Hire the Fisherman

Bentley Winner 2019

I’m fortunate enough to be a judge this weekend at the 14th Annual Boca Raton Concourse d’Elegance. It’s a gathering of 175 of the finest classic cars in the nation. I’m here in Florida on this early February day preparing to do the tough work of telling the owners of these rolling works of art whose is the Best in Class.

There was a seminar this morning on how to encourage more young people into the hobby of classic car collecting. It’s clearly needed, as the crowd is almost all grey-haired and virtually all men. As this contingent ages, the need to find a way to draw in more younger people, especially women, becomes more acute by the day.

A common solution that was presented is one I hear all the time, in a broad variety of disciplines across a range of industries. The suggestion is to reach out to your local colleges and get interns. Bring them into your business, infect them with the same passion you and your peers have, and before long you’ll have some great new hires. 

Hundreds of industries rely on interns and apprentices to groom the next generation of talent.

On the face this seems like excellent advice. It’s also tried and true. Hundreds of industries rely on interns and apprentices to groom the next generation of talent. Programs based on this concept range from the extremely formal to the almost casual. At the one end are the programs in the building trades, where there are very rigorous programs to train plumbers, electricians, and other trades. These involve years-long apprenticeships leading eventually to formal promotion to “journeyman”.

More common however are the kinds of programs found in white collar industries. These programs reach out for college students to spend their summers working in their businesses. The interns are usually paid some modest amount, and they work on everything from one-off projects that have laid dormant to the kinds of menial labor that is so commonly lambasted in film and television. At the end of the summer, many of the best are guaranteed jobs once they graduate. This is a great chance for the business to screen for good candidates and for the students to try-before-they-buy at a firm.

In the classic car world, the suggestion was to have restoration shops reach out to the trade colleges for their interns. Here too, it’s a good suggestion, and a way to help pass the torch to the next generation.

To bend a tired metaphor, they are buying the fish. They should be hiring the fisherman.

But all of these programs are in many ways short-sighted. To bend a tired metaphor, they are buying the fish. They should be hiring the fisherman.

The colleges and trade schools are most appreciative of these programs, of course. They are always looking for ways to connect their students with the opportunities in the “real world”. Whether it’s internships or the first job for their graduates, the placement offices love to have options for their students.

But for organizations that are really thinking long-term, this isn’t the most effective way to work the pipeline. Certainly they can get lots of interns, but they’re getting them “at retail”. They have to fish for, interview, connect with, and hire them one-by-one. There’s a better source than the placement office to connect.

I encourage organizations to connect rather with the faculty in their departments of interest.

I encourage organizations to connect rather with the faculty in their departments of interest. This can be vastly more effective, especially over the long haul. 

Faculty members know the students, and they certainly know the stars. They have far more direct connection with them than any placement office ever will. They see them several times a week, and they see their work. They know their work ethic. They know if they are smart, talented, and passionate about the subject matter. And they want nothing more than to see than one of their stars land a great opportunity.

But more importantly, they will be there for years. Many students will pass through their classes. The time you spend developing a great relationship with the faculty member may well result in a near-continuous stream of new talent for you and your organization. For years, maybe decades. If you develop a good working relationship with a handful of faculty, perhaps in a couple of interesting departments, you will be guaranteed a long-term resource for top recruits.

Leveraging the faculty is also discussed in the the “Hunting Skills” episode of my podcast.

Also, never overlook the faculty themselves as resources for your organization. Many are underpaid and most are interested in outside work on a part-time basis. You can get that stalled research project off the ground, that experimental test run, those ideas that you’ve always wanted to understand explored by people who need little or no introduction to your field. And usually at reasonable rates.

In addition, many faculty are open to hearing your input into their course work. They are often starving for real world examples to apply to their usually quite dry course materials. They would love verification that what they are teaching has real world applications. And many are open to tweaking their courses to more directly match the kind of skills you need. It becomes a great feedback loop for both sides.

In all, working with the faculty directly, and building this feedback loop can help to cement your relationship with them, further ensuring a stream of good entry-level talent.

So, forget heading straight to the placement office with your internship opportunity. They’ll only post it on the bulletin board for who-knows-who to see it. No, go straight to the department and find the faculty members with the best feel for the students in the areas of your interest. Develop those relationships for an investment in the long-term talent stream only they can provide.

In short: don’t buy the fish. Hire the fisherman.