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How to decode job postings: what are they really saying?

Sometimes, it feels like job postings are being written in some alien language that is meant to confuse you and the whole job search process is totally bonkers. Well, you’re not crazy, but once you’ve looked at enough listings and talked to enough HR reps, you start to understand the patterns and a clearer picture emerges. Just know this: every detail in a job listing counts so it’s important to pay attention before you find yourself wrapped up in an excruciating hiring process that doesn’t ultimately land you where you want to be.

It’s the first thing you see—what job titles tell you about the role

There are undefined guidelines when it comes to job titles, so not every company abides by them. But generally speaking, there are expectations for job titles to align with a particular number of years of work experience.

This is what that looks like for PR and marketing professionals in Canada:

  • Assistant: 0-1 years
  • Coordinator: 1-2 years
  • Associate or Executive: 2-3 years
  • Specialist or Consultant: 3-5 years
  • Manager or Officer: 5-7 years
  • Director: 8+ years

But, as I said, it’s not always so cut and dry. There can be roles that are labelled “Specialist” that ask for 1-2 years and “Coordinator” positions that ask for 3-5 years. That is why it’s so important to always click past a job posting, even if the title doesn’t seem to match your experience. (Though, lucky for you, there’s no need to do that on the Generation PR job board).

So going by the title, what can you expect from a role? When you’re an Assistant, Coordinator or Associate, you’re typically in a supporting role and there to take direction from your manager (or whoever it is that is supervising you or heads up your team). As a Specialist or Consultant, this may still be the case but you’re also guiding the strategy and you’re given more freedom to make the big moves. Of course, how your company’s hierarchy is structured and the relationship you have with your manager are all going to define the nuances of your role.

What factors into employers choosing “years of experience”?

Checking out the “years of experience” in a job description provides me with a quick understanding of whether or not I’m qualified for the role. But each employer has their own approach in setting this guideline and don’t always strictly adhere to their guideline.

What does “2-4 years of experience” mean?

Two years and four years is a huge difference. So when companies put such a range for a position, it usually means that they’re looking for the right “fit” and not necessarily someone who can accomplish particular responsibilities with a particular level of expertise. If hired, the position would ultimately be tailored to suit your capabilities. If you are hired with two years of experience, they will not throw work at you that would require a level of expertise acquired with four years of experience. Instead, you will be given duties that align with what your employer understands you to be capable of doing.

What does it mean when a job asks for 1 year of experience but the title is “Specialist”?

Super confusing, right? Well, this is typically a case of a company just not titling their jobs properly. It happens more often than you think. Especially if the company is not working with an experienced recruiter or doesn’t have an HR department. Hiring is often managed by department heads and executives, and they don’t always understand that an entry-level person is unlikely to pay attention to a role that is titled as “Specialist”.

Should I apply for a role even if I have fewer years of experience than asked for?

If you really want this job at this company and have time to spend on your application, then yes. But to be honest, your chances are slim to get the job, even if you do get called in for an interview. Maybe the hiring manager found your resume intriguing and wants to get to know you, but it’s unlikely that you will beat out the many others that have also been contacted and actually do have the years of experience that was asked for.

For example, I once applied for a role with an ad agency whose work I really admired. I was definitely underqualified but snagged a phone interview anyway. The HR representative was very upfront in telling me that while I did not suit the role because of my lack of experience, she was interested in giving me freelance copywriting work to do for the agency.

That being said, take the chance and nail the interview. Maybe you won’t get the job you applied for, but establishing a relationship with the HR rep at a company you want to work for is still a win and may open you up to great opportunities in the future.

What if the job posting doesn’t mention “years of experience” at all?

At this point, you need to take note of the job title and think about the guidelines I laid out above. After that, look for keywords in the description that will hint at what kind of candidate they need. If words like “manage” and “strategy” come up, you know this role isn’t entry-level and they need somebody to come in and take charge. If the job description mentions that you will be working under a manager and a director, you can assume that they don’t need someone to take charge because they already have that covered.

Sometimes, job descriptions will use terms like “significant experience” in place of using years, or some other descriptor of just what level of experience they’re looking for. Don’t try to ignore this; they’re not being coy. If they want “significant experience”, that means at least three years of experience (and probably more!)

When there’s no mention of health benefits (other than a foosball table)

Speaking for myself, it’s pretty important for me to know if a company provides health benefits (I have a very codependent relationship with my dental hygienist). And job postings often don’t tell you much about the specifics of these benefits, beyond perhaps: Health and dental benefits provided.

But what happens when they don’t say anything at all? Instead, the “Benefits” section of the job description just mentions a snack cabinet and summer hours. Well, it’s best to assume the worst. Mentioning health insurance is an important recruitment tool and companies will normally use that to attract the best candidates.

However, sometimes a company does provide health insurance and just totally slips on putting it in the job description. Your next step is to check Glassdoor, as employees will sometimes share what kind of health benefits are provided. If you can’t find any information, assume benefits aren’t covered.

What’s up with jobs that get reposted again and again?

Something we avoid doing at Generation PR is putting jobs on the board that are being reposted all the time. It’s usually not a great reflection of the company itself—however, there are exceptions and we have to understand that some companies, that are otherwise great to work for, don’t have the best recruitment processes in place.

The employer doesn’t know what they want

Sometimes employers don’t have a firm grasp of the position they need to fill until they start interviews and get a sense of the kind of skills a specific professional would bring to their organization. That is why job titles will change, even after the listing has already gone live, or listings will be taken down and reworded after a few months.

Another #storytime from me: I once applied for a “Social Media Specialist” role at an arts organization and didn’t get it because, as I later found out, they changed the role to a “Corporate Sales Specialist” and hired somebody with sales experience. It wasn’t a total surprise for me, because even during the interview I had a sense that they didn’t really need a social specialist on the team as much as they needed someone to support their sales team.

This company has a high turnover rate

It’s a bit of a running joke in the PR industry that if you’re looking for a job, you will always be able to find a bucketload of agencies who are hiring (especially in Toronto). From small firms to global powerhouses, you will see agencies hiring throughout the year for entry-level roles and managerial positions. They just don’t have high retention rates because it’s a difficult workplace environment to survive in, and rarely do people aim to stay at agencies for longer than two or three years. That is why you’ll see “Account Coordinator” positions go up three times a year at one agency. Fair mention, an increase in clients can also result in a hiring spree!

Finding someone has just been a nightmare

You would think in a competitive job landscape like communications and marketing, there’d be more than enough candidates to go around. But that’s not always the case and sometimes companies have a really difficult time finding exactly what they want. So they will keep refreshing that LinkedIn job post for months on end until they find their dream employee. Or, they even made someone an offer but the negotiations fell through and they’re back to the drawing board. However, you don’t need to keep applying for that same job—they have your resume already.

When the role seems like two or three jobs combined

One of my major frustrations is when skilled professions are lumped together with totally different professions that simply do not overlap. For example, “marketing and graphic design” or “communications and administrative” roles. These jobs will ask you to do both roles, more or less equally, but sometimes skewed more from one side to the other.

That is why you have to read the job description carefully and understand exactly what you will be doing if hired. Sometimes, a role can have five different communications duties listed and just one that mentions you will be answering general inquiries over the phone. For some people, having that one duty on their plate is a huge dealbreaker. As a communications and marketing professional, you are certainly expected to wear a lot of hats but if your employer wants you to make website graphics for three hours every day, you have to question if that’s really what you want to be doing.

Why do employers merge these roles? Let’s be frank: they want two employees for the price of one and/or they seriously undervalue the work that goes into these roles. Graphic design is hugely important and should not be handled by an amateur. And writing a press release is also not a skill that everyone has, especially if they never learned it at school.

My advice is to avoid applying for these roles unless you are confident you can complete both sides of the role with a great degree of effectiveness and you want to be doing these roles. Of course, there might be opportunities in the future for you to grow within the role and make it your own, and not just be stuck doing something you went to school to avoid ever doing again.

 

Listen—don’t get too frustrated. Sometimes, the people posting these jobs don’t have a strong sense of how to properly describe a job and may not even understand exactly who it is they’re trying to find. It’s murky waters out there, but hopefully, these tips will help you swim with greater ease towards your next great opportunity.