This feature first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
There is an old adage that states there is no better time to determine the market value of a skill than in a downturn. When times are good, employers are often less choosy when it comes to hiring requirements — they fear the "perfect" candidate may have lots of options and they would rather have a warm body than nobody.
When times turn bad, however, potential job candidates have fewer options to choose from and thus companies can be more stringent about their requirements.
Given that there have been sizable eliminations of staff announced recently from companies such as Amazon, Google, Meta, Microsoft, Spotify, Zoom and others, in what is being called the largest wave of tech layoffs since the early 2000s, it seemed like a good time to try to ascertain what skills employers may still be seeking.
My hypothesis was that many companies are still hiring, even though layoffs are abundant, but being more picky about the qualifications of job candidates. Given that element of selectivity, looking at the skills that employers are focusing on now is likely to highlight skills worth obtaining — skills that may be of higher value in the market than some others.
I reasoned that this research could best be approached by in stages. In the first stage, a sampling of job postings from an employment site could be gathered and dissected with a focus on pulling out the requirements and qualifications listed.
The list obtained from doing this could then be shared with people in HR. Given that many times job postings ask for far more than the baseline qualifications that a company is willing to accept, I could ask which of these skills matter most.
What I found surprised me — but made sense in hindsight. The following elaborates on what I did, what I learned from doing it, and why I perhaps should have suspected certain things from the beginning.
Harvesting job postings
There are many employment sites that post job openings and one of the most promoted is Indeed.com, which markets itself as the No. 1 job site in the world, with more than 300 million unique visitors every month. At their site, I entered a job filter of "Network Administrator" for "What" and "United States" for "Where."
The result at that moment was 10,034 jobs and they did not appear to be shown in any particular order. It appeared as though they were geographically random in the display, and the pay ranges were sizable.
Assuming randomization, I downloaded 20 pages of the "Qualifications" and "Requirements" sections of each listing (approximately 50 listings) and then went through and parsed out all extraneous wording to get down to just the skill, topic, technology, or product they were seeking expertise/knowledge with. Next, I took this list and fed it to the Free Word Cloud Generator at FreeWordCloudGenerator.com to arrive at the word cloud shown in Figure One.
I next repeated the process at Indeed.com using a job filter of "Software Developer" for "What" and "United States" for "Where". The result was 12,453 jobs at that moment, and once again they did not appear to be displayed in any perceivable order.
Again assuming randomization, I downloaded postings in the order presented to me and collected about 20 pages of the "Qualifications" and "Requirements" sections of each listing (approximately 50 listings). Once more, I parsed all extraneous wording to get down to just the skill, topic, technology, or product they were seeking expertise/knowledge with and used the Free Word Cloud Generator to create the word cloud shown in Figure Two.
"You wouldn't fit in here"
Armed with the word clouds, I next reached out to a few individuals in human resources who I know to see whether they would comment on my findings and identify which of the entities appearing there are ones that they most focus on as requirements.
In Figure Two, for example, SQL appears very prominently. I suspect, however, that many organizations will hire software developers who may not be experts in SQL if those candidates have other key skills, under the belief that they can always be taught SQL.
(One minor matter was cleared up straight off the bat. I discovered that many in HR are no longer labeled as recruiters, head hunters, and so forth. They are now in "talent acquisition," and that moniker seems to align better than some of the previous ones did.)
As one might imagine, the responses that were given at this phase by those in hiring were vague and of limited usefulness. While one HR rep might insist that candidates know Docker or they would not move up the process, others were willing to consider any candidate who could utter "container" in the same sentence as "virtualization."
Given the extremely limited usefulness and lack of consistency in what I was hearing back, I decided to approach this from another angle. I asked those in hiring to forget that the word clouds existed and to tell me from scratch what it would take to be considered for a position as either a software developer or network administrator.
These answers were universal and consistent: Skills are nice and skills are always listed in postings — but attitude and ability outweigh them. If a candidate for a software development position has every single skill listed in Figure Two, but has an acidic attitude, they will not get offered a position even though they match the posting more or less perfectly.
On the other hand, if a candidate lacks skills listed in that word cloud, but has the ability to learn them and pairs that up with a winning attitude, then they stand a much better chance of being offered a position. It may not even be the position they applied for, but another one they are better suited to.
Time and time again, I heard of those in talent acquisition finding a candidate they liked who was not a good fit for a position they applied for. Instead of simply rejecting the application, talent managers found these candidates another opportunity — because they really wanted a person with the right attitude working for their organization. Skills can always be taught, but attitude is often less flexible.
While this was not at all the answer I was looking for, it made perfect sense when looking at it from the employer's perspective. The cost of a bad hire is something no organization wants to face. And it is far more likely that badness will be associated with a lack of culture fit or character than with skills or credentials.
Soft skills for the win
While the results I found are insightful, there are a number of limitations to point out. The first is that I reviewed only a sampling of job postings, and all were through the same job site. If you were focused on wanting to work for one company, the ideal thing to do would be to focus on the listings unique to that company.
Second, those in talent acquisition who I communicated with represent only a tiny portion of the total number of individuals who function in that role. Again, if you were focused on wanting to work for one company, the best thing to do would be to reach out to those in talent acquisition for that company and try to discover exactly what criteria they look for and value.
From a collective standpoint, however, the most valuable thing to realize is that attitude and interpersonal skills are heavily weighted and thus job candidates need to make certain they shine in those regards. When employers can afford to be selective, attributes often collectively labeled "soft skills" are at the top of their list.
When you look beyond the requirements and qualifications section of a posting, it is not uncommon to find something in the full job description similar to the following:
"Candidate must be able to work effectively in a team environment"
"Candidate must be able to coordinate with team members and work unsupervised"
"Candidate takes personal responsibility and pride in their work"
"Candidate has the ability to be productive as an individual and working on a team"
IT job postings almost always ask for technical skills, or "hard" skills. When a choice is between candidates with equivalent hard skills, however, the deciding factor is likely to be which of the candidates has the most appealing soft skills.
No matter where you work, you will almost always have to work with other people. Speaking to and highlighting your soft skills and your interpersonal abilities is essential to any employment interview. Making yourself appealing in these ways will go far in moving your application from the slush pile to the consideration pile — even when there is an economic downturn.