What education does the employer want?

What education does the employer want?

A reader isn’t sure a new college degree or other education is going to guarantee a career or a job, in the October 6, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

educationI’m thinking of making a significant shift that would lead to better pay and an overall more satisfying career in a different kind of job. To make the change I might be able to get away with some certification programs and continuing education. However, I’m also considering getting a master’s degree because that seems to be an important credential for “getting in.” Any approach I take will cost money and time, in some cases a lot of both! How do I decide which way to go?

Nick’s Reply

I’m going to tell you something that should be very obvious, but I don’t expect you’ve already considered it because our employment and education systems have brainwashed you. First, let’s get some basics out of the way.

Selling education by the pound

The education industry (make no mistake, it is an industry) goes to great lengths to market its product. The marketing strongly implies that the degree leads to the job. Students have learned to shop for degrees by the pound: a certification, a bachelor’s, a master’s. How much “great job and salary” do you want? People with specific jobs and careers in mind easily swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker.

A new college degree can be a very risky bet unless you’re aspiring to one of the “professions” which require rigorous training and credentials. I’m referring to the law, medicine, accounting, engineering and the like – although you could theoretically pass a Professional Engineer exam or pass the bar exam without going to school. (I didn’t say it would be easy!)

But you probably know new law school or engineering grads that can’t find work. Did they not buy enough education?

Who’s really paying for the education?

When you have a specific career goal in mind, the product you’re buying is not education or a degree. The real product is the job you want. This means one thing matters more than any other: What education does the employer want?

In other words, you should remember that who’s really paying for that degree (or certification) is the employer that hires and pays you for it.

Although in general a college degree means higher income, degrees may not be required for good incomes in every career — or even in the job you want. A good education is valuable for many reasons, and it can enhance a career (and your income) dramatically. But, don’t expect that getting a degree is going to guarantee you a better income or a better career.

Don’t expect an employer to buy the career promises a school sold you.

What to do

How a degree-less job seeker gets the job:
No College Degree, No Problem
Before you assume, for example, that you need an MBA in finance to get a job in investment banking, or a computer science degree to design software, consider who’s “paying” for that degree. Pick the industry, company and job you want. Then go talk to the relevant employers and people who do the work you want to do.

Ask them what sort of education is necessary, sufficient and useful. Thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars could hang on the answers.

I don’t mean you should read the academic “requirements” on the job description. Go talk with the hiring managers and people who already do the work you want to do. Discover the nuances. Get insight. Get insider advice.

You might even ask what kind of education pays off best when you apply for the job you want. Then pursue that education.

There’s still no guarantee of a job, but at least you’re partnering with the “other customer” that’s indirectly paying for your education.

Get past the marketing of education

Popular business magazines regularly run rankings that list the college degree programs (e.g., MBA) and schools that deliver the most bang for the buck. They list salaries and job titles obtained by graduates. Big deal. What they fail to discuss is all the other ways talented people can be successful. Many schools don’t prove that they really know what employers want.

If degrees were directly tied to jobs, schools would guarantee you job opportunities. Instead, they market the often nebulous relationship between a degree and a job.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t knock education. I believe a college education for its own sake can make most people smarter and better overall, if only for the broad exposure to knowledge, ideas, critical thinking and problem-solving tools it provides. We’ve all seen the surveys which show that, generally speaking, people with college degrees earn more than those without them. But, I really get bugged when schools and the media market “the relationship” between degrees, jobs and income.

Necessary and sufficient qualifications

Depending on the person and the situation, it’s not always clear that a degree (or yet another degree) is necessary. I’ve known many people, including law and medical school grads and freshly minted MBAs, who are disappointed that the degree they worked so hard to earn hasn’t gotten them a job or higher incomes. (See MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course in Bloomberg Businessweek.)

While a degree may be necessary, it may not be sufficient. That is, you need something more. That may be experience, apprenticeship or just an employer willing to take a chance on you.

Or, a degree may not be necessary if you have other qualifications that are sufficient.

Only the employer really knows.

Ask the employer

So, before you invest loads of time and money to get a degree, talk to people who do the work you want to do, and to their managers. We’re probably talking about several companies. Ask which credentials really matter to them and why. Which credentials would most likely pay off if you applied there for a job?

If you’re going to school because you want to learn for learning’s sake, that’s wonderful. But, if you’re investing in a degree to get ahead in your job, the ultimate customer of the education industry isn’t you — it’s the employer you go to work for.

I promised to tell you something very obvious. Before you invest in education or a degree, find out what education the employer wants.

What’s your experience with education, degrees and jobs? Have you been let down after investing in a degree (or an extra degree) that seemed to promise a job? What jobs really require a degree? Do you know any schools that do an exceptional job of preparing their students to actually get jobs?

: :

Which companies should I apply to?

In the October 16, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a job seeker wants to know what companies to apply to.

Question

applyI have a background in sales and marketing with high-profile accounts. I recently became certified in Lean Manufacturing to complement my Voice of The Customer training. I believe it gives me insight into offering more targeted solutions to clients. Additionally, I will earn my MBA shortly. I want to move up to executive marketing management, working for a business solutions-oriented company, as that is where my true passion lies. Can you steer me toward the kinds of companies that would be appropriate?

Nick’s Reply

I admire that you’re continuing your education, especially about the “voice of the customer,” which is “a market research technique that produces a detailed set of customer wants and needs” [Wikipedia]. But your question tells me that you’re marketing yourself by emphasizing your features. I’m sure you know the basic rule of sales: Don’t sell the features of your product. Sell the benefits.

It’s not about you.

One of the most troubling errors job hunters make — especially when attempting a career change — is to focus on themselves. They recite their education, experience and most recent accomplishments — like you just did. They present this information as though it has intrinsic value: “Now I’ve got what I need to impress you. It should make you want to hire me.”

But it’s not about you. Telling them about you puts an employer in the position of having to figure out what to do with you. The shocking truth is, most employers have no idea what to do with you, unless you explain it to them. You must figure that out before you can choose the appropriate employer.

What should I do now?

Imagine walking into your current boss’s office. The boss just paid to get you lots of new training and education (maybe an MBA). You say, “I’ve got all this great new training, and I’m better than I was. What should I do now?”

If I were your boss, I’d fire you. How can you walk in with new knowledge and skills and expect me to figure out what to do with it? Your value does not lie in the new stuff you learned. Your value lies in knowing what to do with your skills and credentials.

Learn to lead with the employer’s problems. That’s what they’re thinking about when they buy a product — or when they hire someone. Understanding the employer’s problems, and figuring out how your skills apply, tells you which employers to apply to.

It’s not about you.

As you consider what companies and opportunities to pursue, put yourself aside. Get into the employer’s head. What do you know about my company’s problems? How are you going to use your credentials to tackle them? If you must ask me, without demonstrating that you’ve first tried to figure this out on your own, then you’re probably not worth hiring.

My answer to your question starts with some instructions:

  • Start by picking a company you’d really like to work for.
  • Figure out what the company needs to do to be more successful. That’s column A.
  • Then put together a plan that applies your skills. That’s column B.
  • Explain to the company how you will apply B to make A happen.
  • (If you can’t do that, move on, because you’ve selected the wrong company.)
  • Be specific about your plan, but not so detailed that it seems presumptuous. The point is to stimulate a useful discussion.

Employers need people who have figured out what to do next. Employers want to know not who you are, but What can you do for me?

It’s about the employer

So throw out your resume. That outline of your history and your credentials is irrelevant at this juncture of your job search. What matters is a document that outlines two critical things:

  • An employer’s problems and
  • How you’re going to tackle them.

It’s not about you. It’s about the employer.

I know you don’t talk to your boss like you want to get fired. So approach your job search the same way you would your boss. Figure out what to do next for the employer you want to work for, and go explain it to her.

That’s how you’ll figure out which companies need to hire you.

How do you decide which companies to apply to? What’s the best way to figure it out? Is is reasonable to start with a job description or posting?

: :

Is my MBA degree hurting me?

Quick Question

How do I overcome, on a resume or in an interview, the fact that my MBA is from the University of Phoenix? I graduated in 2006. UoP has received so much bad press that I’m concerned my education will not be taken seriously, and that it might be a detriment to my career advancement. Thank you for your advice.

Nick’s Quick Advice

What’s happened with UoP is unfortunate, but don’t let it get in your way.

It seems that MBA degrees have the most impact on hiring decisions when they come from big-name schools. Otherwise, they don’t seem to mean a lot “out of the box.” (That is, on your resume.) Of course, if you learned something while getting the MBA (like finance) that’s necessary for a job you want, then it may make a difference. I’m not knocking MBA degrees.

Putting UoP’s reputation aside, I think what matters more than any kind of degree is personal referrals and recommendations. That’s what gets you in the door. There is nothing like a personal, professional endorsement. Employers consistently say that’s the biggest factor, aside from the applicant’s skills and experience.

Likewise, contrary to the marketing hype, your resume is not your “marketing piece,” nor will it get you in the door. Used by itself, all it does is force you into the Resume Grinder where an algorithm will sort you among millions of your competitors.

Personal referrals are a much more powerful alternative.

You can’t change the name of the school on your MBA. But you can do a lot to leverage good referrals. For advice on how to do that, see Please stop networking.

There’s lots more advice on this topic in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition). See especially the sections titled:

  • “It’s the people, Stupid” pp. 5-8 (No, you’re not stupid, but this article will show you how people act stupidly when they don’t focus on  personal referrals.)
  • “Drop the ads and pick up the phone” pp. 9-11

Most important, to learn how to turn references into referrals, see:

  • “Don’t provide references — launch them” pp. 23-25

Don’t worry about your MBA. Just get to work on personal referrals. And be careful about where you buy your education!

: :

 

Cornell Presentation: Be The Profitable Hire

This is a special posting connected to a presentation for Executive MBA students at Cornell:

  • Ask The Headhunter / Be The Profitable Hire
    Cornell University Johnson School of Management
    March 23, 2013, in Palisades, NY

cornell-logoI’ll add more content here after the event — but the main purpose is to answer attendees’ questions that we didn’t have time for, and to carry on the discussion.

Please feel free to post your questions and comments below — I’ll do my best to respond to them all. Thank you for joining me, and special thanks to Cornell’s Johnson School for the wonderful hospitality!

Quick access to resources I referred to:

How to Work with Headhunters

How Can I Change Careers?

Keep Your Salary Under Wraps

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less by Milo Frank

Six Degrees: The science of a connected age by Duncan Watts

: :

Don’t Get Hired, Get Acquired: Audio from Cornell workshop

The April 3, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter is a SPECIAL AUDIO EDITION.

(This is no April Fool!)

On Sunday, April 1, I conducted a workshop for a group of Executive MBAs at Cornell’s Johnson School of Management. (These guys attend the EMBA program on weekends!) The topic was the differences between applying for a job and delivering profit to a company.

The presentation ran almost two hours, and the discussion and debate were lively. One of the key points we explored was about how we view employers and jobs when we go job hunting, and how employers view us.

  • Are you being interviewed to help a company fill out its open headcount?
  • Or are you more like a business the company is considering acquiring or merging with?

The difference in these two approaches is profound.

I don’t think anyone should behave like “the next hire.” I think every time you approach a company about working together, you should be prepared to show that you are a profit-making operation unto yourself.

Are you ready to get acquired? Please listen to this brief section of the Cornell presentation:

 

      Don't get hired, get acquired

 

Now here’s an excerpt from the Answer Kit: How Can I Change Careers? (p. 9) that explains how to Create your next job, rather than just get a pre-made job:

How do you inspire a company to create a new job for you? Forget about your credentials, your history and your past jobs. They are irrelevant. If that’s what you focus on when searching for a new job, you’ll shoehorn yourself into the same kind of job you just left.

Decide where you want to work. Study your target company. Explore the problems and challenges it is facing and figure out how you can help the company tackle them profitably. Apply your skills and abilities in new ways to re-define your qualifications. Think in terms of what the company needs but doesn’t have: That’s your new job. That’s the business plan you need to present.

The job you want to create is essentially a new business. But don’t expect your target company to figure out whether this “new business” is justified. You must be ready to explain it to them. Show how you’ll deliver profit in new ways. That’s what may prompt the company create a new job just for you.

(How Can I Change Careers? isn’t just for career changers — it’s for anyone who wants to stand out from their competition.)

I think we’ll find the value in this topic in the discussion more than in what I have to say.

What does it mean to get acquired or to merge with a company?

  • How does this change the way you’d approach a new gig?
  • Does it change salary negotiations?
  • Do you even need to apply for a job — or what’s the new alternative this approach suggests?
  • Have you ever felt like you were acquired — or merged — rather than just hired?

: :