Quit Yer Bitchin’

June 2, 2012

Yesterday we heard that unemployment ticked up slightly from 8.1% to 8.2%. With this news the posturing, primping, hand wringing and (worst of all) finger pointing began. Congress, pass this bill! Mr. President, you suck! Oh yea, well you suck! Well you’re a feckless booger head! Well you’re a girly petunia schmeghead! Well you were born in a van by the river! Well you read Twilight…and liked it!!! WOULD YOU ALL SHUT THE HELL UP!!!!

Damn, am I the only one who thinks it’s like listening to elementary school girls arguing on the playground! The only thing worse than the figure heads bickering is the sound of their supporters, surrogates, and brainless followers playing a collective game of, “Oh yea, well yer mama!” When I was a kid my parents were friends with a couple that used to fight constantly. I was the same age as one of their sons so I used to hang out with him a lot. I can remember his mom and dad getting liquored up at night and fighting. They’d get mean; yelling, screaming, calling each other names, threatening to walk out. Stuff no kid should hear their parents say to each other but because they were on a booze-fueled roll, it came out at full volume. I can remember looking at my friend and he’d be sitting there in his room coloring or playing with a car acting like he didn’t hear it but I can only imagine how it made him feel inside. I was too young to get it, but now I reflect and realize what a lousy situation those two selfish parents put their kids through.

Now I’m watching our elected leaders, the people who want to be our elected leaders, and their collective hangers-on, behaving in the same selfish way. Throwing around words like “feckless” and “vulture” and “weak” and a “load of you-know-what” they talk about each other in a way that makes their rabid followers feel better but does nothing to actually solve anything and makes those of us who would like to see the situation improve feel like they are more focused on Michael Jackson’s man in the mirror than anyone else in the room. Again, it’s all finger pointing and name calling. Let’s put this situation into focus…

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are currently 12.5 million unemployed workers in the US. Additionally, there are 3.7 million unfilled job openings. As previously mentioned, the unemployment rate is 8.2%. Gotcha. Also according to the BLS, that unfilled req number is trending up, meaning companies are slowing their hiring activity and letting unfilled jobs stay vacant. So what if we held a giant job fair and filled all those jobs? Seriously.

Recruiting and Staffing professionals are generally held to a metric called “time to fill.” In other words, they are measured by how quickly they fill a job opening. If your time to fill is too long, you get fired. If your time to fill is fast, you do well. In this case, without any government program, intervention, stimulus, or tax, we could drop the unemployment rate to 6% by just filling the job openings that are currently on the books. Really. Companies can make a decision to act on their own. I know this is a concept that is becoming more and more foreign in a capitalist economy. Seems like we’d rather complain about the barriers to open and free commerce than actually engage in it.

Ok, so in theory my idea sounds good but realistically I know that will NEVER happen. Why? Couple of reasons. First off, companies can be like that guy you knew who kept waiting for the perfect woman to come along. You remember him. Everyone was either too this or too that. Weird laugh. Blue eye shadow. Loved her cat. Creepy oil painting of her last boyfriend surrounded by candelabra… Whatever. Basically he never made a choice because he’d set too high of a standard. A standard that didn’t exist. He just kept seeing what was out there. Eventually he became your old, bald confirmed bachelor friend who your kids called “Uncle.” Point is, like your friend, these companies may be retaining a nice wad of cash in their pockets and keeping their options open for the next best thing, but in the end they’ll be alone and largely unproductive. They’ll leave open job reqs that you know will not be filled. Seeking entry level accountant with CPA and five years experience, $10 per hour. Really?

Second, on the other hand, some jobs really are that hard to fill. They require skills and qualifications that aren’t in great supply. Remember the Star Trek movie where they went back in time to get a couple of humpback whales to save the Earth. I think it was called “Star Trek: We Saved Spock, Now What the Hell Do You Want Us to Do?” Anyway, in that movie Scotty had to invent transparent aluminum for some company so they could build a tank to hold the whales. Why? Because to do their job, they needed a commodity that didn’t exist. So what can a company do? Well, back in the olden days when I was a young HR whipper-snapper we had this thing called Training and Development. It was a novel idea where companies would actually invest in real and useful lessons that built employee skills. What happened to mess this up? Two things, since training people involved identifying skill deficiencies and then developing tailored programs to address those deficiencies it’s kinda hard. It’s a lot easier to just do “leadership training.” So we invested in management while leaving our worker bees to figure it out on their own. As punch presses became CNC milling machines we just laid off the button pushers and went looking for programmers. Second, everyone realized that training, good training, was expensive. When faced with cutting costs, training unfortunately is a commodity that gets cut early on.

This is not to say that it’s all industry’s fault that reqs can’t get filled. Job seekers can be fickle as well. Check out a couple of my earlier blogs and you’ll see that I skewer them as well for being unrealistic about the jobs they’ll take. Instead of truly considering an “entry level” opportunity as a chance to get a foot in and grow with an organization, they instead hold out for some glamorous yet illusive, Nietzsche-esque uber-job. Problem is pop culture jobs just don’t exist in the real world. On TV people have the exotic assignments in fabulous locales surrounded by beautiful and interesting people. In the real world people go to work. Seriously, that’s it. Go to work, eat dinner, try to raise your kids not to be assholes, repeat for the next 50 years. It really is just that simple. In between you try to do good things and maybe make a positive impact on the world, but in the end, Mad Men is a bunch of bullshit.

There are plenty more reasons why my idea won’t take hold. Demographics, the locations of job openings vs locations of available workers, etc, etc. But instead of firing off a comment and reminding me of some obscure reason that I failed to list, think about this. Maybe we just don’t want to fix this problem for the same reason my parent’s friends stayed together. What would we bitch about?

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“Sales.” I said it. I said it loud enough for the sleepy young lady in the back row to be annoyed by my inflection. I smiled when I said it. And I watched their cherub-like exuberance slowly melt into an ashen repugnance. They were budding MBA graduates. A sales job is beneath them!

A month or so ago I wrote that in Orlando, “you either sell to those who serve, or serve those who sell.” It generated a LOT of discussion in various circles. Some thought I was castigating professional sales as a career path for new college grads (including those newly-minted MBAs) but I want to make it clear that nothing could be further from the truth. Sales, in fact, is an EXCELLENT way for new grads to gain entry into a firm.

Why? It’s the best way to show what you, individually, are capable of achieving. It’s also the most effective way to learn about the firm’s core product or service. Career-wise it’s a good move because companies will generally lay-off overhead and support positions before touching revenue generating positions. It’s also the best position to be in to interact with every operational unit at every level of the organization. From a control standpoint you generally enjoy a performance-based pay structure, are given a great deal of flexibility to self-manage, and initiate most of your interactions. Intrinsically you get to experience the highs and lows that come from setting and achieving goals along with helping your clients operate their businesses or live their lives better.

So why do students have an aversion to sales? Some claim they don’t like the reputation a “sales job” has. They immediately think of a used car huckster or other dishonest caricature. I know this picture well. I worked in the car business and there are a lot of folks whose actions keep that reputation alive. Slicksters, cheaters, sloths, and just outright crims dot the dealership landscape like so many potted plants. But it’s too easy to blame the profession for some bad seeds. I think that’s a convenient excuse for not really knowing all it takes to be a good sales professional.

Sales is hard. To be a good sales professional you have to be smart. You have to be able to retain tactile facts about the product or service you offer, you have to be able to communicate with and relate to your customer, you have to listen to their needs, and ultimately be able to apply what you know to create a solution for your customer. When I was teaching I used to say it’s one thing to barf up a list, it’s another thing to be able to pick through the chunks and identify what made you sick.

Sales takes discipline. Good sales people have to be smart enough to create a plan and have the discipline to stick to it. You have to manage your own activity, manage your time, and stay organized. It also takes interpersonal discipline. You’ll be challenged and questioned. You’ll be rejected. You’ll have to “suck it up” and make amends when your plan falls through or someone outside of your sphere of control fails to perform effectively. You create and maintain the image of the company you represent. Ask Charles Barkley, being a role model takes discipline.

Sales means you have to perform. In sales there is no cover. You either did it, or you didn’t. Your performance is out in the open and subject to evaluation. Some people are not comfortable being held accountable. In sales if you don’t perform you can expect corrective feedback. You have to be mature (and disciplined) enough to take the feedback and improve your performance. If you don’t improve your performance, you will eventually pay the ultimate price and be removed from your position.

Finally, sales is less about talking and more about relationships. In the days of sailing ships the British Navy would solicit new recruits by just cracking them over the head. You’d wake up miles out to sea with a knot on your head. Sales professionals understand that long-term success comes from building a relationship with their customers, not cracking them over the head. Only thing is, it takes time, effort and talent to build a relationship. I’ve heard people say, “So-and-so is a great talker, he should get into sales.” Wrong! The best sales professionals are the best LISTENERS, not talkers.

Regardless of the job you have, you need traits like these to be successful. Accountants have to interact, consultants have to influence their clients, analysts have to be capable of complex thought, HR generalists have to build relationships. All of these are critical competencies to a professional sales person in the same way that all of these are critical competencies for a professional business person.

I still feel Orlando needs a more diverse Entry-Level employment base if it’s going to retain the best and brightest local college graduates. Everyone can’t be expected to sell or work in the service sector waiting for their break. Especially if that break is just a higher level position in sales or service. The graduate talent pool is just too diverse. However, a lack of options, doesn’t mean those options are bad.