Round pegs in round holes.  Any disagreement that this has become an increasingly accurate description of the modern economy and the types of employees companies today are seeking to hire?

A great many job seekers I work with complain bitterly about this phenomenon.  They wonder why companies aren’t more open-minded about hiring people based on potential and who offer a more generalized track record of working hard, learning new things quickly, and solving various kinds of problems.  “Why don’t companies see my transferable strengths?” they cry out in frustration.  “Why does every advertisement seem to demand some superhuman list of highly specialized credentials?”

Historically, I suppose we could assign some of the blame to Henry Ford for coming up with the whole “division of labor” thing back in the early 20th Century or whenever it was.  Or we could lambaste Adam Smith for his role in forming the capitalistic society we live in, centered around the profit motive.  But the real blame for this phenomenon, I feel, lies largely with ourselves.  We’ve all played at least some small role in perpetuating the incredibly prosperous, yet demanding consumer culture we live in today.  As consumers, I think it’s safe to say we’ve all pretty much come to expect instant gratification–at the cheapest possible price.  When the pipes explode at our house, we don’t put the word out for a reasonably smart, competent person who just might be able to learn how to use a monkey wrench in a jiffy.  We start freakin’ and call Beacon.  We call a plumbing expert.  Heck, these days we might not even just call a generally good plumber if we can help it.  We might insist on working with a certain specialized type of plumbing expert, such as one that concentrates on house re-piping, drain unclogging, commercial plumbing installations, etc.

So that’s my point.  As consumers, we’ve become incredibly spoiled and picky.  And not surprisingly, employers, as “consumers” of labor, are starting to act in the exact same fashion.  Why take a risk on a “person with potential” when you can likely find and hire somebody who has a proven background working in your exact same industry and tackling the exact same problems that are keeping you up at night as a business owner or hiring manager?

This reality, albeit undeniable, is highly discouraging to many folks.  Obviously, not everybody falls into a perfect “round peg” career track or happens to develop a highly specialized toolbox of skills they can dangle in front of certain employers, like catnip.  But that’s the trend out there right now in the marketplace and I doubt you, I, or any other individual is going to single-handedly change it.  So rather than fighting this state of affairs, no matter how unjust or limiting you feel it is, my advice is to embrace the “boxy” concept.  Wholeheartedly.  Stop complaining about being boxed in, pick the “box” in the market that fits you best, and go for it–with both guns blazing!

At the end of the day, I suppose a “generalist” or “maverick” can win the day every once in a while, but I don’t think this is happening all that often right now.  Roughly 95% of the jobs out there (I’d estimate) go to those people who focus their career around a clear job title or category — be it Business Analyst, Credit & Collections Manager, Organizational Development Specialist, or Enterprise Software Sales Executive — and they then bust their butt to develop/acquire the skills necessary to compete effectively for these jobs.

And in case there’s any confusion, job hunters don’t get to make these boxes.  Employers do.  They create them and hold full naming rights, since they’re the ones footing the bill!

In a similar vein, you’ll find me frequently referring to myself as a career counselor and marketing myself under that umbrella, even though I don’t really see myself as a “counselor” in the conventional sense.  Career coach is probably a better word for what I do.  Or career strategist.  Or job search consultant.  But most people don’t have a frame of reference for these other terms and since I can’t deny that career counselor is the conventional, time-tested word for people in my field, I choose to embrace this term and leverage it, rather than butt my head against market realities and stubbornly try to invent a whole new job category all by myself.

So if you’re struggling to figure out your career direction, or flailing among a couple of different options, perhaps it’s time to stop fighting, figure out the box that fits you, and embrace it with gusto.  Again, if you tell me you’re a Consumer Products Marketing executive or a SharePoint Architect, I know what to do with you — and what types of leads/referrals to pass along.  If you tell me you’re a good problem-solver with some management experience, a little bit of supply chain background, and a passion for sustainability, however, I really DON’T know how to help you much — or point you toward any appropriate opportunities.  And most other people won’t, either!

How do you figure out what “boxes” are out there today?  Study job ads.  Notice what companies call things.  Poke around on LinkedIn and see what job titles are held by other people who do similar things to what you do.  Find some “proof of concept” out in the market that will help you label yourself appropriately as a professional.  Ultimately, most job hunters in today’s world will have better success if they try to fit the molds that are out there, instead of trying to break them!