The Truth About “Help Wanted” Ads

Help Wanted

One of the most frustrating and discouraging events a job seeker experiences is that of applying for a job posting and then receiving no response. The job seeker repeatedly applies to positions that appear to be perfect fits for his or her skill set, education and employment background, only to be met with silence or, in a few instances, an e-mail acknowledgement sent by an autoresponder. This experience can cause job seekers to quit looking for work, convinced that there are no jobs available since they can’t even get a response to their application, let alone an interview. Job seekers should realize that those “help wanted” job postings may be fictional from the outset.


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Why would a company pay to post a want ad when no position actually exists? Companies do this for several reasons. The first is to gauge the labor pool available and its salary demands in the area. If a firm is considering expansion, adding a product or service line or overhauling an existing department, it will first develop a plan and budget for the project. The plan includes an estimate of personnel needs and the budget determines the amount to be allocated towards payroll. To test the numbers, the firm then posts advertising for the proposed positions. Many of these advertisements will ask the applicant to name a desired salary or salary range in the cover letter. The firm then uses the data from these cover letters to assess first, whether there are enough qualified applicants in the area to fill one of the proposed positions if the project is approved, and second, whether the budget allocations for personnel are realistic. If one or both of the criteria aren’t met, then the project is scrapped.

Second, temporary agencies and recruiting firms often place fake want ads in order to build a database of job seekers that they can then pitch to potential clients. Temporary agencies in particular maintain continual marketing and sales efforts, cold calling on human resources departments and small business owners, hoping that one will mention that the company just had someone quit, retire, or be fired. The agency representative will then comb through their database and find resumes from registered applicants that appear to fit the employer’s needs. Having an amply-filled database of qualified job seekers is the same as having a pantry stocked with essentials during an emergency; the right candidate is there if the need arises.

Third, a company may have already chosen an internal candidate for an open position, but will place a “help wanted” advertisement so as to avoid the appearance of favoritism or discriminatory hiring practices. In these cases, the job description may be written in such a manner as to describe only the attributes of the candidate chosen. For example, the advertisement may read, “Position requires 7 or more years of experience using BlahBlah software to enter payroll data for union employees. Candidate must be able to upload payroll data to the Payzit system … ” when the internal candidate has worked in the corporate HR department for seven years administering payroll for a union shop and is fully trained on the Payzit system. In the event of an EEO inquiry, the company can truthfully argue that the job was filled by a candidate who most closely matched the position’s requirements.

Finally, the classified advertisement may be for a legitimate position but be written so poorly that it attracts the wrong candidates. Recently, a large pharmaceutical firm advertised for a Marketing Assistant. The advertisement demanded the applicant have a four-year college degree, have strong Excel skills and be able to analyze data, have experience monitoring social media, spotting trends and posting to social media sites, participate in marketing department meetings and develop marketing materials to support the efforts of the outside sales representatives. The advertisement drew resumes from highly-experienced marketing people and a significant number of people with PhDs who wanted to move from academia to the private sector.

Upon further investigation, it came to light that the position was actually for an administrative assistant who would be putting together PowerPoint presentations, posting messaging crafted by the marketing department to the company’s social media outlets and downloading and sorting data into an Excel spreadsheet. What created the disconnect between the advertisement’s demands and the firm’s actual needs? The job description was written after input by a committee; many of its members who were in the marketing department and wanted to shift some of their less-desirable tasks onto the new hire. The job posting has run for almost a month and the company still hasn’t found the right candidate; the majority of applicants have been grossly overqualified and don’t find the $28,000 per year salary all that attractive.

How does the job seeker find legitimate job opportunities? First, utilize networks. Employed people are often aware of open positions or of positions that are currently filled by someone who is not up to the task. An insider can provide the contact information for the department head responsible for hiring, can offer some tips regarding how best to approach that person and may even go as far as making a recommendation.

Second, use sites like Hoovers and LinkedIn to find the names of decision makers in those companies that are appealing, and send a resume and cover letter directly to that person whether there is an advertised opening or not. A surprising number of people have not only gotten a job this way, but have had a company create a position just so that it could hire the person because the decision maker was so impressed by the candidate’s credentials. Thinking outside the want ads results in more interviews and employment opportunities that are more in line with the job seeker’s definition of a “dream job”.

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