Who You Know Trumps What You Know In Today’s Economy

I’m sure that if you’re a young person in the job market today you’ve heard the cliché, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” about 1,001 times.  I’m pretty sure it’s been that way since there were jobs and since people knew each other, but from what I can tell there is becoming even more and more truth behind the saying.

I believe this is likely the result of several years of the North American economy being in a bit of a funk, very high youth unemployment rates, and very wrong job market information being given to young people (thus very negatively affecting their chosen education paths).  When doing a quick look around the web for some insights into what I have anecdotally felt was true for awhile now, I found this quote:

Connections, or networking, is more important than ever because in this down economy there are so many applicants that employers don’t have time to perform the culling and elimination processes they once did. They are also less inclined to take a chance on an employee who comes only through a traditional application process, without the endorsement of one or more valued associates or colleagues.

Job seekers, therefore, must hone their networking circuits to get themselves connected to the right employment opportunities.” Sandra Lamb, author of “How to Write It, Personal Notes”

Doing Less with Less

With HR departments looking to create more and more “efficiencies” (a.k.a. firing more people) and an increased number of applicants for each job, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that corners will be cut and the path of least resistance will often win out.  In many cases the path of least resistance is to hire someone’s friend or family member who can be vouched for, as opposed to leafing through a stack of resumes and defining what you actually want in an applicant, before going through several rounds of tedious interviews.

In addition to this dynamic, there is also increasing amount of pressure from the younger generation on any older connections they have to pull some strings to get them a job.  As people sit down for Christmas dinner this holiday season I wonder how many not-so-subtle hints will be dropped about little Johnny not being able to find much work despite his shiny new B.A. or business diploma.  And gee, Uncle Frank, you don’t need anyone over at your place of work do you?  You sure?  Johnny has fully functioning Ipod skills and everything, he’d be a great edition to your team over there.  This has to be an awkward position for the older guard as increasing amounts of young people stand at the proverbial gates of employment, but can’t seem to find their way in.

A Level Field Doesn’t Like Standouts

who you knowAnother theory I have is that people who are doing hiring already have a tougher and tougher job.  Thanks to schmucks that like to read and synthesize stuff on their blogs (Malcolm Gladwell might call us “Mavens”) there are no shortage of “Top 10 Résumé Tips” lists and “How To Ace an Interview” articles.  When any candidate with the tiniest amount of ambition and literacy can access a bevy of information on how to BS an interviewer for an hour, it has got to be difficult to see through the smokescreen into what people are really made of.  The easiest way to do this is not to read an in-depth book on how to read into someone’s true character, it’s simply to ask around the office if anyone knows a decent candidate for the new spot that just opened up.  It should be noted I have absolutely no statistical proof to back this up, just a hunch.  It’s also the reason why people who hand in résumés in-person tend to do much better than people who blindly send documents into the firewall of HR filters everywhere.

So You’re Great With Kids, but Have No Teachers In Your Immediate Family?  NEXT!

I’ve personally noticed just how predominant this “who you know is all important” trend has become in the public sector.  Heck, teachers now routinely make jokes about how education is quickly becoming a family business.  Unless you know someone who is administration in a school division somewhere in Canada, it is getting extremely difficult to get any sort of teaching job at all.  With so many young applicants to every position, and such strong union protection given to everyone that is already under the bar, opportunities are few and far between for people who are merely very good at their job, or simply highly motivated and anxious to prove themselves.  This has led to many young people who once dreamed of themselves at the front of a classroom having to work in bookstores and coffee shops, while still owing a ton of money to faculties of education across the country who insist that they don’t control the free market and it isn’t their fault young people chose to take the educational path universities offered in the hopes that someone in higher education actually has their interests in mind.

Despite What Facebook Would Have You Believe – We Didn’t Invent The Term Network

It’s not like networking just became important yesterday.  I imagine similar conditions have crept up whenever economic times got tough.  Taking care of those close to you will likely always take priority over ultra-loyalty to a corporate entity when looking to find “the best person for the job”.  I just think it’s more prevalent today than in  long time, and from what I can tell, it’s still going in that direction, especially for careers with decent compensation packages that include perks like extended health coverage and defined benefit pension plans.  Here is one other noteworthy quote I came across that sort of supports my case:

“Fair or not, I don’t know, but I can say from my own experience that having connections is the most important thing a person can have when looking for work. I’m only 25, but in the three jobs I had in college and one professional job after, I got every single one of them based on my connections. In fact, I’ve never sat through a formal interview in my life.” – Tyler Tervooren, author of  “Advanced Riskology”

Ripple Effect

While this is all interesting to someone with a fairly secure job and a detached POV, it has to be terrifying for people who don’t have the good fortune of a built-in support network.  No matter how many “How to network” articles a person reads, it is often still difficult to climb the socio-economic ladder if you don’t have any rungs to help boost you up.  It also has some negative overall side effects for society in general when you think about it.  Eventually when you have too many people hired because of who they know instead of what they know, the results can get ugly.  From what I’ve seen, people who have a family member or close friend in administration often get many more chances to fix past errors in the workplace, and very few people want to hold them accountable because of fear from reprisals up the food chain.  The name in the game in bureaucracies from what I can tell is, “Don’t rock the boat – at ALL costs.”  This directly leads to people who should’ve never been hired, having some of the best job security around.  Guess what that means for the “What you know” crowd?

Any other young people out there noticing this long-time truism becoming more and more dominant in workplaces across Canada?  I’ve read so many networking articles that I feel like the topic should have its own field of study.  Are people without networks screwed until they put in the time and effort to build them?  Does being good at your chosen career, or your skill set even mean anything anymore if we are so reliant on the almighty “network”?

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13 Responses to Who You Know Trumps What You Know In Today’s Economy

  1. I think this was always true, but may be more evident in this economy. My son was hired over the phone because the interviewer knew his boss. I think there is a preference to hire people who were recommended particularly when the alternative is a classified ad. Who wants to screen hundreds of candidates.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more about this, TM, it’s hard to be a recent grad these days.

    I was reading about a new phenomenon happening on LinkedIn last week about how people are getting endorsements (their charming new “we want to be like Klout!” feature) by endorsing people they don’t even really know in the hops of being endorsed back. I’ve noticed this a few times myself – people I’m only distantly connected to vouching for my copy-writing ability – with a little note saying – “hey – could you endorse me back?”

    People are desperate for recommendations that they can use to make themselves look better to potential networking contacts. Not employers, likely. Networking contacts. Of course the whole thing is so diluted to be almost useless already.

    What struck me hardest in this post was: “This has led to many young people who once dreamed of themselves at the front of a classroom having to work in bookstores and coffee shops, while still owing a ton of money to faculties of education across the country who insist that they don’t control the free market and it isn’t their fault young people chose to take the educational path universities offered in the hopes that someone in higher education actually has their interests in mind.”

    The disgust with which an un (or under) employed person is viewed by what sometimes feels like the rest of the world is positively rage-inducing. It’s a phenomenon I’ve thought about a lot, and I can’t decide whether it’s blindness or fear that makes so many people react so.

    If I could give any student any advice in their school career, it would be to start blogging yesterday. You can’t depend on your skills or your ambition these days, so you darn well better come to the table with a body of work and relationships within your industry.

    Thanks for this post! Got me all fired up for a Friday morning. :)

    • Haha glad I got the adrenaline flowing Megan! I agree about the blogging, but the reaction I get from most students is, “The last thing I want to do is write and read more stuff after I do that all day already!” I don’t think it’s ever been particularly easy to be a young person, but man, it sure seems like there are a lot of overqualified baristas out there these days that get treated like crap and have large student loans to add injury to insult!

  3. I recently started a new job, in a new country and I got the job without any direct connections to anyone. It was a big challenge but what really helped was working with a recruiter. A recruiter brings a network of contacts with them to help you get a job. Using one is great for the job seeker because they don’t cost anything however they charge really high fees to the companies they place people with. The recruiter does the initial checks of your experience, meets you in person and then if they feel comfortable with you, they’ll present you to perspective employers.

    Recruiters have some pretty deceptive practices sometimes so just make sure you look out for your own best interests if you use one!

    • That’s impressive Andrew! I’ve never used a recruiter, and since I’m kind of a rural guy I wouldn’t guess they would be as prevalent as in urban environments. I’d be slightly dubious to their claims initially, but I’m glad one worked out for you! Good luck with everything.

  4. Although for my professional jobs, I managed to get hired on my own, but who you know can definitely speed up the process of getting a job. Perhaps I am not aware of them, but there should be more networking events available to the general public. Or is this something only the workplace does?

    • I find networking events to be overrated because the only people who show up are one looking to network for their own gain! You want to network with people who can hire you! Just my experience though.

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