First a primer on the Purple Squirrel. Jobs have fragmented in our modern economy. The more complex our world gets, the more we need specialists to do the specialized tasks. As an example, there are now six major branches of engineering. They include: Mechanical, chemical, civil, electrical, management, and geothermal. In addition there are literally hundreds of different subcategories under each main category. Engineering isn’t the only knowledge area that has expanded. It’s across all spectrums of knowledge.
As an example it wasn’t that long ago that computer science engineering and environmental engineering didn’t exist in the same way that culinary arts wasn’t part of community college curriculum. In addition to all of this fragmentation of education, there is an additional fragmentation of work experience related to the subcategories. A small company that builds little country bridges would not be the same type of organization or have the same needs as a corporation that builds massive long span highway bridges. The artisan cupcake shop has a very different workforce need than a company that manages the food service on a large campus. These are two examples but the reality is that the specialty fragmentation in the workforce is virtually limitless at this point.
All of this together means that finding the right educational specialty and work experience for a job can be difficult to impossible for an employer. Hence we have the purple squirrel, the perfect candidate for most somewhat complex jobs is as rare as a purple squirrel ie, it doesn’t really exist.
As an aside, all of my work in workforce development reinforces this point. I’m constantly hearing about aligning training to the needs of employers. I’m also continually seeing reports about how the skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow are massively different than the skills our current workforce has. Some of this is hyperbole, but some of it is spot on. The outcome is that people who have good generic skills don’t get the job because of the ramp up time. The workers who are already in that environment are overworked to death typically because they are only allowed to hire somebody who has the specific skill mix requested by management. The underlying philosophy is that it’s preferable to spend a small fortune recruiting a purple squirrel for a short-term fix rather than foot the bill and effort to train over the long-term. As an example, here is an actual email exchange I had with a close colleague of mine when I was asking about job opportunities with his organization for jobs I could do easily. I changed names to protect my colleague, but this is a real email response.
I have 1500 Linked in contacts, over 50% are Indian. All 100% work in technical product marketing. That 100% have known that I worked in Technical Product Marketing for over 10 years in extremely specific product sets. That is my network.
If I call Don Broken at LQRH & say “hire my best friend”, he’ll say “only if he’s currently the #1 sales performer at one of 4 RPA companies”. I’ll then say “no, he works for a community college system, so who do you know in government relations?” – & he’ll say “I don’t know anybody there & don’t want to know anybody there – I just have to meet my numbers this month”
So, then I have a “cold call” to the KPMG Gov Relations guy who will most likely tell me to “&^%$ off” – but let’s say I get lucky & he has a req –he’ll want a gov relations guy from one of the top 4 consultancies that he already knows. No exceptions.
It’s the classic “you can’t get any experience without any experience”.
So who are we hiring…?
We just gave Patricia Bespoke $110k + bonus & stock because she was the current Marketing Director at TomsInc & we wanted our events to be like those at TomsInc. We begged her to quit TomsInc & join us.
Our new CMO Hakil, makes at least $400k because he was the acting CMO of our closest competitor that beat us in revenue –his stock options are probably worth over 2 million. We wanted him personally, because we perceived him to be a savior. That is why Harry (ed.. another close friend) keeps getting rehired by His Old company for $300k base – even though he tells them repeatedly to “kiss his ass” & only works a few days per week from his boat.
We are so fragmented, it’s nearly impossible to have a third party system such as the college system train the right amount of people with the right amount of skills in the right amount of time as needed by employers. Regardless of the rhetoric of the day the college’s are always going to be set up to be more generic in their education, because that’s all they can be. This is why education and the related student loans are highly criticized today by employers and job seekers. Another example from the above email exchange follows:
So, we need some reason for companies to want to hire you again – education means nothing – we literally don’t know if Patricia went to Harvard or dropped out of community college – we don’t give a shit –she’s the Marketing Director of TomsInc & we “perceived” that she can build what we need.
Sorry… but this is reality.
Technically, I believe it can be done. Every single degree and internship style work experience could be customized to a specific job opening in the same way that every burger at McDonald’s can now be customized in the same amount of time it took to get the assembly line burgers of yesterday. You would have to be of a certain age to remember when every McDonald’s burger was pre-made with the standardized mix of condiments and God forbid you had a special order. Your one minute wait time became a 20 minute wait to get your “fast food.”. But our education system is mostly run by governments and governments do not move fast nor are they flexible. but I digress, so back to the topic at hand.
This article isn’t about the fragmentation of skills and experience in the workforce. That is assumed. The reality is that over time, we, and when I say we I mean the professional class, all become a purple squirrel of sorts. I have x years of this and Y years of that highly specific experience coupled with a b and c degrees. My variables are going to be very different from someone else’s variables. For a job that calls for my exact mix of training, skills, and experience, I’m the perfect purple squirrel. For 99.9% of other jobs I’d be passed over.
This in a nutshell is a catch-22. You’re perceived to be really good at one thing, and that one thing pays well. It is also very easy to get jobs with that one thing. Unfortunately because of the specialized nature of it, the jobs are in very short supply. If you lose your job or want to make a change and keep your income level or make your life better you options are highly limited. Not only does this situation have a negative impact on the individual job seeker, the companies who are not setup with internal talent development pipelines, are also struggling with it to the tune of higher workforce costs, as the above email demonstrates.
Ideally we would want to be a purple squirrel for multiple things. A nurse with diabetes training licensure and credentials who is also a highly accomplished engineer of specialty metal tubes, would probably always have a job. These two may not seem to go together, but that is the point. If you are a specialist in industry, and you’re a specialist in medicine, then the odds of both sectors of the economy not having a well paid job for you are slim. The challenge is the ramp up time for both of these. Both take education and specific work experience to be considered for any openings. This is especially true for incestuous industries that only accept candidates that have a ton of experience in their specific area. We are limited in our time, there are only so many hours in the day. The only way I see this happening is to work at having a second purple squirrel type portfolio part time.
As an example, I teach part time at my community college. Right now there is a big movement towards OER’s or Open Educational Resources. This is the learning materials equivalent to open source software in that it’s free for use and modification by anyone. The initiative at the college is to become more active in developing these resources. It makes sense because it means students don’t have to buy expensive textbooks therefore limiting a barrier to school. This is a great thing if you are a school and you get paid by having more students in class. The challenge is that it’s a ton of work to make these materials and there’s no return on investment other than reducing a barrier to enrollment. As full-time jobs become available, I am absolutely positive that OER experience will be highly valued. Someone with a degree in IT, like I have, plus OER experience, plus teaching experience at the college level, puts me over the top for a job there. Somebody with an IT degree just coming out of school would never get a shot at the full-time job because of the OER and experience based purple squirrel recruitment.
This can be done in nearly any industry or sector. You just have to become involved in some esoteric element that is growing in popularity. you could probably do this through a trades organization. Although this strategy works, or probably works, it’s still a big challenge in that the extra time is usually not available when you are mid-career and most likely have a family.
Another option is to keep your eye open for emerging trends in your industry and double down on your purple squirreliness. There’s usually a bunch more opportunities when a new trend hits an industry. If you know more automation is coming with your job, try and become the expert at that automation in advance of it showing up. This may be easier to do than the part-time gig in so much as it’s already part of your existing job. It’s probably still going to be extra work but it may be work you can do during your regular work day versus something you have to do after hours.
And that is the whole point of this article. To get a good paying job you need to be a purple squirrel which takes investment, time, and effort. Yet the very nature of being a purple squirrel means that there aren’t a lot of jobs available with your specialty. The options are limited, and hence we have a catch 22.
I wish I had an answer for this one besides a part-time job with an emphasis on a new specialty or trying to learn every trend before it actually becomes a thing. The net net bottom line is that the best paying and most desirable jobs have highly specific purple squirrel requirements. You either have to have those requirements, or look like you do to the hiring decision maker. And that, my friends, is something which is going to take way more effort than just wearing a lavender tie or scarf to the interview.