What I Learned About Job Applications as a Hiring Manager

Job Application

Photo credit: The Grindstone by Kathryn Decker via Flickr

 

If you’re new to the workforce (like I was a decade or so ago), the process of applying for a job is apt to seem a little mysterious.  But fret not, I’m here to give you a little insight into the process from the other side of the resume.  What follows applies more directly to library and other professional positions, and probably less so for technical, executive, or entry level jobs.

Finding job postings

The first step is obviously finding a job to apply for.  Sites like Career Builder and Monster can be a good place to start, but be prepared to narrow your search or be overwhelmed with the sheer number of listings.  A much more effective way to go is to identify organizations you’d like to work with and check their websites frequently for openings.

Both of these strategies require you to do a little homework before hand.  Namely, you need to take a good look at yourself and identify your interests, strengths, and practical skills.  If you need a little more direction than that, try this.  I for one knew I was interested in public service, passionate about education, and (by the time I actually started thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up) had management experience.  This led me to libraries, public libraries in particular.

Your Resume

Some time ago I was fortunate enough to sit down with a hiring manager who critiqued my resume.  He did this as a favor, but at the time I wasn’t really equipped to take that advice and put it to use.  Back then I had “Able to communicate through written and verbal means” on my resume.  He tried to tell me that that statement doesn’t really communicate anything.  In fact I see now that the stilted language probably indicates the opposite.  His advice: Be specific.

You should be using your resume to communicate specific accomplishments, challenges, and experiences you’ve had.  General statements, like the one above, come off as filler, padding that is taking up valuable space on the one page (more on this later) you have to illustrate your professional self.  Eventually I replaced that bulky, yet vague line with something like: Proposed changes to organizational policy which resulted in increased efficiency and reduced expenses and/or: Resolved interpersonal conflict between team members by encouraging open, honest, and frank communication.  Your cover letter (again, more on this later) is the perfect place to flesh these out a little more.

Be honest.  This is kind of obvious.  If you lie on your resume, you’ll probably be discovered, either in the interview or later.  Besides, you’re better than that.

Be brief.  As a rule I limit my resume to one page.  I’m sure it can depend on the situation and some managers might disagree with me, but I do this for a couple of reasons.  First, it ensures that only the best stuff gets admitted.  One page isn’t much and imposing this restriction on your resume ensures you’re highlighting your best attributes and accomplishments.

Be creative.  The old maxim is that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the fact is that we almost always do.  Formatting can make your resume stand out and grab a little extra attention.  One caveat: keep it simple.  The most important part of your resume is its content, so make sure it’s not overshadowed by graphics or busy formatting.

A word about references

Unless they are asked for specifically, do not use personal references.  Most hiring managers are going to ask work related questions of your references, so it needs to be someone who can speak to your work ethic.  If you’re still in school or recently graduated, consider asking teachers/professors (always ask before listing someone as a reference) that you’ve had close contact with.  If you’ve done volunteer work, ask the volunteer coordinator or a fellow volunteer.

Your cover letter

This is required even when it’s not.  If you’re not writing cover letters, you’re doing yourself a disservice.  Resumes are inherently dry.  They’re basically a timeline of your professional life.  Cover letters are more akin to a biography.  The point is to communicate who you are while expanding upon your qualifications with specific instances of your work.  A good cover letter does three things: explains why you want the job, why you’d be a good fit for the job, and how you would add value to the organization.  For these reasons your cover letter and, to a lesser extent, your resume should be tailored to the specific position and organization you’re applying for.

Now, the thing that separates good cover letters from bad ones is readability.  Use the space to tell a story or two about your professional self, and do it in your own voice.  I admit there might be some risk in eschewing formal business language in some cases, but the upside is that you will seem sincere to the person on the other side of your letter.  Riskier still is the practice of highlighting one of your failures.  But no one is looking for a perfect candidate, they’re looking for someone who would be a good fit.  And for my money, someone who can admit defeat and explain what they learned from it is exceedingly more valuable than someone who judges their value by only their wins.

Your interview

Interviews come in a lot of flavors.  They’re done over the phone, via skype, and face-to-face.  My advice for all types of interviews is the same: Be prepared, be specific, be yourself.

You have to do your homework.  Think about what they’re going to ask you and how you might answer these questions.  If you have no idea what they might ask, there are no shortage of books, articles, and resources (available at your local library even!) on the subject.  Most interviewers are going to ask questions to get a sense of your personality, and how you would react in certain situations.  Have a couple of stories handy that illustrate how you have handled yourself when conflict arose in the workplace, how you’ve solved problems, and what you’ve learned along the way.

Specifics are important too.  Vague or general answers don’t count here, and while fence-sitting might seem safe, it’s the worst thing you can do in an interview.  Answer each question fully, and don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat a question if you need it.  It shows you’re considering your response.  There is a fine line to walk here though, so don’t go on ad nauseum.

Most importantly, be yourself.  People are more attuned to spotting insincerity than we usually think, so the safe move here is just to be you.  And the interview isn’t really about an employer selecting an applicant, it’s about you getting some insight into the organization you’re applying to.  You also get to determine whether or not the opportunity is a good fit.

Worst case scenario: you don’t get the job

So you didn’t get the job, huh?  Don’t sweat it.  When you’re not offered the position it has very little to do with you, so don’t take it personally.  If you don’t believe me, consider that the typical job interview clocks in somewhere south of one hour, and how much can someone really learn about you in an hour?  Be gracious, evaluate what could have gone better (if anything), and try again.

Best case scenario: you get the job

Congrats! Sadly, I have no experience with salary negotiation so you’ll have to consult other resources there.  My general advice for you here is essentially the same as above.  Accept the position with humility.  After all, how much can someone really learn about you in an hour?

Libraries Have an Awareness Problem

We do.  It’s true.  Take a look at some of the more recent data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project:

How well informed do you feel about the different services your public library offers?

Despite the fact that libraries are easily available to most, there are large numbers of Americans who say they are not sure about all the services libraries offer. Echoing the findings of our 2012 survey, 23% of those who have ever used a public library said they feel like they know all or most of the service and programs their library offers, while a plurality (47%) said that they know some of what it offers. About one in five (20%) say they don’t know very much about what is offered, and 10% say they know “nothing at all.”

 

And I’m guessing this paints a too optimistic figure given that the data was collected via survey.  I don’t have any data to back it up, but I don’t think 23% of the population know “all or most” of the services their library provides.

A case in point is this recent *ahem* “article” from David Harsanyi at The Federalist.  It’s the typical sort of criticism of libraries today: Why are we checking out popular movies on DVD?  Why do affluent and middle-class Americans need libraries when they can afford to buy books and media?  And on and on.  Although I’m a little tired of reading stuff like this from ill-informed and unaware critics, I want to try and give Harsanyi’s argument a fair shake, so here’s a rundown of the premises and conclusion:

  1. Public libraries today are lending DVDs to folks who have the means to get them elsewhere (Redbox, Netflix)
  2. Books have taken a backseat to other priorities in library service
  3. The people who need to use the library the most, tend not to (referring here to those with low socioeconomic status and educational attainment)

    Therefore: Libraries are failing America and not realizing their mission as educational and cultural institutions

He’s cherry-picked data from the Pew study, but we’ll get to that in a minute.  Instead, let’s start with Harsanyi’s first point about popular DVDs being prevalent.  He says:

The last time I went down to my local library, I could have borrowed a DVD copy of ‘This Is the End’ or ‘Taken 2′ (both of which I’d seen, and both which are available on Netflix or for $1.10 at a Redbox) or a book on CD of ’50 Shades of Grey,’ but I couldn’t find a decent book on the history of early Christianity.

Now intuitively a majority us know that popular films today aren’t on a par with classic literature or other “high art.”  I share Harsanyi’s sentiment here (excluding the interest in early Christianity), and will be the first to tell you that I am a literature snob.  This makes me a pretentious ass some of the time, but most of the time I can keep my judgments on such things in check because that’s what librarians (and people who aren’t assholes) do.  I’m laying it on kind of thick here, but my point is this: libraries have always collected popular materials because we aren’t the deciders of what counts as enriching, enlightening, or valuable in our culture.  If the people at The Federalist want that responsibility, I say good luck.  

Now, you might say, “Sure you can’t be the arbiters of what has cultural value, but some of these popular DVDs are readily available elsewhere.”  And you’d be right, but remember, we’re dealing with taxpayer money here, and if we’re taking that responsibility seriously, we need to be developing a collection of materials that meet the needs and the wants of our community.  Furthermore, the library is for everyone, and if middle-class families want access to free movies movies that they’ve already paid for via their taxes, then so be it.

Moving on.  Have books really taken a backseat?  Are they secondary to other library priorities?  Let’s go back to the Pew study:

According to Library Journal’s 2012 Book Buying Survey, print books account for on average 61% of libraries’ spending on materials, compared with 20% for media and 4% for e-books. 

It doesn’t look like books have taken a back seat.  What Harsanyi is experiencing when he can’t find a book on early Christianity is a direct result of the number of books being published today.  You can look at statistics all you want, but for an easy illustration consider this: more books were published over one week in January 2012 than were published during the entire year of 1950.  The sheer volume of stuff coming out today precludes libraries from collecting everything as they did in the not-so-distant past.  One thing we can do though is get almost any book.  You may have to wait for it, but if you ask your friendly neighborhood librarian for it, they can likely get it for you.

Then we have the assertion that the people who need to use libraries the most, don’t.  In a sense this is true (and it’s not in that pompous “poor people should get to a library and educate themselves” kind of way that’s being suggested).  Library use tends to be higher in communities that have higher rates of educational attainment and lower poverty.  But that’s not to say that libraries in lower socioeconomic status communities aren’t busy, they’re just being used for different things.  

At my library, one in three people who walk through the doors are there to use a computer.  We serve a large population in South Kansas City, which may surprise you if you read the whole of Harsanyi’s article.  He describes lack of broadband access as a “rural problem,” even though the very article he cites says, “Even in areas where broadband is available, approximately 100 million Americans still do not subscribe.”  Which begs the question, “Why don’t they subscribe?”  It’s the money.  Here in the land of the free we pay much more for much less.  Now, out of those one in three people we serve by providing access to information on the web, about 25-33% are there applying for jobs on the internet or drafting resumes.  Library staff help these folks by providing as-needed instruction in using the computer, navigating a job application website, and uploading a resume.  It’s not sexy or flashy or even newsworthy, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t innovative.  Where else in contemporary American society can you go to get friendly, personal help like this?

So are we failing, have we forgotten our mission?  I don’t think so.  At least not on any large scale.  There are a lot of institutions failing America at this stage (the media, our legislators and other elected officials, pundits and lazy uninformed people with a microphone [I’m looking at you David]), but our public libraries aren’t one of them.  They remain a place where anyone in the community can go for help.  They promote literacy among young and old alike, allow us to pool our resources so we don’t have to spend money on cheap, disposable entertainment, and much more.  The fact that people like Harsanyi don’t get it is no surprise.  Oscar Wilde had those people pegged over a century ago: “[a cynic is] A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Conducting a SWOT Analysis at Your Branch

Photo credit: photomagnon on flickr

I’ve been neglecting my blog again recently, which typically means things are busy.  And it has been a busy few months; my library system’s strategic planning process has finally filtered down to the branch level, we’ve been doing interviews looking to add one or two part-timers with outreach skills, and we’ve switched to a new payroll/HR system.  And but so anyway, I’ve been thinking about doing a conference presentation this year, and with my experience doing SWOT analyses, I thought, “what the heck.”

What is a SWOT analysis?

For the uninitiated, SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.  The process involves identifying things that fit into these categories for your (in this case) library.  It’s a technique used by businesses, school districts, and many other types of organizations big and small.  And if you’re small, you can still afford to do one because there’s no cost associated with it, except a small investment in terms of time.

The overall goal is to find ways to play up your strengths, mitigate your weaknesses, capitalize on opportunities, and prepare for threats.  Strengths and weaknesses are internal to your organization, while opportunities and threats are external.  Strengths and opportunities are positives, weaknesses and threats are negatives.

Conducting a SWOT Analysis

There are a number of ways you can go about doing a SWOT analysis, but in general it helps if you have a defined objective beforehand — mission and/or vision statements work well, or, if you want to get more specific, you could define the objective of a particular project (say SRP participation and completion) — as it will give you more detailed input.

After you’ve got that squared away, bring in your staff (or team, or department, or what have you) to participate.  This is one of those things where you’re going to want to get everyone involved.  Explain what you’re doing and lay out the process.  Ask for their input, and make sure to note that anything goes.  This is essentially a brainstorming session at this point and the same rules apply.

As they’re shouting out their thoughts, record them on a whiteboard or one of those large over-sized notebook thingies (which you had enough foresight to divide into quarters and label S-W-O-T, each with its own square).  If things stall, consider asking vague, but big questions such as:

  • When you think about the future of [insert your organization here], what are you most afraid of?
  • What makes you proud to be an employee of _______?
  • What one thing would make the biggest difference in attaining our objective?

At this point don’t challenge any ideas.  Doing so will interrupt the pace and discourage people from speaking their minds.  If you don’t have time to conduct a session like this, you can leave the SWOT board up and have staff use sticky notes or fill out an survey online.

Once that’s done (and it really only takes about half an hour), stop and take a break.  It can be 15 minutes or until your next opportunity to meet again.  Come back to it and analyze what’s in each area.  Try to build a consensus as to where that idea/comment really belongs.  If your staff unanimously agree that your YA collection is a weakness, then  it most likely is.  The closer you can get to unanimity, the better.  But don’t spend too much time lingering, because peoples original thoughts are usually right.

Now that you’ve got a nice, refined list of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, you can start reaping the benefits of your work.  If you can, try to match up strengths with opportunities.  If you’re doing something particularly well and you have the opportunity to do more of it, then do it.  Next look at your weaknesses and threats.  Brainstorm ways to mitigate these.  Maybe low circulation is a weakness at your branch.  Look at your collection’s size, variety of materials, and its layout.  Do you need to weed?  Do you need to file newer titles separately?  Is there room for face-out displays?

After the SWOT Analysis

Ideally you’ll have enough info at this point to start writing goals for your branch.  Make sure they adhere to the idea of SMART goals (bear with me, I know we’re acronym heavy here), meaning they should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.  Specific in that what you want to accomplish is clearly defined.  While, “Serve our community to the best of our ability,” is well-intentioned, it isn’t exactly something you can corral in a year or two.  Measurable so you can evaluate your success (or failure, and there will be failures).  Increasing program attendance is generally a good idea, but you need to specify by how much.  Attainable means it’s a goal you can reach, maybe not easily, but in the realm of possibility.  Relevant means something like, “applicable to your mission, and meaningful to your community.”  I’d add to that the thought that things change over time.  For public libraries, we’re no longer a passive institution that catalogs and stores books — or at least that’s not all we are.  So something like, “rewrite policy to include banning the use of personal electronics in the library,” is going to be a waste of time.  Odds are your conduct policy already has guidelines on disruptive noise, and it disregards typical cell phone use.  Time-bound means you set a countdown for yourself.  Strategic plans usual set somewhere in the neighborhood of three years as their timeframe, although any reasonable timeframe will do.   If you’re working under the guidance of a system-wide strategic plan, you don’t necessarily have to use the same timeframe.  In fact, it may be better to set some shorter range goals for your branch, giving you some time to change gears if something isn’t working out.

And that’s the gist.  Good luck conducting your own SWOT analyses.

The High Cost of Broadband Access and the Digital Divide

If you’re unaware, there is a thing called the digital divide.  The term describes the gap between people who have the means and knowledge to effectively utilize technology and those who do not.

When I first heard the term several years ago I immediately thought of it as a generational thing.  There are, after all, people who grew up using technology and those who have been introduced to it later in life.  And while I still think this accurate, the bulk of people on the far side of that gap are there in part because of the unaffordability of broadband access in the U.S.

About a week ago the BBC ran this story that discusses the reasons why Americans may be paying more for our internet.  The thrust of it is that we don’t encourage competition among telecommunications companies at a local, municipal level.  In the smallish town that I live in we have only ever had one cable company.  They own the infrastructure and can charge whatever they want since they are effectively a monopoly.

Now, I could get internet service from a variety of other sources in the area, but the pricing is basically the same (within $5 or so of what I pay now), so switching doesn’t make much sense.  Scott Cleland, chairman of NetCompetition and a source quoted in the article, equates choices of providers and tiered service to complaining that “you only have access to a Rolls Royce when you also have Fords, Chevys, and Cadillacs to choose from.”  But the fact of the matter is the difference in the price of internet service is negligible for most of us and the U.S. still pays more for service comparable to what other countries have.

You’ll find people that disagree.  There’s this op-ed piece in The New York Times for example.  In it, Richard Bennett argues that things aren’t as bad as some make them out to be.  He mentions vast improvements made over the last three years and talks about how lower population densities in the U.S. contribute to higher costs, also mentioning the fact that competition drives improvement to service.  He lays most of the blame for high pricing on “low subscribership.”

“The major causes for low subscribership, as extensive survey research shows, are low interest in the Internet and minimal digital literacy. And too many American households lack the money or interest to buy a computer. As a result, more Americans subscribe to cable TV and cellphones than to Internet service. Our broadband subscription rate is 70 percent, but could easily surpass 90 percent if computer ownership and digital literacy were widespread.”

I don’t buy it.  New York City has about 17,000 people per square mile.  Compare that to Riga where there are around 6,000 people per square mile.  Then note that the two areas have similar upload/download speeds and network technology, but vastly different costs:

table

And the bit about “subscribership” is bullshit too.  It’s not a lack of interest or digital literacy that cause the majority of people to opt out of buying internet access, it’s the cost of internet access that contributes to low digital literacy rates.

Take a look at Pew’s home broadband research for 2013.  You can see that age is a contributing factor, but the starkest differences in the rate of adoption comes under the headings for education and household income.  If people can’t afford technology or access to the internet, it’s no surprise that they’re not interested in it or don’t know how to use it.  Bennett has it backwards.

Demographic info for home broadband adoption.

The result of all of this is that we have a large segment of the population unable to afford what has become a necessity — try applying for a job today without access to the internet or email.  Public libraries do what they should to mitigate the effects of this by providing free internet access, shared public computers, basic computer skills classes, and online learning resources, but it’s an uphill battle.  Many schools in areas where families live below the poverty line have nowhere near the one-to-one ratio of students to computers that more affluent districts aspire to.

The problem is largely invisible, just as it was to me a few years ago when I thought only senior citizens had trouble navigating the web.  Since then I have witnessed many people my own age struggle to upload a resume to a job application or print out a copy of their check stub from work — which is another thing that has come to only exist online.  The digital divide is real, and its ridges and canyons, like so many other metaphorical chasms today, separate the haves from the have-nots.

Some Folks Just Don’t Want to Share

An argument for libraries in and of itself.

At this point in my library career I have worked for two different systems, counting myself lucky that both of these systems are supported primarily by property tax revenue, and as such are somewhat immune to large fluctuations to their operating budgets.  And yet, with the current political climate being what it is, the Northern Kentucky Tea Party has lashed out against the Pulaski County Public Library for what amounted to a $1 property tax increase  (via MtMB).

As simple as it seems, there’s actually a lot going on here and the (former) philosophy student in me wants to break it down into its various parts, tease out assumptions, and evaluate the whole thing for validity and soundness.  I’m not going to indulge this impulse because it makes things tedious.  Instead, I’d like to address one aspect of the Tea Party argument:

“…here is a list of top books and DVDs that were checked out in 2012:

Top 5 DVDs:
(1) Moneyball

(2) Ides of March
(3) Hangover Part II
(4) Killer Elite
(5) Rise of the Planet of the Apes                 

 Top 5 Children’s DVDs:
(1) Cars 2

(2)  Rio
(3) Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked
(4)  Gnomeo & Juliet
(5)  Toy Story 3

 Top 5 Adult Books
(1) The Hunger Games

(2) Guilty Wives
(3) The Help
(4) The Litigators
(5) Private

Source: (When Did Kenton County Library Abandon Education?, 2013).

None of the books or DVDs listed sound very educational to me. Which raises the fundamental question of what role our libraries should occupy in our communities.”

The author of that particular blog post, Legate Damar (henceforth Cheapskate McAsshat), goes on to say that he gets his cravings for popular movies sated at the local RedBox for around $1.27 per DVD (including sales tax!) and to compare the library board to the Soviet Politburo.  And while part of me agrees that people shouldn’t be reading so much James Patterson, he is using a very limited section of data here.  If we give this even a passing moment of thought, it’s clear that these top 5 lists tell us nothing about how the library is being used.  These are simply the most popular items at the time, both inside and outside of the library, and I’m sure these same 15 titles were on Amazon best seller lists during the same time frame.

The fact of the matter is that the popular stuff is popular because it appeals to a broad base.  Our personal interests, the stuff we really care about tends to be wide and varied.  I for instance love reading really esoteric stuff, which, needless to say, interests a very very small number of people.  So if we were to look at a number of transactions involving Cars 2, I’m sure we’d find that a number of other items were checked out along with that DVD.  If Cheapskate McAsshat cared about anything other than the dollars and cents of it, he could have looked at Pew’s recent study of library use, which indicates libraries are used on at least a monthly basis by 25% of the U.S. population.

All of this is not to mention the number of other things libraries do for their communities.  Things like promoting early literacy, providing free access to computers and the internet, hosting regular events on everything from retirement planning to basic computer skills classes to book clubs.  I would lament the fact that libraries don’t make a big enough effort to promote the things we do and the services we offer, but what do you say to someone who makes a stand on principle over a tax increase that amounts to $1 per year?  What do you say to a group that is willing to eliminate an entire public service organization over such a small increase?

Let me add one final thought.  The reason that libraries offer popular material in the first place is that no one among us gets to choose what’s best for any other person to read, watch, or listen to.  We don’t pass judgment on the guy/gal checking out a dozen James Patterson novels because who the fuck are we?  And who the fuck is Cheapskate McAsshat to tell me or you that Toy Story 3 isn’t good enough for public money to be spent on it (after all it was the most moving of the Toy Story franchise!).  That’s the freedom that’s under attack right there.

Learning to Let Go: Library Folk Sure Love Books

There was something I always dreaded about the beginning of new semesters in library school.  On the first day of class we would always go around the room and do short introductions.  Never mind that my alma mater employed a “cohort” system where you took classes with the same group of people each semester (although I exaggerate a little) or that these little speeches were either awkward and rambling or brief and uninteresting.  I usually had something prepared and tried to mix it up from time to time for the sake of my own sanity (read: vanity) and that of my classmates.  And but so one day I happened to mention something along the lines of being attracted to libraries by a love of books and reading.

Apparently this was the wrong thing to say in this particular adjunct’s classroom as I was immediately interrupted and made aware that this is something one should never admit to in an interview for a library position.  Well, for one, this wasn’t said in an interview, it was said in a room full of like-minded peers.  And two, thanks for interrupting me, dick I think he missed my meaning.  I wasn’t placing a format at the forefront of the library’s mission, I was explaining the catalyst for my matriculation.

But I do get it.  I’ve initiated a much needed weeding project at my branch — we have hundreds of items that don’t circulate, and hundreds more that are dated or have become irrelevant (such as a set of Encyclopedia Americana from 2001) — and the level of anxiety surrounding the project is noticeable.  A few people act like this is mild heresy, but what it is is necessary.

Libraries weed for a multitude of reasons; damaged items, outdated resources, and things that library users don’t want need to be cleared so we can have space for better, newer material.  Weeding is the aptest of metaphors when you think about it.  You want your garden to be a planned thing.  You want attention drawn to those plants you have selected and not obstructed by things that don’t add anything to the garden.  It’s the same with library materials.  If it isn’t used, pitch it.  If it isn’t up to date or accurate anymore, pitch it.  People should be able to zero in on what they’re looking for instead of having to search for that one item in a shelf full of dingy, unused books.  It’s no wonder that well-weeded collections circ* better than library sections that conjure images of an episode of Hoarders.

We have to learn to let stuff go.  We’re not here for the books.  They’re not sacred unless they have an audience that wants/needs them (and we could talk all day about what library users/our culture at large needs, but that’s another conversation entirely) and we have to place access above archiving.  What good are the books we do keep if they’re diamonds in the rough of an overgrown collection?

* For the uninitiated, “circ” is short for circulate, which refers to books that people check out and take home with them.