Hiring for Talent Development

You are viewing an old revision of this post, from September 30, 2012 @ 14:46:25. See below for differences between this version and the current revision.

Labor is an asset, but it’s different in kind to most asset classes.

I’m currently in the job market. I’m not (yet) looking very hard – I make some money doing freelance web development, and am involved with a couple of companies part-time doing data analysis, which means I make enough money to get by. The downside, of course, is that it makes me lazy.

However, it’s caused me to think about “clearing the labor market” in a somewhat different way.

Typically, I tend to fall back to an economic-centric way of looking at things. Companies have a set of things that need to be done; some known to the company, some unknown. Hiring talent (labor) to perform those duties is a matter of evaluating whether the candidate can perform the known tasks well, and ideally add value by identifying unknown tasks that add additional value to the company.

Each candidate is willing to accept a salary range, where the range maps to a fixed quality of life score for the candidate (e.g. a candidate may accept a lower salary if they prefer the work, or it has fewer hours, less travel, etc).

It’s neat, simple, and – for me – entirely misses the point.

While I’m not looking hard for a position, that mainly boils down to not actively applying to many jobs (a couple a week? Less?) as opposed to not looking at options. I receive targeted emails from a few websites (e.g. Indeed.com) as well as recruiters who randomly email me or message me on LinkedIn.

I find it quite astonishing that so few positions seem to appeal to me.

And then I realize why.

I’m not looking for a job, per se – I’m looking for the opportunity to apply, and develop, my skillset and knowledgebase. I’ve been relatively active at expanding my skillset, and it’s something I’m very interested in developing further in a few targeted ways.

Specifically, I want to use statistical programming languages (e.g. R) to analyze diverse data sets (normalize, explore, hypothesis testing, etc.) and create a narrative to explain the data and influence decision-making in the right direction (report writing, presentations), and then automating that analysis where possible (using Python, C#, etc) and/or creating web-based dashboards and tools. Ideally, I’d use a sizable fraction of my (targeted) skillset.

I’ve developed the skeleton for this skillset over time, such that a moderate investment would really allow me to flesh out those skills and become something of an expert.

Unfortunately, figuring out where I can do this is I damnably difficult.

I know, I know, the answer is informational interviewing and meeting up with people in various fields. Most jobs aren’t posted online, particularly the good ones. Or so I’ve been told.


The jobs that I do see online, that I read through in my email every day, are written exclusively from the standpoint of current skills and previous experience. What it doesn’t tell you is anything about the opportunities for development.

Sure, I get the rationale that companies are interested in what candidates can do for them. I even understand it from the perspective that, once the candidate pool has been thinned down, the company and the candidates can discuss career/personal development more directly, since that’s likely to be more specific to the candidate. And hey, I also understand that this is a bad time – candidates are a-plenty, so companies have less incentive to outline what they can offer candidates, since there are plenty of good candidates without going to the extra step of formulating the benefits to the candidate of the company.


I hear – from people hiring – that good candidates are damnably difficult to find. Yes, it’s quite possible – probable – that in response to increased labor availability, companies increased hiring requirements and lowered compensation to thin the flood of applications.

I’m simply of the opinion that the best people to have around are those who want to push their boundaries. To learn more; to become more capable; to have a greater impact on the company.

All of these job descriptions seem, implicitly, to want someone who is currently capable of the job and no more. Who can step in, fulfill the tasks outlined by the company, and very little else. Perhaps even people who are less interested in developing themselves, and more interested in getting the job and getting out.

After all, turnover is expensive, and if you can find someone who can do their job well and stay for an extended period of time, you save money. Sort of.

The difference between labor and other asset classes is that labor is changeable, and appreciates in value over time (usually). For each worker, there is an opportunity cost for taking a job below his/her skillset, failing to develop skills, etc.

The difference for the company is that a known resource – capable of a fixed amount – will never outperform.

The most insightful epistemological statement made by Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense is that:

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.

There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

A company hiring a known resource will fulfill the known knowns very well. They can also hire – with much more difficulty – in an effort to deal with known unknowns (“We don’t have someone capable of fixing this old Fortran code? Then find someone who can!”).

But a company is limited to its current resources to identify, and deal with, unknown unknowns – the most dangerous form, and potentially lucrative, form.

Hiring candidates who will continue to develop over some time period (say three years) seem, to me, to be much more likely to identify the difficult problems – unknown unknowns.

I’d prefer to see job descriptions that provide a list of requirements, and then outline the areas where a candidate would be expected to improve – or, listing the areas where significant improvement in an employee would have disproportionate effects for the company, for that position.

I mean, an employee can invest in all sorts of skills that have limited returns to a company’s bottom line (office politics, anyone?); for a given company, and a given position, the number of areas of improvement with a significant potential impact is likely to be quite small.

Oh well. At the bottom line, this is just all wishful thinking – stuff that would make my life easier, by displacing work from me to companies seeking to hire employees.

Still, it would be nice. Reading these job descriptions becomes terribly banal after a while.

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