Outsiders Wanted

Workers with different skill sets, backgrounds can benefit employers

Posted: Monday, July 10, 2006

It happens all too often. You were positive that pursuing a career as a comic book artist was right for you in college. But after graduation, reality set in. A lack of job prospects could leave you wondering if that was the right path to go down after all.

This quandary is certainly not limited to artists. Any career services counselor will tell you that students change majors all the time, and graduates often call looking for guidance when they want to embark on a different route.

Luckily for the perpetually undecided, companies are beginning to view candidates with backgrounds in areas outside their industry as valuable. Adaire Putnam, partner and director of Ketchum Midwest, a public relations company in Chicago, says that, with the right blend of experience, candidates outside the PR industry can be beneficial to the company as well as the clients.

"The advantage is that our firm and our clients benefit from a different point of view," she explains. "We all have the opportunity to work with someone who looks at the world a little differently. This is very valuable when you need innovative and creative ways of reaching an audience."

Blank slate

Putnam says that while her company prefers candidates to at least have internship experience in public relations, the bulk of such employees are entry-level.

"Candidates for entry-level positions usually have the greatest variety of backgrounds," she says. "We see terrific candidates with undergraduate liberal arts degrees in a variety of areas."

According to Jim Stroup, management consultant and author of "Managing Leadership: Toward a New and Usable Understanding of What Leadership Really Is - and How to Manage It" (iUniverse, $16.95), this trend goes well beyond the public relations industry.

"Many businesses - the consulting industry is a leader in this area - have noted that there is a kind of inbreeding that occurs when marketers, for example, hire only other marketers or people with marketing degrees," he says. "The problem is that, while many may be assuring themselves that there are basic degrees of industry-specific skills, or at least general knowledge in the hiree, they are also establishing a pretty high likelihood that this new employee is bringing nothing new - no new insight, ideas or even other skills that no one realized could be productively brought to bear on marketing."

Fresh approach

Stroup adds that many of these employees have an eye for discovering new opportunities, identifying with clients' needs and communicating with executives and clients alike. By hiring employees with a background outside of the norm, companies can break the cycle of regurgitating the same ideas and information.

"Students are hired who were taught by the same professors who taught the hiring managers," Stroup says. "New employees hired in from other companies in the industry were also taught by those professors, and now probably also know and have been influenced by many of the same industry names as have been the managers now hiring them. By continuing this cycle, you gain no advantage in special insight or perspective over your competitors; you merely mire yourself deeper and deeper with them in the same self-absorbing bog."

Broader base

The merging of new ideas and perspectives is not the only benefit of hiring from other areas - doing so creates a more diverse employee base as well.

Roberta Carlton, who recently started her new job as head of marketing for a children's book publisher called B*Tween Productions, made the transition to a company that creates a diverse and stimulating atmosphere through its employees. Though Carlton has years of experience in marketing and public relations, she previously spent her time marketing high tech products and enterprise software. Needless to say, the culture was quite different.

"I have no experience in marketing consumer goods," she explains. "In fact, my career of PR for the high tech industry is about as far away as you can get from kids' books - no warm fuzzies there. But I meshed well with their corporate culture; I have more than the basic skill set when it comes to PR, and, most of all, I too believe that what they are doing is important."

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