Main image of article Do Employers Want Too Much From Candidates?

Even the most experienced tech professional might feel underqualified when they read a job posting. Many employers’ “required” skill sets seem to include everything but the ability to teleport and build a Shaker barn. How can you deal with this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to hiring? Read on!

Why Do Some Employers Do This?

Sometimes, hiring managers and recruiters haven’t clearly defined the role. Other times, they’d like the biggest possible range of applicants to sort through—the more the merrier, they think, especially since automated software will sort through the first round of resumes and cover letters. As a result, their job postings list dozens of skills and ultra-stringent experience requirements—and this can generate a lot of confusion for tech professionals who aren’t sure if they qualify for the position.

Tech professionals might ask themselves: Am I underqualified for the job? Should I apply for a job I might be underqualified for?

How to Determine If You’re Qualified for the Position

If you’ve been working in your field for even a few months, you have a pretty good idea of what a position actually requires. If you’re a Python engineer, for example, you know you need to know how to program, debug, test, and deploy Python code; you’ll also be familiar with the frameworks and libraries that make it easier to build software.

Knowing the “standard” requirements for your role makes it easier to determine whether you’re really qualified for a particular job. Scan the job posting. Have you mastered most (or all) of the listed skills? Do you know which listed skills are actually important, and which you can disregard?

It’s also key to read the job description and see if your previous experience aligns with the goals and needs of this prospective employer. For example, if a company is looking for a mobile app developer who can successfully ideate, build, and deploy an iOS app for the financial sector, and you have experience with iOS in the context of finance (or a related field), you’re likely in a great position to apply. Even if you’ve never participated in a particular industry before, your transferable experience and skills (such as management) can still make you a strong candidate in a hiring manager’s eyes. 

“Most organizations want to pay premiums for the perfect candidate, and when they have to identify somebody on their own, find they can't do it and reach out to a recruitment firm,” said Justin Laliberte, managing partner of the Lucas Group, an executive search firm. “Then they think, ‘If we’re going to invest $40,000 in a candidate, they better have everything.’ That tends to happen on a regular basis, but it doesn’t mean it’s realistic.” 

A laundry-list job description is also a possible sign of communications breakdown within the organization doing the hiring. “I tweak [job descriptions],” Laliberte said, “because way too often they're generically written by HR. Managers just don't have the time to put them together, so you get something that reads nothing like what was said in conversation with the actual hiring manager."

How to Interview for a Job You’re Underqualified For

Companies want to make investments in talent, but the inherent costs of that talent also make them wary of hiring anyone but the absolute best. “They’re looking for ways to leverage and to justify the cost of hiring,” said Mirjana Schultz, president of Instant Alliance, a recruiting and staffing firm.

During the job interview, that will often lead hiring managers to ask two questions:

  • What qualifies you for this position?
  • Why are you right for this job?

If you’re unsure about your qualifications, these questions can be terrifying. Fortunately, there are good answers for each, even if your skills and experience don’t necessarily match what’s listed in the job posting.

Step one: Show that you’ve done your research by describing the prospective employer’s mission, strategy, and current projects. After you’ve done that, talk about how your previous experience and skills will help the company accomplish its aims.

Step two: Even if you don’t have all the skills listed in the original job description, focus on the ones you’ve mastered and how you’d use those to succeed in the role. Emphasize how you learn new skills and tasks quickly, and can adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Without going too overboard, you may want to show how you’re in your “comfort zone” in such environments.

Step three: Emphasize those soft skills by talking up your teamwork, communication, and empathy; tell stories of how you’ve used these skills to help your previous teams succeed. While companies are concerned about technical skills, they’re just as interested in candidates who can successfully work with others.

The Curse of the Former Employee

It’s hard to replace someone who’s been on the job for years, keeping pace with changes in technology and the evolving needs of the employer. These employees often master technologies specific to an employer and the role.

Employers also want to leverage as much of their employees’ skill sets in order to get the most out of them—which can make it difficult to hire just the right person. “Outside candidates tend to be disciplined in one area, and employers are looking for them to not only be great at what they need but also have strong aptitudes to match their wants,” Schultz said. “Sometimes what they want doesn’t go hand-in-hand with what they need.”

If you’re applying to replace a longtime employee, you should spend the job interview discussing how you’re quick to adapt and learn; if you know the technologies utilized by the employer, it’ll pay to bring that up.

The Influence of the Multi-Hyphenate Consultant

Schultz noted that, over the past few years, employers have relied on staffing solutions for short-term projects. ”Now they're trying to bring everything in-house,” she said, “and they're really trying to justify the cost of that. Instead of just doing one function, they're looking for folks that can do cross-functions.”

Laliberte concurred. “In a consulting world, you may want someone who can do everything because you're going to have limited time with that individual and they're going to help you execute and deliver a project.” He usually has to curb managers’ expectations. “When you're hiring an employee there needs to be room for growth. Employers need to learn that investing in potential is as important as investing in skill.”

Until that lesson takes hold, however, some employers will likely continue posting job descriptions that push the boundaries of realism. Fortunately, many are also willing to listen if you can describe how your skills and experience will make you absolutely perfect for the role.