I hate job-hunting. Luckily I haven’t had to do it much in the past few years, but there was a time when I spent almost all my spare time searching for better jobs. Applying for a job is just as much work (and sometimes more) than actually working at a job. I always start by updating my resume, and then breaking it out into several different variations — each highlighting a certain set of skills based on where I’m applying. Then there’s the customized cover letters, and sometimes the application forms (asking for the same information that’s in your resume and cover letter) that have to have key words in your writing that the system flags your application. Sometimes there’s even additional testing, I’ve had to do online, in-person, and even specialty testing for some of my jobs.
I’ve reached the stage in my career where I am on the other side of the table sometimes, and having been on both sides, I’ve learned that paperwork doesn’t tell you who the person is. I don’t work with paper, I work with people.
I really don’t care about all of that
Most of the time I’ll give your resume and/or cover letter and/or keyword optimized application about 30 seconds of my time. I might take some notes to ask you questions about specific things, but those don’t show me who you are as a person.
They’re just paperwork, and with the exception of the paperwork that’s absolutely necessary, I don’t care about all of that. I want you to get paid, and to make sure that everyone’s rights and responsibilities are clear, but your resume and cover letter are barely worth the paper they’re written on.
Too many employers rely on automatic hiring systems that flag keywords and scan for sentences or workplaces. Too many employers are skill-focused instead of people-focused, and they lose out on many great employees simply because they didn’t see the person behind the paperwork.
Now, there are some definite prerequisites for many jobs, and I don’t want to downplay the importance of those skills. This is especially true in the trades, construction, and certain other jobs. An acquired skill set in the right person is a huge asset to any company. An acquired skill set in someone who is a jerk is at best a detriment and at worst a liability.
Soft skills are the future
Most of the jobs today and moving into the future will be those that require soft skills. It will be far more important to be able to work collegially and cooperatively than to be able to perform a certain task — even if it is highly specialized. In fact, highly-specialized tasks are among the first to be automated because it is so hard to find people with the skills to complete those tasks.
Most of the other jobs will be ones that rely on human ingenuity, intuition, and innovation. We will always need writers, singers, artists, and dancers. While some of them may be artificial in the future, we will always respond better to the human touch than the automated one.
My job as an Emergency Manager is one that is going to exist for the foreseeable future. A huge part of my job is analytical and requires ingenuity and innovation — COVID-19 has shown just how rapidly emergency managers have been forced to innovate to try and keep people safe.
Many of the other jobs, even ones that we associate closely with humanity and heroism are going to change in the very near future. If a job can be done more safely and more efficiently by automation, then that job’s time is almost up. The Los Angeles Fire Department just bought a robotic firefighter that can spray more water than a fire engine, has enough torque to push cars out of the way, and can carry a foam cannon or a ventilation fan. Yes, it’s operated remotely, but now a single firefighter can do the job of several. As we see these rolled out around the world, firefighter deaths will drop but so will the number of firefighters.
Future firefighting jobs are going to be less about hauling hose and swinging axes and more about understanding the nature of fire, construction of buildings, fire prevention, and working cooperatively with other resources as disasters become more common.
Someone who can swing an axe but can’t get along with others isn’t going to make it. The same with the gung-ho ‘sparky’ who spends all his time training but never learns how to learn. They may have the skills, but when something else can do those skills better and more safely those skills don’t mean much anymore.
A good instructor can teach most skills to most people. It is incredibly hard to teach soft skills. You can learn them with time and effort, but so much of what soft skills are made up of consists of a person’s outlook on life and perception of other people. Those are things that can be taught and can change, but they are much more difficult to teach than most tasks.
Teachable beats skilled more and more often
If there is a single attribute that I, and most other hiring managers want to see, it is a candidate who is teachable. We want to see people who are willing to learn from their leaders, their co-workers, and even (perhaps especially) the people who answer to them. If you are willing to listen and learn then your opportunities will multiply.
When you identify yourself only by your skills and ability to accomplish tasks, then you are often telling me that you don’t have any other marketable skills. You’ve essentially closed yourself off to the idea of transferring your skills or expanding them.
Here’s the secret though.
It doesn’t matter what your skills are, or how long you have spent developing them. If you are open to it, you can learn how your skills can be transferred over to a different job or even a different industry entirely.
Work just as hard to be teachable as you do to be skilled, and you will never lack for job opportunities.
Skills are transferable
When you start looking past the skills and job descriptions and start seeing what it is you actually do, you’ll find you have far more than what appears on your resume. If you are teachable, adaptable, and reasonably good with people then you can do most non-specialized jobs.
No, even the best instructor can’t take a plumber and turn them into a surgeon without specialized training. The same is true for surgeons, they wouldn’t be able to be plumbers without specialized training. But when you start looking past the job description and what they actually do, surgeons and plumbers aren’t that different.
Both of them need to understand their “patient” as a whole. A surgeon can’t operate on a person without understanding how their surgery is going to affect the rest of their body. A plumber can’t work on a house without knowing how their work is going to affect each of the other systems in the house.
Both of them need excellent people skills. A plumber is literally going into the darkest corners of people’s houses to do their work, and sometimes they end up in a tight spot when it comes time to the bill. A surgeon has to be able to talk through an entire procedure and be prepared to give both good and bad news depending on how the procedure goes.
Both of them have to be precise and detail-oriented in their work. A simple mistake by either of them could kill someone. If a plumber connects something wrong, they could allow methane gas, or sewage, or even a stray electrical current to enter the wrong place in the house. The risks of an imprecise surgeon should be fairly obvious.
So be an expert when you need to. If you’re a surgeon or plumber, make sure you’re an expert in the places where expertise is needed. But don’t ever lose sight of the need to be teachable, approachable, and flexible — especially when it comes to whatever comes after your specific expertise. If the person hiring you is any good at all, they’ll see the person behind the job.