One of several papers on recruitment and selection

back for more knowledge

A calling or just a job: finding staff with more than an interest

Blog Post

Written by John Berry on 11th October 2017. Revised 16th November 2020.

6 min read

Civil EngineerWe’ve all heard the phrase “Called to the ministry” describing how someone became a priest or vicar. But it extends further. Many say that they knew from a young age just what job they wanted to do. Once in work, many people comment that they feel so motivated by the job they do that they’d do it even if they weren’t paid. Calling extends to many careers.

Take the young girl obsessed by the desire to be a vet when she grows up; or the boy who wants to be a civil engineer. Why do they express such interest? And indeed, why, sadly, is it that way round?

Of course, many will go on to be something completely different but some will stay true to their calling. But what types of jobs engender that calling, how does ‘calling’ happen and to what benefit for employer and employee?

Defining a calling

A calling is said to exist when a person identifies that the experiences of a particular career match their own interests and needs. It’s when the person discovers that a particular career will give them the meaning they crave.

Career choice can be rational – a search for information, a decision and the hunt for a job. It can also occur through accident or through necessity. Indeed, more often than not, career choice is not about what gives the person a buzz – it’s more about the material aspects and what gives a good living. Neither rational, accident nor materiality extends to calling. So hiring someone with a calling is quite special.

Recent research suggests that females have larger amygdala – the part of the brain that controls kindness, pro-social behaviour and altruism – than males. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that women go into nursing. The research suggests that there is a physiological influence in calling, particularly when it’s associated with helping others. And other research suggests that those with higher education are more likely to feel a calling, perhaps because they have come to find huge interest in a particular subject. But there’s more to it than brain architecture and study.

A calling happens typically when there is interaction between the person and career role models. Often it’s family members. How many parents who are doctors have kids who go on to be doctors themselves? A lot! And it’s because they become familiar with the career through their parents. Their role models are ever present.

So there’s also a social interaction aspect to calling.

Benefits for all

Often a calling occurs when the person is given an opportunity to experience the career – perhaps working at the weekend in a role in which they maintain close contact with career heroes.

But the important point is that the called person derives a positive outcome from their interaction and hitches a ride on that particular career express.

For the person – and as a result, for the employer who later hires someone ‘called’ to their career – there are many benefits. Typically the person will exhibit zest in the job. They’ll be proactive – a self-starter. They’ll derive job satisfaction because career and work are one in the same. And because they are committed to their career, they’ll find it easier to commit to the organisation that gives them expression of their career.

Those called to a career are more likely to excel in the job, exhibiting higher productivity and quality. They’ll be eager to learn and will want to progress and take responsibility.

Those called to management will typically want to make a difference. They’ll be happy to take responsibility for others – not because they want power over them, but because they want to help others achieve great things. They’ll have pro-social motives. Management of others will fit with their interests.

Those with calling are an excellent catch.

But it’s never an easy, barrier-free trajectory from initial young ideas to establishment in a career resulting from a calling. Things like societal gender bias get in the way. Something like 50% of kids are interested in science and engineering– and yet only 9% of engineers are women. As good as family members are at encouraging one trajectory they also throw up barriers in another. Those answering a calling have often had to stay their course despite the efforts of others.

And we should always be mindful that a calling can come at any stage in life.

Finding those with calling

So how does a hiring manager engender a calling towards careers with their firm? And how does he or she differentiate those with calling from the rest? Indeed, how does a manager attract those with calling?

Managers taking a long-term view will need to provide adequate contact between their firm’s activities and young people as they move from Year 6 through to Year 12 of school. They must also sustain that contact as those young people transit through further and higher education. Apprenticeships and sandwich degree courses are classic tools for reeling in new recruits early in their career search.

Having an active corporate social responsibility with high presence in the community will also certainly help.

Whilst this is normally the preserve of the larger firms, there is evidence that some SMEs are realising that there’s benefit in getting out into schools, colleges and universities. Firms are finding it tough to hire the right skills and knowledge and this seems unlikely to improve any time soon. The companies that will succeed in the future will be those that make long-term investment.

Hiring those with a calling

People with a calling towards a particular career are easy to spot (using the right tools).

Firstly, they will exhibit high person-environment fit. Their characteristics will match those of the profession. Managers should develop ideal profiles for all vacancies. We’ve blogged on this extensively before, setting out how to use intelligence, personality, preferences, competencies and behaviours to model someone who will excel in a role. Administering psychometrics in search of a good match is an obvious step.

Secondly, a called person will have taken steps already to engage with the profession. A software engineer will have been involved in software and tech activities for years before they come to apply for jobs. A pilot will have been in the Air Cadets or built and flown model aircraft. And a teacher will have been involved with young people in youth organisations or through school, perhaps coaching sport.

What the person does is not that important. What matters is that there is consistent evidence of contact with the career over the years as the calling develops.

And thirdly, someone with a calling will be able to express at interview his or her early intentional selection of that career over all other options. They’re not there for a job. They’re there to win an opening into a world that will enable them to make a difference.

Calling can attract people to many careers. But it needs to be developed through contact and selected for when hiring. The benefits to all are obvious.