Wednesday, August 11, 2021

What's it like to hire right now? One hiring manager's experience

Friend of the blog KT recently had an interesting experience hiring, and he’d like to share it: 
My company is small, so I have much more freedom to run the process my way than a big-company hiring manager would. My boss gave me a lot of freedom to write and place the ad and select the candidates.

Right now, I’ve got a few young scientists under me (new bachelors grads hired one year ago), and we want to add a technician both to do some of the repetitive lab work and to have a bench of talent in case one of the young guys leaves. I took the ad my predecessor used last year and made some tweaks, including adding “or related experience” to the degree requirement. I’m strongly opposed to degree requirements; I think most of the time it’s a legal way of saying “we want a nice white suburban kid who’s like us.” It’s been my experience that older journeyman technicians with high school diplomas were often really valuable employees, while young BS grads being forced to start at the technician level see the job as a stepping-stone, leave if a scientist position doesn’t open up soon, and are often bored with repetitive work. 

My boss didn’t want to put the salary range in the ad because he feared that every candidate would ask for the top of the range, but I argued back that we risked wasting time on candidates already making more than we can offer. The range is 35-40K, low for a lab technician in my moderately high COL area [redacted East Coast city], and I would rather get a smaller candidate pool of people who won’t ultimately refuse the offer because they’re already making 55 as a lab tech somewhere else. My boss and I discussed whether to pay hourly or salary, and I didn’t want the hassle of getting a time clock and punch cards for one person. I also remember how I was hourly in my first job as a QC chemist, and I always felt it was a not-so-subtle reminder that I wasn't really considered a professional at that company.

I posted the ad on Indeed and LinkedIn using the free option. I also tried a site called Handshake that posts the ad to local colleges, and got exactly zero applications from it. Other sites, or preferred placement on the ones I used, would have cost money. Indeed and LinkedIn were pretty user-friendly and yielded good candidates. Handshake seemed to have excessive gatekeeping, with each local college I targeted needing to approve an ad (very slowly or never) before it would be posted, and yielded exactly zero applications. One university even wanted me to dig up a bunch of information such as my company’s federal tax ID number, and I refuse to spend a lot of time to do them a favor.

I could definitely see how the job market has changed. In 2017, I helped my boss at the time go through resumes for a QC tech position. I remember seeing a huge stack of resumes for a low-level job that basically involved doing a simple test and writing down the number. In many cases, someone had a BS or MS followed by 5 years of awful Yoh/Aerotek/Kelly/Joule temp gigs doing low-level lab work. In 2021, I got a relatively small pool, and rather than lots of unemployed people with experience, I saw a lot of people trying to move up from somewhere like Quest Diagnostics to a real lab.

I immediately eliminated all non-local applicants. I got a boatload of applications from India, and several from across America, and there’s no reason to sponsor a visa or pay relo for a low-level position that isn’t very specialized. This left roughly 20 local applicants, a much lower number than what would have been typical in the past. I also got a few from personal connections.  I gave each one a 15-minute phone screen (after emailing first and setting up a time so I wasn’t ambushing anyone), and several weak-looking candidates turned out to be strong after I talked to them on the phone.

I ended up with several good finalists, mostly non-traditional candidates. I tried to target people who would be willing to do technician-level work for as long as business needs dictate, but will also be promotable in the future. A person with a master’s 3 years ago followed by menial jobs turned out to be a great candidate, and would have gotten thrown out of any big company’s ATS. A person with about 20 years in hospital labs looking to change fields turned out to be another great candidate that anyone else would have overlooked. A young man with a high school education came with stellar references from another company he had been a lab tech for, and would have been booted from any ATS. I also found a few bright, underemployed people whose foreign university degrees were looked down on by American companies.

When it came to interviewing, I did my best to make the candidates comfortable and refrained from the kinds of interview questions that are designed to get someone flustered. Unless you’re interviewing someone to work in an ER, the candidate who can think clearest under pressure might not be the best fit overall. I was a pretty easy interviewer because I wanted to give everyone a chance to shine, not pick the one with the best nerves. You can get someone to reveal more when you don’t make it feel like an interrogation. 

This is why I have zero sympathy for all those companies crying about a lack of applicants. They’re still doing the same things they did when they had to whittle down a huge stack of resumes quickly, and whining that they aren’t getting candidates. I believe we ended up making the right pick, but I felt bad about rejecting several great candidates.

I’m convinced that the solution is that the hiring manager must be the one to review the resumes, not some HR person or recruiter. I had to spend a lot of time on this, but it’ll be absolutely worth it when we hire the right candidate and not some “good enough” person Aerotek, Judge, etc sent.
Thanks to KT for sharing his experiences. Best wishes to those looking to hire, and to those looking to be hired. - CJ


  1. I worked at Thermo Fisher Scientific for a number of years before getting tired of my job and wanted to transition to something else within the company or a similar job at a different location. What I quickly found out was Thermo's recruiters were mostly terrible for jobs that were 100% applicable to me and my experience. I had MUCH better luck reaching out directly to the hiring manager to request an interview and that person would communicate that to the recruiter. I probably had interviews for every job I applied to after I figured out this.

    Anyway, my a friend at Thermo told me recently that they were trying to hire some analytical chemist(s) and the recruiter kept telling the hiring manager that they're not getting any applications. After months of the opening being listed, the manager started grilling the recruiter and he discovered that they were getting applications but the recruiter was apparently weeding through them and rejecting them "based on their qualifications". So the hiring manager just asked the recruiter to send him EVERY application to make sure the recruiter wasn't missing anything and within like 5 mins of looking, the hiring manager found two people with masters in analytical plus bachelor's folk (both were listed as qualifications for this position).

    I'm not saying this happens everywhere but it seems to be far too common of a theme or perhaps too much workload for these recruiters at larger companies.

    1. One detail I left out of my story about my involvement in a 2017 search for a QC tech: My grandboss and our HR manager insisted we go through Judge (an agency), and the recruiter kept insisting there were no qualified applicants. I found it extremely implausible that there were no qualified applicants for a job that could easily be done by a non-scientist. It turned out that there were no exact matches between resume keywords and job description keywords, and the recruiter wasn't familiar enough with my field to understand this.

      My boss then asked the HR manager to publically post the job, and she said, "what, do you want to get a 3-inch-thick pile of resumes?" His answer was a resounding yes!

      I'm very confused as to why anyone would think it's a good idea to use a recruiter. 99% of the time, you're dealing with some recent-grad humanities major who has no idea what any of the words in the job description mean. Even a good one who knows my industry would be looking for my original vision of the ideal candidate, which changed over time as I read the resumes that came in.

  2. I find this statement surprising: "I also remember how I was hourly in my first job as a QC chemist, and I always felt it was a not-so-subtle reminder that I wasn't really considered a professional at that company". Granted, I haven't worked in QC, but my current job in sales for a chemicals company is hourly and I LOVE IT. Overtime and only 8 hours per day of work. I previously worked a salaried job doing market research, and with salaried positions it is extremely easy for employers to take advantage of you.

    I get a lot of recruiters interviewing me now, and I always factor in a 1.2x salary increase for going from an hourly to salaried job now...

    1. The plant where I worked hourly made more product than their QC lab was capable of handling, and they sent a lot of testing to outside labs. Nearly-unlimited overtime was available, and many people voluntarily came in on Saturdays and Sundays to get extra hours. Several people refused promotions because a salaried supervisor job would have been a pay cut, which ended up hurting their careers in the long run.

  3. The salary mismatch thing is real. I'll talk to recruiters and my walk away will be significantly higher than the budget of the position and I don't move past a screening (which is fine). Then, about 1-2 months go by and a new recruiting firm is looking to fill the same job. This cycle typically goes on for months over not wanting to pay an additional 20k/year. Perhaps it's an inflation issue where the person being hired would make more than the manager does or would be equivalent to the manager?

    1. The problem isn't the salary; it's that the company is being too picky and leaving the position vacant for months. I chose the best-fitting person I could at the salary I was given; I didn't leave the job open for months while whining and crying that I couldn't get some purple unicorn with a an unrealistic wish list of qualifications to work for 35-40K.

  4. I took the ad my predecessor used last year and made some tweaks, including adding “or related experience” to the degree requirement. I’m strongly opposed to degree requirements; I think most of the time it’s a legal way of saying “we want a nice white suburban kid who’s like us.”

    Wow, nice anti-white discrimination there bud. I'll bet you wouldn't feel comfortable writing that with any other group.

    1. I stand behind my comment. I'm convinced that the universal college degree requirement is basically an unspoken agreement between the middle-class suburban parents of America to keep each other's kids in the standard of living to which they've become accustomed. I've worked with plenty of non-degreed plant floor workers who were bright and would have done fine in an entry-level office job. I've also worked with plenty of older chemists who were good at their jobs and got promoted up with high school diplomas. Bright plant workers and secretaries became lab technicians and then full scientists in the old days before credentialing got out of control.

      For the position described above, I wasn't given a big budget for salary, and a new BS grad would be out the door in a year. The candidate will have a lot to learn with or without an academic chemistry background. I care if someone is willing and able to learn, not if they have a paper credential.

    2. I think anonymous misunderstands the concept of 'minority'...

    3. Nope I think anonymous is on target pointed out a stated prejudice that is an unsupported extrapolation of imbalances in society. I agree many capable people without degrees who could perform well given a chance and guidance too often get overlooked, especially in PhD centric organizations (most of Pharma) and like your added criteria as meaningful inclusion. Yet to offer a conspiracy theory of white privilege for want of candidates with a degree for scientific position where it is not unreasonable because implies they should have education and lab exposure that is uncommon in general population. Frankly most such nondegree workers I have known were working hard to put kids through college so they would enable higher standard of living than themselves. I do think this is more true in North America as I know in Europe there is better training for "high school" or directed technical pathways that provide appropriate Tech workers without achieving University level certification.

  5. Interesting to compare the differences in the job market between Australia and the US. I work at an environmental testing lab, so lots of GC and LC work. Our last few hires for lab tech positions have been PhD chemists, some with 2-8 years of postdoc experience. We have hired one or two B.Sc. grads recently, but their role basically just involves weighing soil and doing a few colorimetric tests. To my knowledge, we have never hired anyone with less than a Bachelors degree for a lab technician or sample reception role. The typical annual pay for a Senior Lab Tech role is about $44k USD by my calcs.

    This is probably true everywhere, but there's a vast oversupply of PhD chemists compared to industry positions. Virtually none of them have an analytical background - most (like myself) are organic or inorganic synthetic types. I think it's particularly bad in Australia because we have shut down most of our chemical industry, have almost no pharmaceutical industry to speak of, and research in general is on the decline except for academic institutions and our increasingly anaemic government research institution, the CSIRO.

    We have vocational training for Laboratory Technician roles in this country, but as far as I can tell enrolments are on the decline and I rarely see the course offered (I know because I was looking to teach it somewhere). Because our building industry is so lucrative, most high school graduates who don't go on to university tend to do a trade apprenticeship (plumber, carpenter, bricklayer, etc.)

    Environmental testing has become a dumping ground for the country's chemistry grads, assuming they don't shift disciplines entirely, because enviro testing is intrinsically linked to the building industry (think brownfield developments) and thus is one of the few places a chemist can eke out a living without jumping on the postdoc treadmill. Australia is quickly becoming a place of high living standards and limited economic output - The World's Bedroom Suburb, as our local icons TISM once called it.

    I should add that the hiring of PhDs for low level positions is not typical for most enviro labs, but it's growing in popularity. I was a test case to see if I could be 'trained out of bad habits' and my transferable skills implemented later on. I predict that just by oversupply, PhD and Masters will be expected for entry level positions, but never specifically advertised for.

    1. How have the PhD's been working out as lab techs? My memory of the pharma QC lab where I started my career was that inferior scientists were often a better fit for repetitive work, and the smart ones were prone to boredom. This is why I didn't want to hire someone with a BS or MS for a technician job.

      I did get one applicant with a PhD (not counting the foreigners looking to immigrate). A postdoc working for a well-known famous bigshot professor (engineering, not chemistry) applied, and I knew his advisor was about to move to a different university. I suspect this person may have been in danger of deportation if he failed to find a new job soon. I felt sorry for him, but he wasn't a good fit for routine low-level lab work.

    2. "the smart ones were prone to boredom" I remember applying to a job a few years ago and being rejected in the phone interview when the interviewer told me that I would be bored with the job and leave. They made that assumption and never asked if I would be satisfied with the duties of the job or whether I viewed the position as temporary. I had had a job with a plenty of excitement- crazy management decisions, boom/bust job insecurity, unpredictable schedule, mild sexual harassment, onerous travel, projects that were nearly impossible with the resources available at the company. I would have been happy to have the "boring job" instead and leave the drama behind. The idea that you wanted "inferior scientists" shows a level of contempt for the people who do work for your company that's gross.
      Also, I wish hiring managers would not automatically weed out non-local candidates. Sometimes people have a non-local address at the time of application but they will have to move to your city because of a spouse's job or to help care for elderly parents. Given a choice between a job with no paid relocation and a relocation with no job, most people would rather the former. You could just say that no relocation will be paid, and that the person must be able to start the job within a certain short window after the hire.

    3. I admit my word choice wasn't very diplomatic here. My point is that someone with no chemistry background can find routine lab work interesting and challenging because they're learning things, and I've seen many people unhappy and frustrated when they're not being challenged enough.

      The amount of room for challenge and growth in technician jobs can vary. At the pharma QC lab where I started out, there was a strong culture of "don't think or ask questions; just do exactly what the method says." They required a BS, but a robot could have been programmed to do my job. At the company I worked for in 2017 where we needed to fill a QC tech job, the tech was doing routine work but encouraged to learn and grow in responsibility. A guy we promoted off the plant floor with no chemistry background found the work interesting and challenging, grew quite a bit, and is now a production manager somewhere else. The next few hires were new BS grads at my grandboss's insistence, and both quickly became bored with the repetitive lab work. That plant floor guy might have had an inferior science background, but he was no dummy.

      If someone explained to me in a cover letter that they were specifically interested in relocation to my area or moving down to a lower level of responsibility, I would have given them a shot.

      Good suggestion about adding "no relocation will be paid" to the ad. I also plan to add "no visa sponsorship offered" next time.

    4. I may not be the best to evaluate how the PhD's are doing in their lab tech role (because I was one of them for a long time) but generally speaking they do well after a bit of a rough start.

      In my experience, in these types of roles PhDs find exponential learning curves that take a long time to take off. If we set up a fresh BSc grad in a lab tech position, they tend to become quite competent at the routine stuff fairly quickly, unlike the PhDs who tend to struggle with producing reproducible results and are often much slower than their less qualified counterparts. At some point though, it 'crystallises' and the PhD can outperform other technicians who have been doing the test for years. What's more, they can usually troubleshoot the method if required. They're just so much slower off the bat, so you incur that initial performance hit.

      There's a great amount of 'unlearning' that a PhD has to do to become productive at a routine method, such as removing perfectionist tendencies and to avoid turning small problems into big ones (it may just be our corporate culture, where 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' is usually the rule, unless being proactive is going to make management look good).

      Once you unlearn all the 'bad' PhD habits that hinder you in an entry-level routine testing position (where speed is crucial), you can 'relearn' them once you have a total grasp of what it's like to be a robot. Hopefully this happens as a consequence of moving up in the organisation, taking on development and supervisory work (as I have).

      If I could re-do my time though, I would have worked in industry for a few years before going back to do my PhD, rather than getting it first. I found it enormously limiting in finding work as it's a massive hindrance for getting entry level positions (in Australia at least, it seems there's no alternative for a PhD other than spamming for an 'entry level' position, except maybe the postdoc treadmill).

    5. I should add, in the 10 years or so I spent going through undergrad and postgrad, there was a big upsurge in what KT might call 'inferior scientists' going through the Chem PhD program at my Uni. A few reasons for this. The standard PhD program in Australia is heavily subsidised by the government and pays a nice tax-free $28k AUD stipend, plus the very attractive ($40+ AUD p/h up to $120 AUD p/h) wages for lab demonstrating and tutoring. It is not terribly difficult to get into if you do an Honours year and have reasonably good grades (Distinction/>70% average). Confronted with an extremely competitive job market, a lot of decent students tend to do a PhD to buy some time and squeeze the last drops from the complimentary facilities at Uni. Unfortunately, decent students they may be, capable scientists they are not. I remarked upon the rapid drop-off of technically skilled students at my old department, such that I still occasionally get called upon for the occasional favour to fix the odd bit of chromatography equipment or gas manifold. Many of these students struggle to produce original ideas for their projects. I remember throwing ideas at my postdocs and supervisor when I was doing my PhD regularly. Most of them were terrible, but at least I was venturing solutions (a few actually produced some results that saved me in the end). Many PhDs undertaken now seem to be nothing but drawn-out Honours projects.

    6. I've seen the same kind of thing in the CASE industry formulation area. Old PhD's with a lot of industry experience can be superstars in this field, but PhD's with less industrial experience tend to be "too academic" and less productive. In other words, the perfectionist tendencies stop them from moving forward and getting things done, and the idea of using impure real-world ingredients rather than 99.999% pure ACS-grade stuff from the Aldrich catalog is difficult for them to accept.

      At a past job, I worked with teammates from my company's tech center, who were very academic PhD's with little industrial experience. They got badly bent out of shape when I pre-weighed some ingredients to make an experiment go faster during their visit, arguing that a container containing 773.6 grams of liquid X would only deliver something like 772.4 grams with a bit clinging to the walls. I tried to explain that an industrial coating is going to get applied in the field by a guy who accidentally drops his cigarette in while he's mixing it. These guys were excellent scientists, but completely useless at product development because they'd get hung up on trivial distractions.

    7. I personally agree with the idea there are too many good students but not necessarily good scientists (myself included); if one dont come up with research ideas regularly they dont really graduate to become individual scientists, and thats more or less characterized by how easily they complete the original research proposal yearly milestone. But then I rarely see people fail this part, I mean of course after 3-4 years of grad school its a huge waste of time to fail people at this stage, and in turn we graduate way too many phds than there really should be. Personally what I did was exactly to escape the competitive job market and bought (or really my parents bought) the idea adv. degrees lead to better careers and pay, paying little attention to whether im capable of being trained by this adv adgree...

      To me a phd should never pursue or be recruited to do robotic work, its simply not what they are trained for; if one has to resort to that I'd put research assistant as work experience in place of phd in my resume.

      as for unlearning phd I'd imagine the level of attention to details is still desirable: sure 6.1 vs 6.2 grams really would be indifferent for production purposes, but this stuff wont hurt in records in place of "weighed about 6 grams." The "I have to do this at exactly 6.100g" part is just silly, maybe the organic colleagues can correct me out but when I was doing reactions I never bothered after the 2nd digit...

    8. The desire to hire locally is understandable given the totally overheated state of the housing market. Someone living elsewhere may well underestimate the price of housing or may not even be able to find accommodation before the agreed starting date. Even if an employer won't pay relocation, the least they can do is help find a roof over the head.

  6. With salaries like that, why would anyone go into science? American wage slave dream.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20