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How hiring managers should differentiate one young applicant from another

Opinion Written by John Berry on 19th December 2017. Revised 16th January 2018. Reading time: 4 minutes

Trainee tool machinist.jpg Interviewing apprentices and graduates for their first job is more complex than hiring those with experience. A young person with a calling is likely to perform well. Of that there’s little issue. But finding folk with a calling is not that common.

Managers are more likely to be faced with a job applicant with a mixed story about how they come to be in the interview. So how should a hiring manager regard that story? And how does the story fit with other evidence that predicts performance such as academic achievement?

For an answer we must think about what happens to a young person as he or she approaches working age.

Career development processes

In the age range 12-16 the young person makes important career decisions. They choose subjects to study, thereby selecting some careers as possible while rejecting others. In the age range 19-25 they, more or less, bind themselves to a chosen career.

This binding to a career represents a growing vocational identity.

Vocational identity is the final goal. It’s the in-person attribute that grows as the young person learns about and experiences a career. Eventually, when their vocational identity is fully formed, they ‘settle’ as an engineer, a vet, a police officer or other career. They then make career decisions.

Vocational identity is not all or nothing. There’s a grey scale with some having stronger vocational identity than others.

Regrettably, some will never settle, drifting instead from vocation to vocation or resting in a vocation without binding. It will be a means to an end – instrumental to life rather than a part of it.

Career exploration

Vocational identity causes career behaviours. Possibly the most important behaviour is applying for specific jobs following a given career trajectory.

But building a vocational identity is more than just making a decision about which job to apply for.

Each young person has a minefield to cross before ‘settling’.

In the period from 15-19 (and even earlier in many) young people develop a goal orientation – they start to think about what they might do in the world of work. On asking what a young boy of maybe five to eleven years old might do in the age of steam, every one responded, “to be an engine driver”. In those days, engine drivers were the perfect role model – in command of a huge machine hurtling through the countryside – what’s not to dream of.

Today, of course, it’s other vocations that catch the eye – like footballers!

Most career goals are nonsense at such early ages, but they are important in forming their eventual vocational identity. Each young person will engage in career exploration. They’ll dream of being in a rock band. Then by forming one with friends, they’ll realise that it’s more difficult to play an instrument than they thought. And that exploration will end.

But other exploration will rise.

And what matters to a hiring manager is that there is an active pattern of exploration, evaluation and rejection until that all-important trajectory is arrived at and the vocational identity begins to form.

Careeer behaviours

When a young person says ‘I have always wanted to be an accountant’ and evidence shows that they played football throughout their teens, there’s little to suggest formation of a vocational identity in financial affairs.

Importantly, vocational identity predicts, through a variety of mechanisms, performance on the job once employed in that vocation.

So what sort of behaviours should a hiring manager look for?

There are four positive behaviours and one negative.

The negative one centres on actions by others to derail the young person. Parents have considerable derailing capability – like the parents who trash the idea of becoming a game developer because ‘that’s just not a real job’. Similarly a false enthusiasm as a result of parental influence may cause foreclosure of the young person’s career exploration. Either way, exploring stops.

And premature cessation of exploration should be viewed suspiciously. It suggests jumping to an early conclusion. The result will likely be found a few years into employment when the young person quits to do what they really wanted to before others got involved.

On the positive side, useful exploration can include development of vocational networks – making contact with those already in the vocation. It can include deliberate action to make the young person more attractive – like starting a web site or active LinkedIn profile to illustrate interest in their chosen vocation. It could include gaining basic vocational qualifications in the activity. In general those three illustrate the fourth – being obviously curious about the domain in which the vocation sits.

Examples abound – developing a veterinary vocational orientation by owning a dog, volunteering at a rescue dog centre and fund raising for canine charities.

So what use is all of this to a hiring manager?

Developed vocational identity

Having an explicit, developed, stable picture of interests that illustrate a vocational identity predicts higher than average performance when in a job that centres on the vocation. Every hiring manager is trying to predict high performance in a would-be recruit.

This performance comes about from several sources.

First, someone working in his or her interest area is likely to exhibit higher commitment towards the employer providing the job in the desired domain over someone taking a job without high vocational identity. High commitment enables various management interventions such as leadership to be effective.

Secondly, since the job done is the primary motivator in everyone, a developed identity coming from everyday task significance is likely to create higher motivation than someone without the career interest. Higher motivation leads to higher performance, all other things being equal.

Thirdly, someone with high vocational identity is likely to have a higher growth need strength. This means that compared to others without the vocational identity, they are likely to be keener to learn.

So finally, how does a hiring manager tell when someone has a developed vocational identity?

Applying vocation identity in selection

The simple answer is by asking them to tell their story.

And by looking within that story for clear links between commitment to a career, exploration around that career and performance in school. Ultimately those who have a mature vocational identity will focus their efforts as part of an overall career strategy. Ultimately those with a mature vocational identity will perform better when on work.


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