In Search Of The Purple Squirrel – How To Decipher A Job Advertisement

iStockphoto.com |  Paul Carpenter

iStockphoto.com | Paul Carpenter

You are searching for a job and that means reading job posting after job posting; they all start to look and sound the same. Where do the listings come from in the first place, and how do you interpret and prioritize their contents?

To start with, there is no way to determine who wrote the job listing. The job description you’re seeing on Indeed.com likely originated with a template from human resources, who gave it to the hiring manager, who delegated it to a department or personal assistant, who cut and pasted several parts from a previous listing for another position.

You may find that Fortune 500-level companies are more likely to have professionally written job listings that are mandated from above. Still, there are more than enough job listings with murky backgrounds to justify a degree of skepticism. After all, job listings are an imperfect science and will sometimes contain too much, too little, and/or contradictory information.

Despite these failings, however, job descriptions are a vital component of the recruitment process. When read closely, a job description will tell you what requirements, from a recruiter’s or hiring manager’s perspective, are non-negotiable, and contain clues about the position’s day-to-day responsibilities.

Knowing how to decipher the internal language of the recruitment process will only strengthen your candidacy. So, let’s take a look at the anatomy of a typical job posting.

THE JOB TITLE

Let’s take a look at title of Human Resources Coordinator. This indicates that the job is in the Human Resources department, and Coordinator indicates that it is an entry-level administrative position. Easy, right?

Not necessarily. Job postings titles can be deceiving because the actual meaning may vary wildly from one employer to another. The same job may have different titles at different places. One company may link job titles to compensation, while another may pride itself on having no titles at all. The variations are endless.

Job sites like Indeed and LinkedIn include categorizations that are intended to clarify where a specific role may sit level-wise in an organization. These include “Entry Level,” “Associate,” “Mid-Senior Level,” that will often be incongruent with the job title used by the poster, adding another level of confusion. How do you interpret a job title with “Manager” that is categorized as “Associate?” (this is prevalent in sales roles, where someone can be an Account Manager, but doesn’t actually manage anything or anyone other than their own activities).

THE SUMMARY

The summary usually provides glowing general description of the company and a general description of the job. The summary is valuable to read as it provides perspective on how the company markets itself and the role. It’s a great overview but it tends to draw little connection to your technical qualifications for the position. For example:

“The Amazing X Company, a world-class provider of amazing stuff, seeks a Human Resources Coordinator to join its growing team. We’re looking for talent with outstanding communication skills, great customer service perspective, and strong problem-solving and decision-making abilities to support the entire HR process.”

This description is generic, on purpose. It’s trying to present the general profile of the idea candidate from a behavioral side, but doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty technical details. Take it as a guideline to calibrate whether your personality and general background is a match for what they’re looking for.

JOB RESPONSIBILITIES

Here is where you are going to start to discover the clues that will help you understand the position and the skills needed to be considered a viable candidate. This area the day-to-day responsibilities of the role. Some sample job responsibilities for a Human Resources Coordinator include:

  • Coordinating pre-employment activities

  • Preparing, maintaining, and ensuring accurate records and files

  • Conducting audits on personnel files and I-9 forms

  • Ensuring compliance with federal and state employment laws

…and so forth.

If you possess direct experience in any of these areas it will help your overall application. Generally speaking, if an employer finds a candidate who ticks all the experience boxes in terms of day-to-day functions, they’re going to give that individual a deeper look. Interpret this as the employer providing you with guidance on what qualifications and past experiences you should highlight in your cover letter and on your resume.

 

REQUIRED SKILLS

This is the meat of the job. Anything you see under “required skills” is considered an essential component of the right candidate and to have a fighting chance for the job you’ll need to have it. Let’s dissect some sample requirements:

  • Bachelor degree preferred

The use of the word “preferred” indicates that the degree is not a core requirement for the position. However, preference will be given to those with a college degree so if you’re applying without a diploma, the rest of your application better be stellar, and you should possess enough skills and experiences to compensate.

  • Minimum of 2 years of experience in Human Resources

“2 years” likely wasn’t chosen at random. They’re looking at candidates that possess a minimum of two years’ experience. The understanding is that this is the minimum amount of time required to build the knowledge foundation to be successful.

  • Direct exposure to employee relations and payroll practices

Pay special attention – this is the most important entry in this entire job posting. This is the experience that will matter most on your resume.

  • ADP experience is a strong plus

Just like “preferred,” “strong a plus” means it’s not a requirement, but candidates who have used ADP in the past will be in a better starting position; if you haven’t used ADP, but do have experience in another HR software system, you’re in decent shape.

  • Strong computer skills with high proficiency in MS Office

It would seem like this is a waste of space in today’s age, but it’s not. The employer included this in the job description because it’s nonnegotiable. Then there’s the soft skills:

  • Excellent written, verbal, and interpersonal communication skills

  • Outstanding organization and time management skills

  • Attention to detail

  • Practice and maintain an environment of confidentiality

The employer is likely going to evaluate these traits in greater depth during the interview. They’re hard to quantify (although a resume riddled with errors could work against you in the area of written communication skills). Just understand, if you are to get the job, you’re going to be expected to live up to these standards.

Many employers also include a section for “Preferred Skills.” This is usually the hiring manager’s wish list of additional skilled and experiences. They’re looking for, in recruiter parlance, the “Purple Squirrel.” This is the candidate that probably doesn’t exist but would check off all of a hiring manager’s boxes in terms of attacking any other work they have lying around – related or unrelated to the core duties of the job. But make no mistake – the candidate who has ALL of the required skills and ALL of the preferred skills will probably be in the best position to receive an offer.*

*Note: I say probably because there are mitigating factors, such as candidate salary requirements, age discrimination, or any countless other dynamics at play.

Here’s some final thoughts on deciphering and approaching job postings:

Tip #1: You have some latitude when duration of experience is specified. Let’s say the listing says “3-5 years experience making widgets”. You should have a minimum of 3 years, but you shouldn’t rule yourself out if you have more than five years. You can apply with 2 years’ experience, and nothing is stopping you, but it’s an uphill climb.

Tip #2:  From the recruiter’s perspective, there is a distinct difference between a Required Skill and a Preferred Skill. But think about it this way - if you’re have 100% of the Required Skills and 50% of the Preferred Skills, you’re in pretty good shape.

 

And that brings us to the important life lesson about purple squirrels. Have you ever actually seen a purple squirrel? No you have not, and you never will. Purple squirrels do not exist, and job candidates who possess all of the Required and Preferred skills tend to pop up with quite a bit less frequency than a hiring manager hopes. Apply to the job.

Lastly, remember that your resume is a marketing brochure and the recruiters/hiring managers are your customers. You are trying to convince them to invest in something – you. Mapping the qualifications on your resume with the Required and Preferred Skills on a job listing will greatly increase your chances of clearing the first hurdle.


 Philip Roufail contributed to this article.

Scott Singer is the President and Founder of Insider Career Strategies Resume Writing & Career Coaching, a firm dedicated to guiding job seekers and companies through the job search and hiring process. Insider Career Strategies provides resume writing, LinkedIn profile development, career coaching services, and outplacement services, including a free resume review. You can email Scott Singer at scott.singer@insidercs.com, or via the website, www.insidercareerstrategies.com.