Even during the depths of the global recession, the demand for workers in one rarefied category hardly dipped. But agile companies had less trouble finding the best workers with those skills.
At 8.3 percent, unemployment remains high in the US, although hiring is on an upswing.
But workers with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) skills were in high demand throughout the Great Recession, especially at companies in the technology and financial services sectors. So great was the need, that these candidates were sought domestically and internationally.
"We don't produce enough of these people," says Frank Mulhern, PhD, academic director at The Forum: Business Results Through People, a not-for-profit trust affiliated with the Medill Integrated Marketing Communications graduate program at Northwestern University. "The doctoral programs in the hard sciences and engineering are almost all foreign students, and I've heard many complaints from the high-tech companies that they can't hire the talent they need."
Companies that employed an agile touch seemed to have better luck in attracting the best.
Take Steven McClellan, who started with Google in December as a software engineer. McClellan relates that his Google interviews started with a few phone calls. "There may have been three or four engineers asking different questions, but it wasn't anything I thought was unreasonably difficult," he told me. The calls were followed by in-person interviews at the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif.
"They're looking for more than math," says McClellan, who also interviewed at Goldman Sachs in New York. An ability to see the big picture and work out imaginative solutions -- such as estimating how many ping pong balls can fill a 747 or how much it would cost to wash all the windows in Seattle -- is really what's being tested, he notes.
In Mountain View, McClellan's interviews featured a white board for calculations and a relaxed, chatty atmosphere. "They're there to see how you work out problems. They give you hints."
This appears to map to Google's philosophy about its top-notch workforce: A relaxed worker is a more productive one. Why else would the Googleplex feature all the free food, gyms, dry cleaning drop-offs, shuttle buses, and other perks?
Then again, there are plenty of US companies that still "stress-test" job applicants.
"[One large retailer] will put someone in a room three hours, just to evaluate their attitude and how they react to anxiety," says The Forum's Mulhern.
This tactic is reminiscent of the story, possibly apocryphal, about the company that would leave a job candidate alone in an executive's office, and then ring the phone. Whether the prospect answered the phone on the executive's desk or not, he or she would be "caught" and criticized for the choice -- all to judge the candidate's reactions under pressure.
However, those with the most-desired STEM degrees interviewing at agile companies seem not to face these tricks. "We already had our pick of the litter of the top people, and so our processes didn't change much," says one tech company HR executive.