Saturday, September 26, 2015

Weekend discussion: Is there a 'hidden job market'?

Over at Science Careers, Beryl Lieff Benderly has a review of a book titled "Networking for Nerds", (by Alaina Levine) with this interesting paragraph (emphasis mine): 
Such a story of career serendipity is not rare, she writes. In fact, it illustrates a basic truth about the job market, especially outside of academe: “Most jobs are NOT advertised and neither are most opportunities that have the potential to be career game-changers, such as invitations to meet with someone, serve on a committee, pursue a leadership role, or apply for an award,” Levine writes in the book. When job ads do appear, furthermore, “often times, the committees already have people in mind whom they want to invite to apply or have promised the job to someone under the table.” While in many work sectors, such as academe and government, “jobs are legally obligated to be advertised,” that doesn’t mean they are necessarily open. Instead, often “there’s already a short list of candidates identified in the search committee’s head,” she tells Science Careers in an interview. This practice is so common that in Washington, D.C., government circles, there’s even a word for it: Such jobs are said to be “wired.” 
But alongside the “not-really-open” openings that appear in many job ads is what Levine calls in her book the “Hidden Platter of Opportunities.” This consists of all the needs and problems that people in every kind of organization constantly face, but that they have not yet announced publicly or reduced to job descriptions—or, as the Skutlartz case illustrates, even begun to consider in those terms. “The idea [of] a hidden job market is often mystifying to a lot of engineers and scientists. They’re so used to seeing ads,” she says in the interview. “In business schools, on day one, they teach you about networking. … They teach you how to honorably promote yourself.” But science or math programs don’t do that. During her math studies, she continues, she never heard a professor or mentor say, “If you want to advance in your career, you have to network.” 
There are a number of claims here, all of which are worth discussing:
  • Most jobs are not advertised
  • Most "career-changing opportunities" are not advertised, either, and come through networking
  • Short lists are already in place for many positions
  • Many organizations have "not-really-open" opportunities
Bluntly put, I think this is mostly non-falsifiable baloney. Think about your workplace - how many job openings are there advertised? Do you think there are 100% more job openings (the mathematical threshold needed for 'most') that are not advertised? 

I do agree that, for many mid-level positions, organizational insiders likely know where "we could use somebody here", and what that person might look like. But these are likely for positions where 1) people have requisite job skills already established at the entry level, 2) these positions are 'coordinator'-type roles where good candidates have two sets of skills and can talk to each party, i.e. a sales position that coordinates between the technical folks and the customers. These are not positions that are open to inexperienced folks. Also, I do not imagine these positions represent the bulk of available job openings. 

Let me be clear: I think "networking" is important, especially when people have an open mind to what each party needs. That said, I think that the concept of a "hidden job market" is fundamentally unproven, likely unscientific and may be an unnecessary source of distraction to job seekers.

Readers, I have my prejudices and you have yours - how I am wrong?

UPDATE: OK, one more question: how would you go about proving or disproving the existence of a 'hidden job market.'?
UPDATE 2 (10:36 AM, 20150928): Perhaps the issue is that there are three job markets?, the "open job market", the "obscure job market", and the "hidden job market." Reports are unclear about the "hidden Yeti market", though. 

28 comments:

  1. I was asked to apply for a job at a public (state) university. It was not "advertised" through traditional channels but was publicly accessible on the university's HR/job site. I believe most states have a rule that it needs to be open for 5-15 business days and at least a couple candidates have to be interviewed, etc etc. That said, I would agree with your math, probably not 100% more, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are 50% more.

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  2. One of my postdocs (the shorter one in materials), was a hidden job. I basically hung out with a group of people at lunch where we made crude jokes and skipped out on work for an hour at around 1 pm. One of them later became a professor and asked me if I wanted to help her set up the lab and start a few projects. Pretty successful little stint for 8 months.

    "OK, one more question: how would you go about proving or disproving the existence of a 'hidden job market.'?"

    I don't know... do a big survey?

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  3. In large corporations, HR would have your head of you hired someone without going through their procedures, which would include advertising the position. Only in very small or startups would a "hidden" position be possible.

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  4. In large corporations, HR would have your head of you hired someone without going through their procedures, which would include advertising the position. Only in very small or startups would a "hidden" position be possible.

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  5. My wife and I both started new (good) jobs in the past 6 months and both were so-called "hidden" jobs.

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  6. paid undergrad summer internships are definitely hidden jobs at my uni; if they don't like someone they'll say - no sorry, can't pay you, but you're welcome to work in my lab for free! and, then a month later, there will be a paid undergrad hanging around as well...

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  7. I can think of only one case over nine years at my current shop where someone networked their way into an unadvertised position (hired by diktat from someone powerful in the organization). It turned out to be a pretty bad fit on both sides and they were let go after about a year.

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  8. •Most jobs are not advertised
    "Most" feels like a stretch, but it does happen. One of my colleagues was invited in to interview when we found out she'd been laid off; there was no position listed, but we knew we wanted her in a management position. She's outnumbered by the people we hired after bringing people in from ads, though.

    •Most "career-changing opportunities" are not advertised, either, and come through networking
    My gut agrees. I know there are inflection points in my career that involved talking to people; I think they outnumber the points that involved ads.

    •Short lists are already in place for many positions
    I've heard this a lot, but don't have even anecdotes to offer here.

    •Many organizations have "not-really-open" opportunities
    Utterly plausible.

    ... how would you go about proving or disproving the existence of a 'hidden job market.'?
    Maybe survey workers and ask if their current position was advertised?

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  9. There are many wired jobs in the GOV, often at the GS-12+ level. This is due to someone topping out and management wanting to promote them to higher responsibilities. If said person's current position is a 12 max, and added responsibilities are at a 13 level, then management has to post their promotion. Typically the opening is for current employees only, with no relocation assistance. Further, this is more common at agencies with micromanaging/gate keeper culture.

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  10. You could go to companies, in person, and ask somebody about jobs. Maybe they'll be more inclined to tell you about something not advertised if you're physically there. Maybe not. I don't know if walking in the door and asking the first person you see will get you very far but who knows...

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  11. I think a lot of jobs requiring specialized skills are filled through recruiters. I've talked plenty of trash on them elsewhere on this blog, but there are some good ones out there with knowledge of industries and subfields.

    I mentioned this in another comment thread - I know for a fact there are "wired" jobs at Merck, where HR policy forces managers to interview 3 people even when the manager's mind is already made up (often a case of making a temp permanent).

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    1. Hah, Merck soft-offers nonexistent positions to graduating students from BSD professor's group all the time and, if they accept, they then draft up an ad, have drumhead interviews to check the HR boxes and, lo and behold, BSD's students get the position that was drafted to their qualifications. The most ridiculous thing is that they even get to pick which site/group they want the offer to be in...

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  12. I think this is somewhat dependent on the company and what your definition of "not advertised" is. At a previous company I was at, they never "advertised" jobs--meaning no newspaper, trade shows, monster, or craigslist ads. The openings were on the company's HR site only. Thus they were "public" and open to all comers but "not advertised". And the HR site blocked spiders and automatic web searching, so the automated job sites wouldn't pick up openings if you were just looking randomly. But the opening existed, you just had to be lucky enough to hear about it through word of mouth or lucky enough to happen to look at their website while it was posted. This isn't just in chemistry either; my wife works for a tech company that is one of the largest companies that does moderation services on facebook, etc. They also never "advertise". The jobs are public on their HR site, but they don't actively advertise them because they don't need to; they have tons of applicants without it via word of mouth. Everyone who applies hears via word of mouth; that's how my wife got the job in the first place. I think this is far more widespread than I would have thought a number of years ago.

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  13. Agree with John's comment above - in larger organisations, there's no way of avoiding going through HR and thus advertising the position. It's not uncommon that positions are first advertised internally but they always become public (corporate website) after a certain peroid. Also, internal candidates often have to undergo the same procedures/evaluations as external ones in order to avoid unfair advantages / nepotism. So I think networking mainly increases the chances of being invited for an interview - which certainly is a huge competitive advantage.

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  14. "Short lists are already in place for many positions"

    I will share my experience as an applicant a number of years back for a faculty position with the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland. The position was advertised for a medicinal organic chemist. I am a materials organic chemist, but applied anyway. Surprisingly, I was invited up from England to interview. The only other candidate was also interviewing at the same time, and the university put the two of us up in the same dormitory building. Naturally, we both chatted afterwards. The other fellow was, indeed a medicinal chemist. We were both puzzled as to why I was invited in the first place, but finally concluded that "the fix was in", i.e. my presence there was just to insure the appearance of a competition. In fact, the other guy got the job.

    I am also aware of cases where insider candidates for university jobs are more or less pre-determined. In one case, one of the other candidates took the director of the institute to court, because it was so blatant. The response of the director was to re-write the job description so that only his favorite candidate would be qualified.

    Finally, elsewhere on this blog, others have pointed out that internal candidates are highly favored for real jobs with the national laboratories. Indeed, I already pasted in the text from an advert for a post-doc job which boasted that 60% of all of those who were awarded the post-doc also ended up with real jobs afterwards.

    At the same time, of course, networking does help. The question is when does networking mutate into favoritism?

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    1. Back in the late 90's, I had a few academic interviews where they informed me they weren't really looking for someone in my subfield, so I assumed they either had a predetermined candidate and/or they were interviewing me just to tell the dean that they interviewed a woman but she was in the wrong subdiscipline. It was not a very motivational thing to be told on an interview.

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    2. Networking is the exact definition of favoritism.

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  15. Both of my jobs have been on the hidden job market, which is kind of ironic since I'm an introvert and suck at networking. The first was at a then-startup, so they recruited by word of mouth to my PhD and postdoc advisors. In later years, we'd post openings on our website, but still relied heavily on word of mouth to get the word out. I know a few people who got hired just because they contacted us when we weren't hiring, but then we had them on file for when spots opened up.

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    1. Biddy, how well did that work out? Were the people who contacted you still seeking when positions opened up? Did anyone get hired after doing that?

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    2. Hi O. B.,
      I'm surprised that you wrote of people being hired because their resumes were already on file. That is of course what many a HR website will claim, but I've never had it happen to me.

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    3. We were a small enough company that the prospective job seekers had contacted the scientists directly and/or met them at a meeting, then we remembered them a few months later when we had openings (they were still looking - mostly people who were still in grad school/postdoc, or currently employed elsewhere) At that point we still posted the job on our website and brought in other applicants as well, so it wasn't totally hidden, just a head start. Keep in mind we were located in Silicon Valley and had adopted a lot of the hiring habits of tech startups rather than big chemical companies, for better and for worse.
      We never had HR bring us old resumes on file.

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    4. Aha that makes sense now. FWIW, I'm currently in Si valley....networking is slow...

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    5. GC & OB I have worked at a couple places that kept resumes on file for about 6 months to a year then if a new position opened the hiring manager, or more likely one of his current underlings (raised my hand, not!), could literally dig threw old files to attempt to ID anyone who might be worth contacting. Unless the CV was obtained from a previous direct ad response coded to a specific job that guided HR the majority of CVs where filed by broad HR categories that had no meaningful practical system as combined seeking biologists (often 2-3x more in number) with chemists (totally ignoring the sub-disciplines). It was nightmare process and frustrating as the rare times even found someone decent upon trying to contact determined they had gotten a job elsewhere (always a place with known salary scale better than yours). I can imagine the current common scanning software might be able to provide better connection for review of old CV files however remains accurate that the best way to get your CV noticed is through a personal contact that can deliver it directly to the hiring manager on your behalf.

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  16. In my division in my company, most of the positions are advertised on CareerBuilder and the like. That’s how I got my job, and with not knowing anyone in the company. I believe most positions here are filled this way. When I’ve applied for similar jobs at companies nearby, it’s also been through job boards, and I’ve gotten interviews this way, too.
    I think networking would work well if one lives in an area where there are many companies that would hire someone with your background; there would be people you could physically meet who could give you an inside edge over others. But if you live outside a geographic area, I believe it would be more difficult to take advantage of this type of networking.
    With this being said, I believe the downside to the “not-really-open” openings mantra is that it discourages people from looking for positions on job boards, both on company websites and ones like CareerBuilder.
    I do agree with others above, that a good portion of the Federal government job ‘listings’ are wired, especially the ones that are overly detailed in the job description, and which say there is only one opening. But announcements that say there are a ‘few openings’ or ‘many openings’ are the real thing, and people should apply for them.
    As for a survey, ask for readers of this blog to post about how they got their present or most recent position – large job board, recruiter, networking, internal company job board, external company job board that is open to the public, and also how long ago they got this position. Sure it’s anecdotal, but it’s better than an author just making a statement without data to back it up.

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  17. My Responses:
    Most jobs are not advertised: Maybe not most (unless as suggested HR or government policy dictates) but a high percentage rarely go public. Largely seen only hard to fill and /or specialized jobs get posted whereas most common positions get done by word of mouth (chemists asked do you know anyone or contact your PI for candidates recommendations)
    Most "career-changing opportunities" are not advertised, either, and come through networking: Definitely true as either happen internally via right place right time person, target recruiter searches or simply known/friend of the hiring manager
    Short lists are already in place for many positions: At upper levels likley more probable but could be an informal list back to who you know or who knows you concept.
    Many organizations have "not-really-open" opportunities. In my experience very true and can either be positioned opened for a "great" candidate even if not open on the books or someone has tentative approval in next budget cycle that either workload or good candidate may tip scale to allow an immediate hire
    Bottom line IMO Networking is critical as if not totally hidden there is often an obscure job market controlled by HR or companies who wish to keep job seekers in the dark to keep the power in establishment of salary.

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  18. I would say that postdoctoral positions are the quintessential "shadow job market". I ended up getting three interviews when looking for a postdoc: one was as a result of meeting someone at a conference, another was simply a hit I got after mass emailing faculty across the country, and the last one was after responding to an online advertisement. Not surprisingly, I got offers from the two places that weren't advertised. When those faculty members made me an offer, they told me it would take a while before I could start because they'd have to actually post the position even though they had no intention of bringing anyone else in. I didn't get an offer for the one that was advertised.

    I also sent out applications for a lot of advertised postdoc positions at large state schools, and almost never even heard back. State schools are typically required to post any positions, and often make postings so specific that it would be unreasonable to hire anybody but the predetermined candidate. I have had two friends stay on as postdocs following graduation. The job postings [large state university] put out were almost comical in their level of detail; they might as well have used the title from my friends’ theses.

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  19. Also, if big R1 public university wants to poach the up-and-comer PI in hot field and give him/her a full professorship, that isn't exactly an advertised position, right? But the public university would probably have to technically open up a position on their HR site and leave it open for x number of days, etc etc.

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    1. I knew of a situation once where they got around this by advertising the position in the local paper. A tenured research professor job in the local paper in some po-dunk college town in the middle of nowhere - of course the ad generated zero applicants, which was exactly what they wanted.

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