Sometimes when something is written on paper, it becomes carved in stone (I should copyright that phrase — oh. as soon as I click “Publish” I will). I saw a flaw in Power Plant logic one day in November 1994. Corporate Headquarters for the Electric Company in Oklahoma had decided that they needed very clear job descriptions for their Job Announcement program. We had just completed a downsizing a few months earlier and two electricians were asked to determine what prerequisites someone would need to be able to do their jobs. My first thought was… “Is that really a smart way to go about this?” Just think about it…. You are asking someone who just survived a downsizing to determine what it would take to replace that person with someone else…. Can you see the flaw in this logic?
It was decided that in order to be hired as an electrician, you had to have the following prerequisites: A technical degree in an electrical field. A minimum of five years experience as an industrial electrician. Have a technical knowledge of how to walk on water. Able to swing from tall buildings using a four size 2 conductor cable. Have extensive experience bending conduit. Able to work in confined space manholes. Can bend a one inch diameter stainless steel rod with bare hands. Black Belt in Six Sigma. Able to explain the meaning of each color on a resistor. Not afraid of heights. Willing to shovel coal. — Yep. that’s what it requires to do my job.
I knew right away this wasn’t going to be good. We would never find someone who can both walk on water and was willing to shovel coal. If we ever had to replace an electrician, it would be darn impossible. This wasn’t only true for electricians. Every type of job in the company was given similar treatment. I had been an electrician for 11 years at that point, and I didn’t even meet the minimum qualifications. If I had left the company and tried to apply for a job at our plant as an electrician, I would have been turned away at the door.
Whatever minimum requirements were written down did not only apply to outside applicants. This was required of employees applying through the internal Career Announcement Program (CAP) as well. In other words, I never would have been able to join the electric shop from the Labor Crew as I did in 1983, with only a scant understanding of what it takes to be an electrician. It wasn’t until a few years later that this occurred to anyone. The minimum requirements were relaxed a little. That was when the training program was put in place to take High School graduates and above and allow them to train at the plant for a particular skill as I described in the post: “Power Plant Train Wreck“. The rest of the company had to live with their own minimum requirements.
The results of asking the employees what the minimum requirements should be for their own jobs, HR had painted themselves into a corner. I knew why they did this. It was because they had lawsuits in the past where someone was hired over someone else, and they thought they were more qualified for the job. So, specific requirements for each job needed to be created…. Actually…. I think this is the opposite of what should have been done.
If I had my druthers, I would have approached this from the opposite direction… let me continue with my story and you will see why.
I started getting my degree in Management Information Systems (MIS) in 1997 at Oklahoma State University. I was going to graduate from the business school in May 2001. In the fall of 2000, I had only 6 credit hours (or two more classes) left. I had started in 1999 applying for IT jobs in our company. Many times I was asked by people in the IT department to apply for specific job openings. I had worked with a lot of them, and they would have liked for me to work for them.
Unfortunately, at that time, here was the minimum requirements for a Software Developer: You had to have one or more of the following: A Bachelor Degree in Computer Science… OR Bachelor Degree in MIS with at least 9 hours of computer languages (I had the 9 hours of computer languages)… OR Bachelor Degree in a business or technically related field with 18 hours of computer science courses including 9 hours of computer languages…. OR Associate Degree in Computer Science with 9 hours of computer languages and 2 years of software development experience….. OR 8 years of directly related experience such as development in C, C++, ABAP, Visual Basic or Cobol.
It was that last requirement that I thought I could use. Especially since I was well on my way to earning the degree. I had many years writing code in Visual Basic and C. I had taken a Cobol class already, and studied ABAP (which is used in SAP) on my own. So, along with almost having my degree and working with IT for more than 8 years, I applied for these jobs. Every time I did, HR would kick the application back to me and explain that I didn’t meet the minimum requirements so I was not able to be considered for the position. Not until I had my degree in my hands. The HR Director said that all the work I had done with IT didn’t count because I was doing it as an electrician. She said her hands were tied.
In November 2000 the University had a career fair for students applying for IT or business careers. So, I attended it. It was in a large room where each of the companies had setup a booth and you walked around to each booth as the various companies explained why it would be nice to go work for their company. They explained their benefits, and when they were done, they asked you for your resume (prounounced “rez U May” in case you’re wondering) if you were interested.
Before the career fair, I had gone to lectures on how to go through the interview process, and I had read books about how to create a good resume. I had bought books on these subjects and read them. Here are three books that came in useful in my job hunt:
So, here I was at a job fair dressed in a nice suit I had bought in Oklahoma City at a high end Suit store. I had studied what color shoes, belt and tie to wear. I had a stack of my carefully designed resumes in hand. My wife Kelly had given me a professional haircut the night before, and I had even washed behind my ears.
I had quickly changed into my suit in the bathroom in the office area at the Power Plant. I quickly took the elevator down to the ground floor and stole out to the parking lot to drive the 30 miles to the Job Fair. No one saw me leave, except Denise Anson, the receptionist.
I made my way around each aisle of booths, carefully considering each company. I was not really interested in working as a consultant where I had to do a lot of travelling. After all, I had a family. I gave my resume to many companies that day, and later I had interviews with many of them. It felt very strange as a 40 year old acting as a kid in school handing resumes to companies. I really just wanted to stay at the Electric Company where I had worked for the past 19 years.
Then I spied the booth I was really curious to visit. It was the Electric Companies booth. The company where I worked. I saw a group of students walk up to the booth and the young man from HR began his speech about why it would be great to work for the Electric Company. I stood toward the back of the small crowd and listened. It was weird hearing him tell us about the benefits of working for the company.
The Director of HR was standing next to him. She was the person that kept rejecting all of my job applications through the internal job announcement program. I waited patiently thinking… I could come up with better reasons for working for the best Electric Company in the world. He never mentioned once that the best employees you would ever find in the entire world worked just 30 miles north on Hwy 177 at the big Power Plant on the hill. That would have been the first thing I would have mentioned.
I waited until the young man completed his speech and then asked the students if they would like to give him their resumes. I stood there, not moving, but smiling at the young man from HR. After everyone else left, the man turned to me and asked me if I would like to give him my resume. I replied as I handed him my resume by saying, “I’ll give you my resume, but I don’t think you can hire me.”
He replied, “Sure we can.” as he glanced down at my resume. I continued, “See… I already work for the company.” The young man brightened up and said, “I thought I recognized you! You work at the Power Plant just north of here!” I said, “Yeah. You were the leader at my table during the Money Matters class.” “Yeah! I remember that!” He replied.
“Sure, we can hire you!” He replied. I said, “No. I don’t think you can. You see. I don’t meet the minimum requirements.” Then I turned my gaze to the Director of HR who was now staring off into space… The gaping hole in logic had suddenly become very apparent. She replied very slowly…. “No… I don’t think we can hire you.” The young man (I think his name is Ben), looked confused, so I explained….
“You see Ben… you can take resumes from all of these college students and offer them a job for when they graduate, but since I already work for the company, I have to have my degree already in my hand before I meet the requirements. I can go to any other booth in this room and have an interview and be offered a job, but I can’t find an IT job in the company where I work because I don’t meet the minimum requirements. Seems kind of odd. Doesn’t it?”
I continued…. “Not only that, but the Electric Company has paid for all my classes to get my degree and 75% of my books. I have only 6 more hours after December, and I can’t find a job with my own company. I will probably have to go to another company that is guaranteeing a job when I graduate. Does that make sense?”
The HR Director was still staring off into space. She knew as soon as I opened my mouth who I was. She had personally signed each rejection letter to me.
So, what had happened? It had happened a few years earlier when the employees were asked what the minimum requirements should be for someone to be hired for their jobs. That led them down a path of closed doors instead of opening up opportunities.
Here is what I would have done instead… I would have done what other companies do… Minimum Requirements: “Team Player. Able to work well with others. Demonstrated an ability to learn new skills.” — Who wouldn’t want an employee like that? Sure. Add some “Desired attributes” on the end like: Able to bend conduit. Able Walk on Water, etc.
I had spent about an hour at the career fair handing my resume to potential employers before I left. I drove back to the plant. On the way back to the plant I was having this sinking feeling that I was not going to be able to stay with the Electric Company. I can’t describe how sad I was at this thought.
I couldn’t just stick around at the plant hoping that once I had a degree in my hands that I would be able to move into the IT department. For all I knew, our own plant manager could have been telling HR that I couldn’t leave the plant because I was the only person that worked inside the precipitator. I had been flown around the country to interview with different companies who were now offering me jobs. Those offers wouldn’t still be there if I waited until I graduated, so I had to make a decision soon.
I knew that the Plant Manager Bill Green kept asking the Supervisor over Maintenance about my degree because Jim Arnold would ask me from time-to-time, “What’s that degree you’re getting again?” I would say, “Management Information Systems” in the Business College. Jim would go back to Bill and say, “Oh. You don’t have to worry about Kevin leaving. No one wants someone with that degree” (Yeah. Heard that from someone that heard it first hand).
When I arrived back at the plant, I walked in the entrance and hurried to the elevator. I waved at Denise as I quickly walked by the receptionist window and quickly went into the men’s room to change back into my jeans and tee-shirt and work boots. No one else saw me. I returned to work with Ray Eberle in the Print Room to work on SAP. Ray asked me how it went…
I told Ray about my adventure and my encounter at the Electric Company booth. Ray came to the same realization that I had on the way back to the plant… I wasn’t going to be able to stay with the company. I was going to have to move on…