As I applied for my university degree, I had a problem. Although my academic work was at the required level for the subjects that I wanted to study, I was struggling with my ‘Hobbies and Interests’ section. I had spent so much of my time studying to make sure I got the grades that I didn’t have time to do anything other than lounge around in front of the TV, sometimes read a book or maybe go out to the cinema. And I’ve read enough CVs of other people to know that this sums up a lot of our shared experiences: ‘Reading and going to the cinema’ appear on nearly all CVs that I have read! I say nearly all because there is that other set of CVs, those who somehow also managed to do really exciting and adventurous hobbies – water-skiing, mountain climbing, ultra marathons, trekking the Inca Trail, swimming with dolphins. AND they managed to get the grades. How was I ever going to compete with that?!
The need to make your details on application forms and CVs stand out has never diminished, throughout my post-University career and beyond. We tell school leavers and graduates that these show a depth of character, it reflects a broader representation of their personality – I tell them (along with many other recruiters and agents) that nobody even reads them. For many of us this is a relief, as we don’t have to come up with exciting ways that we don’t spend our time; but think about anyone who took up those activities, who were encouraged to take up those activities, because “it would look good on your CV”. I’m not saying its everyone, some do actually like skiing, mountain climbing or lacrosse, but I suspect there is a large proportion of people who have interests on their CV that they really hope the interviewer doesn’t spot and ask questions about. In fact I know this – and I know many interviewers who deliberately look for the ‘awkward pause’ question – usually lurking in this section – that makes the interviewee squirm.
This section forms such a small part of your CV, why am I referencing it in an article called ‘The CV is Dead”? Well, I happen to believe that the ONLY part of a CV that is useful for anyone is the part where you talk about what you do outside of work – the rest of the information looks important until you actually pick under the skin of it and you realise that it has no relevance, no importance and no indicator of how well you will perform in a role.
Why Do We Use CVs?
The CV was born as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the point in history where manual jobs were taken over by huge machines with even bigger engines to run them. The production line mentality of the factory translated over into all manual and non-manual work, with the concept of having a machine that ran with a particular set of cogs (roles) that were shaped in a particular way. If a cog broke (or resigned), you simply tried to locate another one that looked and performed exactly the same – maybe if you were feeling ‘innovative’ you would select someone who had slightly ‘more’ experience, or even better, had been that cog at one of your competitors, and they could tell you how they had run their machine.
Now engineering and technology has moved on – we now have tiny machines running huge production lines, and robots taking over the roles that many humans once did. Yet our concept of how to hire for the humans we do still need hasn’t updated along with it. We still look for the cog that fits. We use the CV as our way of assessing whether they can do the same job they did for someone else, but do it for us in the way our particular machine works.
This has left us with a few issues:
In 2011, the UKCES (UK Commission For Employment and Skills) found that 38% of ‘hard to fill’ vacancies were due to lack of candidates with the required skills, and year on year this problem has been growing (by 2015 it was reported to be 69% of the ‘hard to fill’ vacancies). And last year it was stated by the LGA (Local Government Association) that Brexit could exacerbate this issue by as much as £90bn in our economy. It is a known problem – part of the LGA’s frustration is that there are too many different initiatives to help people learn the skills that are needed that it is now “confusing, fragmented, untargeted and ineffective”.
I suggest we are looking at the problem in the wrong way. Instead of focussing on the skills that you can add to a CV (that will then get ignored by employers who are looking for experience as well as skills), put the focus on teaching people how to learn new skills, how to adapt their learning to keep up with changes in the world and in business. It is guaranteed now that any knowledge-based skills that you have are out of date almost immediately, given the rate of change we go through as the world becomes more and more online. When I was a trade floor support engineer, I had to be able to support hundreds of different software applications, both in-house (written by the organisation) and third party software such as Microsoft Word or Powerpoint. If I had to list every piece of software I have ever supported and all of the different versions I’ve supported, the CV would just be a long list of applications – and if you look at the CVs of a lot of support engineers, that is what they all do. But, the reason I was good at my job was my most under-represented skill on my CV – that of troubleshooting. I knew roughly how all applications worked, because the defaults of many applications are essentially the same (there is a menu, there is a settings option, you can make changes via an edit function etc.) so my real skill was in deciphering what I could from what I was given. Then as a hiring manager into those teams, I didn’t want someone who knew the last three versions of Microsoft Outlook – I wanted someone who I could put in front of a customer and who could fix their problem right there and then, without thinking that because it was a different version, they didn’t know it.
These holistic skills – troubleshooting, customer service, rapport building, analysis – are incredibly difficult to put on a CV in a way that truly reflects how proficient you are at them. The nearest thing we have is the “Key Achievements” section that lists out all of what we achieved using those skills – but the emphasis remains on what you did rather than how you did it. Ask many recruitment agents and they will say that, based on the job descriptions given out by organisations, their ‘keyword search’ is based on skills not aptitudes.
The skills gap is not going to be filled by focussing on how we have done the jobs in the past, we need to focus on how we help people do the jobs of the future, and that is not going to come from looking at a CV to tell you the best person to hire.
A study by Ernst & Young in 2016 (pre-referendum) states the following (Mark Gregory):
"Youth unemployment rates have fallen from the peaks we saw during the recession, when 40% of the UK’s 16-17 year olds were facing unemployment. However, a stubbornly high number of young people remain excluded from the labour market, which could be further exacerbated by a period of weaker economic growth in these uncertain times ahead. History has shown us that young people are more exposed to economic volatility and industry restructuring than the population as a whole."
"The skills agenda is fast becoming one of the biggest priorities for UK business, with Brexit also likely to impose some restrictions to the free movement of labour in the future. It has never been more important to ensure the UK has the right mix of skills and talent, both nationally and locally, and young people are core to this."
The reliance on the CV to tell us what we need to know about someone is impacting our ability to get new people into work – you can’t get a job for a role that you haven’t done before (and no amount of mountain climbing and abseiling can get over that). We tell young people to strive for academic excellence, get a broad range of experience with travelling or sports – then assess their ability to do a job based on work that they have never done before and the experience that they do have is dismissed or seen as irrelevant.
Our young people have grown up in a world of growing technology, and are far more comfortable with the concept of a changing world than we ever were. We do them a great disservice to give them a set of aspirations that then we immediately dismiss as they try to enter the world of employment. It is impacting our ability to grow our economy, and our ability to help our younger generations identify and enhance their potential. The system of CVs is not set up to find the next big Thing – just the old Thing repackaged again and again.
Taking business into the future is not going to happen by doing what we did before, but by approaching business in new and truly innovative ways. And while we are concerned with making what we have already work better or faster (Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”), it is the up and coming generations who are freed from the shackles of ‘status quo’ to think of new and disruptive ways of achieving greater growth and profitability. It is no coincidence that all of the major disruptors in industry – Google, Amazon, Facebook and Virgin in its infancy – are all concepts of younger people, who – precisely because they haven’t been involved with it before – can think more freely and more optimistically about what can be achieved. We talk about wanting to find the future leaders, the future talent, the future game hangers, yet the recruitment process based on CVs does not help us achieve any of that.
Gender and Diversity Gaps
Currently all initiatives created to increase a more diverse representation of society within organisations, are trying to fit within this broken system of hiring via CV. As with young people trying to get their first role, many groups are excluded not because of their diversity but because of the ‘rule’ that says you have to have done the job to do the job again. The only way for these groups to get better opportunities is for someone to disregard the CV and lack of experience and ‘take a chance’ on them – I’m not entirely sure that having someone tell you they are taking a risk taking you on would be very motivational, unless you hope to prove all of the nay-sayers wrong.
We need to get away from having targets to hit for increasing representation, and focus instead on what qualities we need from people – regardless of past experience – that could help them take the organisation to the next level.
Even if we were able to say that overnight, we have eradicated the gender gap, that we have solved the diversity issue – we would still have the same problem of how do you get experience for a job you haven’t done before? That is the real issue – and it affects everyone in equal measure. If you are looking for true equity in the treatment of employees – look to how we assess people based on their CVs.
Experience is more than a list of achievements.
So am I saying that your experience doesn’t count for anything – far, far from it. We all hate creating CVs because we know that it is the worst way of trying to convey who we are and what we can do – its why CV writing businesses are always so busy – we assume they have the secret formula for making you sound more interesting. Your experience is far more than a list of activities – what about the times you stayed late in the office to help get a project over the line? When a massive outage destroyed a database, and you and others gave up your weekend to re-key in all of it? The countless conversations you have had with colleagues talking through problems in their work and helping them to make the call or have that difficult conversation? This is the true experience of work – how we work with others and how we – as a team – succeed.
It doesn't help with Career Progression either.
Senior leaders identify those for promotion not based on the activities they do, but the attitude and tenacity with which they do their job. And by job, I am talking about not just the day to day to do list, but their approach to building networks, making connections, building relationships with key stakeholders – all of those aspects that senior leaders will look at for those who they feel are ready to make a jump up. I’ve never heard of someone being put forward for a promotion within their organisation and the manager basing their decision on their CV (HR will always require the manager to bring in a CV because it is part of the process – but realistically, the decision is made on the assessment from the manager and any other interviewers – the CV is just part of the paper trail). The paper / online CV is a stale representation of what you can achieve as soon as you get into the workplace which is why they get out of date so quickly, and why they are so painful to update as and when you need to.
So if we don’t promote or grow our employees based on a constant assessment of their CV aptitudes, why do we hire on the basis of them? I would argue it is because we still see the ‘machine’ of an organisation and because of that we can’t imagine what business could look like without it – we are looking for the faster horses.
So if we don't use CVs, what then?
If we agree that the CV is no longer a suitable method of selecting people for roles, that it endorses a lack of diversity within our organisations and that it has no ties in with talent management once in the organisation, what is the alternative? It is a fundamental shift in culture and thinking away from a process-driven recruitment process to a more holistic approach. This approach will not fit in neatly to the machine – it’s not a bolt-on that allows you carry on as before but with recruitment 2.0 – and it is a change that will impact not just recruitment but performance and talent management, project management, how people get managed by their line manager – everything.
But, it will encourage personal accountability, higher levels of employee engagement, improved loyalty and commitment to the organisation (as part of the enhanced psychological contract between employer and employee) and will help organisations identify the people who they need to take their organisation into the next decade and beyond – not based on what they have done before but what they can envision for the future and the energy and vitality they are prepared to use to make it happen. Maybe that’s where the mountain climbing will come in useful.