People are said to be the biggest asset of any hi-tech business. But they have to be the right people, warns James McKenzie
When I was invited to write the foreword to the 2018 Physics World Careers guide, I decided to remind readers how vital the skills and knowledge gained during a physics degree are to a successful career. A physicist’s logic, analytical ability and accuracy, I pointed out, are attributes that employers prize very highly. It’s why physicists end up in such a wide variety of roles from captains of industry to partners in law firms and from entrepreneurs to world-class engineers and scientists.
That’s all true, so why do we often read about a shortage of talented people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)? Why are physicists not being lapped up if there are so many jobs waiting to be filled? This mismatch between the lack of staff and the difficulty scientists have in getting jobs is what Physics World called the “STEM shortage paradox”.
Part of the problem, I feel, is the recruitment process, at the heart of which is the good old job interview. Employers use them to find people who can help their organization or business to grow, prosper and strengthen, which means that any interview is all about finding out whether the candidate in front of you is going to be part of the solution (or not). However, not all physicists do themselves justice in interview. Sometimes they even apply for roles that just aren’t right for them.
As an employer, you’ll probably have prepared an advert outlining the skills and experience candidates will need, and included links to your company website. You should therefore be pretty certain, based on their application forms or CVs and their covering letters or e-mails, that the candidates you’ve invited for interview are all a decent match. It’s then just a case of picking the “right” person.
If only it were so easy.
If you have ever been grilled in a job interview, you know they can be can be nerve-racking experiences for candidates. But interviewing candidates is just as challenging.James McKenzie
If you have ever been grilled in a job interview, you know they can be can be nerve-racking experiences for candidates. But for those on the other side of the table looking to hire people for jobs, interviewing candidates is just as challenging.
You’re a busy person and recruitment is probably not your main job. After all, if you weren’t busy, you wouldn’t have been given the budget to hire someone to help you. That’s why you’ve paid candidates expenses to turn up for interview. All you want is for one of them to be the answer to your needs.
So if you’re the person being interviewed, never forget how it feels from the employer’s point of view. And never forget that one of the most vital skills being tested in an interview is how well you can communicate, which is essential to so many jobs.
Another important attribute I look for in candidates is honesty. I remember one applicant I interviewed who claimed he could use all sorts of software packages, including a 3D computer-aided design package called Solid Works. He sounded convincing, but just to check, I drew a simple engineering drawing on a piece of paper and gave him 10 minutes to sketch it on a PC in the next-door office. It didn’t go well and I politely showed the candidate out.
So remember: employers want people in their organization who can be trusted. Do not make things up because if you do, it’ll catch up with you sooner or later.
Then there was another applicant, who told me how he lost his previous job. Now you might think he’d have wanted to cover his dismissal up, but he was happy and open enough to explain events. It turns out that the candidate had worked all hours for a whole week to meet a project deadline, except the boss hadn’t told him the project had been cancelled two weeks previously. When the manager showed no concern, an altercation broke out and the person now sitting in front of me was fired.
The candidate regretted the sacking but he was passionate about his work and, moreover, had the skills I needed. So I contacted his references, who confirmed the story. I instinctively felt he was a hard worker who I could rely on to get the job done. I hired him and I was proved right.
Another bugbear is that many applicants don’t do enough homework before an interview, which is no excuse these days with so much information online. One applicant for a product-design job even asked me to explain what the company did and what the products were. That was a short interview. Employers aren’t expecting in-depth knowledge but there’s no excuse for not knowing what’s in the public domain. If you can’t take the time to find out about a company, why are you even bothering with the interview?
Tesla versus Edison: lessons from the AC/DC war
Physicists are highly skilled people who will be at the core of a hi-tech firm’s future and I – as an employer – want people who care about their work. A single incorrect line of code, a wrong choice of material, an error in a calculation or an electrical component poorly specified can make or break a product or even a business. I want people who are obsessive, focused and pay attention to detail.
I want people who are obsessive, focused and pay attention to detail.James McKenzie
And finally, remember you could be in your job for quite a while. It’s therefore important to choose something that really gets you engaged and excited. You want to get out of bed each day knowing that you enjoy what you do. Everyone is different but given that physicists are so in demand, you may as well be honest and be yourself in interviews. You’ll then stand more chance of getting the job that’s right for you.