U.S. Job Market: Decoding "Help Wanted" Ads
We translate some of the more clichéd and obscure phrases.
We’ve all looked at want ads at one point or another in our working lives, and we’ve all seen them: the seemingly meaningless bits of corporate-speak that seem to indicate key skills or abilities required for the job. Phrases such as “self-starter” and “results-oriented” are, on the surface, completely nonsensical – who, after all, requires another person to “start” them? And start doing what? Also, is there any reasonably intelligent and motivated human being that goes through life conducting actions without expecting any results at all?
Fortunately, there are human resources experts out there who speak the often puzzling and unique tongue of job ads. However, it should be cautioned that, like any language in translation, words and turns of phrase can often be interpreted differently depending on who’s doing the interpreting. With that caveat in mind, we’ve come up with a few meanings for some of the most overworked expressions in want ads.
Perhaps the most hackneyed job classified phrase, and the most empty, is self-starter. If that phrase were taken literally, it would cover every single living person on this earth, since someone who cannot start themselves in any fashion is likely dead.
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But, not according to hiring managers. Says career counseling service Pongo Resume, this redundant phrase actually means initiative. The company is looking for a person who will not need a high level of hands-on management; a worker who will figure out various aspects of his or her job and get them done without being told to. Now, why these ads simply can’t state that the hiring company is looking for a candidate “with good initiative,” for example, is a question beyond the scope of this blog or any sensible human resources person to answer.
Kevin Fleming, the owner of executive development and coaching company Gray Matters, has a more cynical view of the phrase’s true meaning. Quoted in Fortune magazine, Fleming maintains that “it’s saying, ‘when we don’t give you any sense of direction, we want you to pull it out of thin air.'" In other words, the company’s management doesn’t manage very much, and it depends more than it should on its employees to figure out what their jobs encompass.
Fleming also thinks that the common want ad criterion for a team player is more sinister and far less positive than it sounds. According to him, this indicates a job where the employee will be expected to take whatever treatment his/her bosses impose, and swallow it without complaint “for the good of the team," This abusive relationship is, unfortunately, increasingly common in American workplaces, so it’s not surprising that it would creep into the language of want ads one way or another.
Attention to detail and detail-oriented are more or less what they appear to be on the surface. What the employer is ultimately hoping for, according to Pongo Resume, is that their newly-chosen employee won’t make dumb errors that will result in embarrassment for the company. Shawn O’Connor, CEO of career counseling firm Stratus Careers, takes a more jaundiced view. Quoted in the Fortune article, O’Connor maintains that these words are code for a very high level of drive and energy, and are very often used for positions like sales where employees typically work for commission. Such a job – in the early stages, anyway – can be a terrible grind of cold-calling for weeks or even months before a client list is built, hence the need for such stamina.
Lastly, there are those promisingly vague ads that require a job candidate to possess out of the box or creative thinking. On the surface, these sound like tantalizing descriptions of a position that requires heavy use of right-brain capabilities. But no, says Silicon Valley recruiter and career guidance book author Kathryn Ullrich, quoted in the Fortune article. According to her, “that’s jargon for: we don’t have [the job and its duties] figured out yet”.
Despite some improvement in the employment landscape lately, job opportunities are scarcer than they have been in the recent past. We need all the help we can get when pounding the pavement for something that’ll pay a regular salary. So hopefully this little starter guide will help potential work-seekers make sense of some of the mumbo-jumbo in want ads. Happy job hunting!