutional response, in the face of changing behavior of individuals, always lags. It takes companies, recruiters, and vendors far longer to innovate new systems, processes, and models to handle the behavior of individuals exploiting new innovations, than it does for those individuals to engage in the new behavior itself.
More broadly, individuals follow the innovation adoption curve, proceeding from innovators to early adopters, to early majority, then late majority and laggards. It is a gradual, piecemeal, disaggregated process because of each of the individual job-seekers is an atomized agent. In the case of job search, these innovating behaviors break the institutional processes: for newspapers first, then corporate HR departments, then recruiters, and then finally for the initial innovators themselves (e.g., The New York Times, Fortune 1000 HR, executive search firms, and then finally, Monster.com itself.) Thus each component of the institutional structure has broken slowly, gradually, over time. It takes year for a sufficient number of trial-and-error experiments by various players to be successful enough to produce a new model. My initial impression is that in the case of job search, this will take place over the next decade.
These drastic shifts in behavior, and the corresponding institutional failures to adapt, have led to shifts in the underlying performance and characteristics of the system, that, very roughly rounded to an approximation, differ from the 20th century model by an order or two of magnitude. Response rates, response levels, size of audience, etc., have all moved ten to a hundred times away from the levels prevalent in the 20th century model.
These shifts have contributed to widespread confusion among job-seekers and recruiters, while leading to the not-inaccurate perception that the luck of the draw is as important as diligence and merit in the job search.
To wit, the Job Search has changed quantitatively:
The cost of information transmission has dropped to zero. The time, care, and cost of applying to jobs in the 20th century model have disappeared. Candidates no longer have to print cover letters and resumes, match them up with the right envelopes, and put a stamp on the envelope. Internet job boards have reduced the friction in the application process to a few clicks at most. On the employers’ side, recruitment ads are 1/10th their previous cost while reaching a national (indeed, a global) audience.
The number of jobs a professional will have in a lifetime has increased by a factor of 10. The rise of career self-development has increased the attraction of, and likelihood to, change companies multiple times in a career. Average job tenure, then, is 1/10th of what it was. This has led to an increase in the number of hiring transactions that companies will process in a typical year, and a concomitant increase in the number of job searches that a professional will undergo in their lifetime.
The size of the addressable audience has grown 100x. In 2000, only four newspapers had daily circulation of greater than 1 mm readers. With the internet, the new job boards could reach the entire US market of 150mm workers, and Monster’s unaided awareness among Americans reached 93%. Interestingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that mid-decade, clients were reducing their general interest job board vendors from 3 to 2 (typically keeping Monster and choosing between CareerBuilder and HotJobs from what I heard at the time). And towards the end of the decade, clients were increasingly choosing to go “either/or” with Monster or CareerBuilder as audience overlap and similar demographics made it inefficient to retain both.
Applications for a job are 10~100x more numerous than they were in the 20th century. With broader reach, frictionless applications, and the perception of an asymmetric lottery payout (“sure, I’ve never been a COO before, but if they choose me, it will be a big step up from marketing manager!”) on the part of job-seekers, the actual volume of applications to a particular job has exploded to a level beyond which the institutions receiving them can handle or process. For a “live” look into the problem as it is perceived in the wild, review the results of this Google search on “Monster.com ‘flood of resumes‘” for an illustration of the challenges with the present experience.
The number of vendors shrank by 1/100th. In the past, when needing a national campaign to hire customer service representatives or local sales people, hiring companies would turn to RAAs to manage the hundreds of metro dailies and place the ads. The decline of the newspapers and their replacement as primary source of employees by the general interest job boards has reduced the vendor count by a factor of 100. Interestingly, I’d expect that in 2020, we’ll see this ratio either remain at 1/100, or return to 1x the 2000 level. Either a pair of competitors will innovate in such a way that they effectively handle all levels, functions, and industries, or the general interest job boards will be supplemented by the rise of specialist niche job boards that cover industries, functions and geographies at scale.
Qualitatively, the system has evolved as well:
With a larger labor pool, and more labor mobility, there is greater specialization. A professional might define herself as a marketing specialist in the telecom industry, and place less importance on geography or company continuity. By contrast, the 20th century professional would define himself by company first, then industry or function, and transfers to distant cities or overseas came at the behest of the employer.
Greater specialization implies greater differentiation, which means that both sides in the Job Search will experience higher sales and marketing costs (more formally, greater search, information and matching costs). In any market, when products become less commoditized and more specialized, there’s a greater need to explain the benefits and capabilities of that product. For a professional today, merely saying you are a direct marketer is not sufficient; you’ll need to explain whether your experience is in direct mail, internet advertising, direct response TV, etc., and whether you’ve serviced the CPG industry, collectibles, magazines, or the luxury time-share market. The increase in the number of white-collar workers, the faster ramp-up times of specialized professionals, and the superior industry-specific contribution they can therefore make, drive this preference (for both parties). The advent of such specialized knowledge, and the needs of explaining with specificity, require greater skill on both sides of the job search.
Yet the job posting has not evolved beyond an administrative list of desirable skills and characteristics, and job-seekers systemically underestimate the importance of their resume as a marketing document, instead preferring to view it as an appropriate venue for auto-biography. In fact, I think this is another area where we will see substantial change over the next decade — the need is there and analogous trends in marketing and advertising indicate it.
With that description of the present state of affairs, let’s look next at how these systemic failures in institutional response to job-seeker behavior impact each participant in the Job Search.