Job Hunters, Prepare to Be Keyword-Friendly

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The following caught my eye in a Philadelphia Inquirer feature on job searches of local professionals:

Ability and expertise are often not perceived, because when computers read resumés, credentials expressed as searchable keywords matter more than actual skills or positive traits that an interviewer might detect.

Some of the most outstanding science editors I knew when I was in publishing could never have passed keyword screening. But they were, and are, inquisitive and fast-learning people  (Of course there are other excellent editors with not only science PhDs but extensive publications. Each background has its own advantages and drawbacks.)

Without blaming developers of software or the understaffed recruiters who often need to identify candidates from hundreds of applicants, I'm starting to wonder if automated screening may be blocking the peripheral vision that some candidates might have brought to their new jobs, their recognition of possibilities unknown to people too close to the narrow job description. War, exile, and forced migration can catalyze invention, filling what the sociologist Ronald S. Burt has called structural holes.

Employers who totally trust keyword screening could learn from an insight of an old school French company, Michelin, years ago:

For François Michelin "to help a person become himself, this is what counts above all."  It was this spirit that allowed Marius Mignol, a typographical worker without formal education, to invent the radial tire that revolutionized the industry.  When he was hired, Mignol was supposed to work in the company's print shop, but Edouard Michelin told the firm's head of personnel: "Don't judge by appearances...Remember that one must chip away at the stone in order to find the diamond hidden within."

Mignol became the principal inventor of the steel-belted radial tire that made the company's international fortune after the Second World War. And this may be another factor to consider when thinking about the roots of "the great stagnation."

If everybody in an organization fits their job too well, the organization may become less fit.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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