Everyone has probably encountered the impossible job opening: a listing with atomic precision, asking for sometimes astounding levels of education, experience, and diversity of qualifications, for an early-to-mid-level job. Sometimes, those positions are written for the person the company already wants to hire. But more often than not, nobody on God’s green earth could possibly qualify.
Sometimes, the listing can elevate the absurdity by asking for ten years of experience in a technology that is only five years old. This is especially true for such fast-moving fields as information technology and software development. While it is tempting to dismiss such listings as being written by Dilbert-like managers, or to curse the tight market for being able to ask with a straight face for such applicants—there is typically an innocent explanation for the “impossible” job candidate: more than one person wrote the job post.
I asked Sheila Nielsen, president of Nielsen Career Consulting, how these posts are written. She is a job coach who has mentored more than 4,500 professionals over the last thirty years. She explains that when you see a posting like that, they aren’t written maliciously. Rather, they were very likely written by a group across multiple emails before being handed off to human resources.
“They send the posting around the office,” she says, “and ask: ‘Hey, Manager One, what is your idea of who you want?’ and then ‘Hey, what else do you want, Manager Two,’ and so on.” A consequence of this are multiple layers of wishes from a diverse group of people. “You get a very long list of things that are impossible, and they don’t always go together. It’s how you get the ten-year background requests for something only a few years old. Big job listings are put together by committee.”
THE HUMAN CONNECTION
You are not always going to qualify for the job you really want. Even if the job posting isn’t ridiculous (ten years’ experience in a five-year-old field), there is a fair chance that you won’t meet the mandatory minimums listed. This is where the human element comes into play, according to Ashley Stahl, a career coach and host of the You Turn podcast. “It’s more important than ever that you create a human connection beyond the technology that sees your application,” she says. “Look at who the potential hiring manager is for the role you want, and do a google search to find their email.”
“Send an email following up on your application after you submit it,” says Stahl, “and let them know why you’re excited about the company and role.” This letter should be personalized. She also encourages job candidates to find fellow college alumni who work in the company, and approach them for a cup of coffee. “A warm connection is stronger than a cold one—and they’ll be able to perhaps support your application,” says Stahl.
“Soft skills will be more important than ever,” she says. “It’s key to use those, and value those. This means applying and making the effort to get in touch via email with hiring managers so as not to disappear into the pile. It’s the effort beyond the application that makes you stand out.”
Nielsen seconds this advice. In her book, Job Quest: How to Become the Insider Who Gets Hired, she compares the contemporary job search to a knight attempting to enter a castle. You are the knight. The castle is the place you’d like to work. “There is a dragon in front of every castle,” she says. “That dragon—whether it is an HR person or the resume software scanner—is trying to get rid of you and not have you in pile they have to hand off to the hiring manager.”
To get around the dragons, Nielsen suggests looking for wizards—people who have been around for a long time, and are well-connected in the market you are trying to enter. “You don’t tell a wizard: I am looking for a job,” she says. “Rather, say: I am looking for advice, information, and guidance. If you were me, where would you look?”
That’s when the wizard opens up his or her list of contacts and begins to support you and endorse you. No longer are you faced with fighting a dragon. The wizard can promote you straight to the hiring managers in the castle. “A lot of times they will tell you that you still have to face the dragon,” she says, “but will work to make sure your resume gets to the right person.”
WHEN TO GO FOR IT
The job market is ever in flux, and technology is changing even faster. It is important not only to figure out how to navigate keyword scanners, but also, to stay on top of your credentials and cultivate your leadership skills. Because eventually you do have to sit for a job interview.
When approaching a job for which you don’t quite meet the criteria, Nielsen says the best way to prepare is to think through the answer to this question: Why should we hire you over someone who is actually qualified? Most people come up with generalizations: I am a hard worker; I learn quickly; and so on. Next, you need to find instances of how you demonstrated those qualities in the past. For example: Once, I was given a project beyond my ability, and I had to learn very quickly how to do it, how to understand the information critical to it, and I was successful. And here is why it was successful, and how it helped the company.
“If you don’t quite fit a job description,” says Nielsen, “you have to make a case for who you say you are, with evidence. Before you get to the interview, you need to think through your case, why you would be good—why you would be great, even—for this job.”
If your skill set is in high demand, employers will often give you some wiggle room when you apply for a job just outside of your present abilities. You may not be the perfect person for the job, but you are pretty close, and have demonstrated previously that you can adapt and overcome. So go for it.