The Renaissance Man Problem
One of the by-products of industrialization and modernism is the need for specialization. No one person can do everything and our advanced life styles work best when individuals can fill in the niches that fit them. This can be seen in the workforce, the arts, and even academia. One can specialize in the study of English literature from 1850 to 1900. One can become a doctor exclusively of the brain. Even in traditional tech companies, teams are comprised of designers, coders, testers, and so forth. Each specialized role allows the rest of the team to focus on their tasks and confidently assume others will pick up the slack.
However, somewhere in the mid 2000, this paradigm began to change. The proliferation of technology, the growth of Agile development, and the success of small start-up unicorns such as SnapChat, have turned hundreds of years of capitalist tradition on its head. Indeed, a casual glance at Forbes’s top 10 skills for 2015 graduates shows great divergence in the categories of skills employers are looking for. Team play, persuasion, organization, quantitative data skills, read/editing skills, software knowledge, and job related technical skills all utilized different parts of the brain; require different styles of training, and (in some cases) outright different mindsets. One would not approach analyzing quantitative data with the same outlook as someone attempting to motivate a team. The former requires hard logic facilities and the latter relies strongly on empathy and social skills.
In my previous post, I argued that anthropologists are well positioned for tech careers because they are trained to approach problems holistically. Looking at Forbes’s skill list further drives this point. However, for those not trained in such a holistic manner, one has to wonder how they can have enough specialization to standout from the crowd while still being well rounded enough to be a versatile and valuable employee. After all, even if you have all the technical skill in the world, it’s quite possible, now, to lose out on a job to a less skilled but more well rounded applicant.
Universities such as Emory or the University of South Florida (Go Bulls) have begun offering major programs that attempt to train students in a wide range of skills and knowledge basis, thus allowing them to approach complex issues from a wide angle. Some have lambasted these programs as being unfocused, conceptually confusing, unspecialized, or unemployable. A quick Google search would yield responses to the first three criticisms; I would like to focus on “employability” argument. This notion has been particularly vexing. In my years as an anthropology major (an interdisciplinary science itself) I lost count of how many times I encountered some of form of “what kind of job can you get with that?” The ubiquity of the question suggests to me a cultural concern, not a technical one. One anecdotal example I believe sums up this problem pertains to my résumé. I once got turned down for a job I believed myself to be well qualified for. The hiring officer was kind enough to actually answer me when I inquired as to why I was passed on for the position. To paraphrase his response: “We simply don’t know where to put you.”
This is a rather mundane example, but I believe it highlights a growing issue in our hiring outlook. Employers want someone who can “wear many hats,” but cannot spot versatile applicants from a résumé alone. A combination of degree, work history, and skillset that are wide and divergent comes across as confusing and portrays the applicant as “unfocused” (these are two common forms of feedback I’ve gotten on my own résumé).
It would be outlandish to claim the solution to this dilemma rest within a vast cultural change. However, there are steps that applicants can take to show case their rounded skills which employers should be looking for.
· Résumé summaries should be utilized to outline the “concentration” of ones work. Even though I am versed in medical research, DNA analysis, and ethnography, my summary highlights my skills and desire for work in web development.
o Do keep these brief. Think of the summary as one, maybe two, tweets at best.
· Likewise cover letters should connect divergent work experience. For instance, my work as an ethnographer translate to marketing and customer service skills. I outline this in my cover letter where appropriate.
· Don’t make my early mistake of suggesting you’ll take on any kind of responsibilities. Employers will often ask what do you want to do or what do you see yourself doing. Saying that you’re “open to anything” suggest you have no idea. Prepare for this interview question and stick to it. Know the kind of work you want to do, you can always work in the other things you’re capable of doing.
· Use your wide array of skills to spring into talks of management. Specifically, the ability to view the big picture and communicate across different departments. An applicant that can translate art to tech or tech to consumers has the makings of a project manager.
· Finally, never refer to yourself as a “Jack-of-All-Trades.” This was another mistake I made early on until I was corrected by a marketing specialist. After all, the remainder of the that statement is “master-of-none.” If you truly want to emphasize that you’re capable of doing every aspect of a job borrow inspiration from Daniel Radcliffe and use the term “Swiss Army Man.”
Ultimately, as the work landscape continues to change, the range of skills required by employees for high-level careers will continue to expand. While it may be impossible to keep up with this expansion, it is within reach to round ourselves out. There’s also no need to go back to college to get training on the things we missed the first time around. Services such as Edx.org, Lynda.com, or Khanacademy.org offer a range of free or cheap training services. If one has the time and tenacity, they can truly become a Renaissance man of the modern age.