In the beginning…


It all starts with landing that first job

Between the employer and the potential tech employee stands the gatekeeper, the talent recruiter who decides which applicant resumes move forward. Corporate recruiters work on an average of 30 positions at a time, with some 150 applications on each position. They use keyword searches on must-have computer skills, filters on salary expectations, and a 10-second glance of a resume to determine their first batch of interviews (pre-screens). The pre-screen is a 15- to 30-minute conversation to confirm that the job seeker has the necessary skills and requirements (location and within salary budget). In corporate recruitment, there’s very little time for coaching, and feedback is frowned upon by legal due to possible retribution by a non-hire.

In comparison, ACDS talent recruiters are able to spend time even on candidates who most likely aren’t yet ready for an employer interview. Consequently, ACDS recruiters wear any number of hats, including that of Life Coach, Teacher, Etiquette Adviser, Correction Officer, Social Worker, Bubble Burster, Cheerleader, Hand Holder, and Positive Thinking Guru, all while working with a target workforce largely comprised of a generation of people who’ve never not known computers, who may feel an outsized sense of power from their knowledge of technology, who are often more comfortable socializing screen-to-screen than in person, and who want what they want (the whole enchilada) right now.

For this special Careers issue, we sat down with the person who’s likely to be Ground Zero in these young tech workers’ IT careers – Ashley French, ACDS’ Director of Talent Acquisition and Development.

What do you tell these young job seekers about a career in IT?

I don’t use the word “career.” This generation is touchy about that.

What do you mean, “touchy”? About the idea of a career?

I mean the thought of “long-term” scares them. They don’t want to get stuck doing the same thing for the same company. I see my role as helping give them an opportunity to learn all the different types of occupation tracks that are available to them. And wherever they start, I don’t want them to feel that they’re “locked in” to a specific career focus.

Fair enough. What areas of IT do you suggest to them as a starting place?

It’s funny, nearly everyone we interview wants to get into cybersecurity. That’s such a hot field right now. But guess what—usually you’re not going to get your first job in cybersecurity. Before you get to do that, you need to work in the network operating center, or on a frontline help desk. You’ve first got to learn what’s behind the hardware, and behind the system, to be able to understand those hackers and how they penetrate a system. And then transition in.
I just see so many cool career starting places in IT. Take data analytics—that’s such a great foundational skill, so I often suggest starting with a data analyst position. Every industry needs it—manufacturing, tech, there are even data analysts within an HR function. So that can give you a way to see what different departments, what types of tools, what types of tasks you enjoy, and it’s a transferable skill. Because every industry is now using data to make decisions.

Tell me about your “ACDS assessment test” to help you determine whether or not a candidate has the aptitude for a given IT job. How long does it take, and how do you use it?

Our assessment test varies in length, depending on which position you apply for. For example, if you’re looking to go into a developer or software engineering role, there’s going to be a live coding section in addition to the traditional logic-based aptitude questions. So that one’s about an hour. Our data analyst assessment will have some Microsoft Excel kind of intermediate formulas instead of programming, and I think that one’s about 45 minutes.

Assessments are starting to be the norm, especially for tech roles to confirm proficiency. In recruiting, time is always limited, and with the number of applications per job opening, HR departments are challenged to automate and streamline the hiring process. Some surveys show that more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies are now using hiring assessments.

But because ACDS is a nonprofit, our mission is to help everyone, no matter if they bombed the assessment or aced it. We really use the assessment almost like a homework assignment to show initiative, and we do see a significant drop-off rate of people who don’t complete it. They’re scared, and they don’t want to take it. But it’s not a pass or fail by any means, and we don’t usually share the assessment scores with potential employers. I mean, some people just aren’t good test takers.

Then there are others who are better at tests than they are at interviewing. I’ve got a candidate in Northwest Arkansas who doesn’t have the strongest interview skills. He’s been in manufacturing, so on paper it doesn’t look as good. But he made the highest score on my Java assessment. So in his situation, I do share his assessment scores because I think it’s helped me get him more interviews. And I’m happy to tell you that he’s about to land a job offer with a big retail e-commerce corporation!

What happens after the initial assessment?

In an ideal world, all of our candidates will be poised and polished and ready to present to potential employers. But this isn’t an ideal world. I want to talk in a minute about the importance of soft skills, but for now I’ll just say that some candidates are strong enough in the subject matter to become apprentices right away. Others need a little more tech knowledge under their belts, so we put them in our “pre-apprentice” program, which consists of several months of self-learning online, and of course we guide them to the courses they need to take.

And in the summer of 2021, we began a third pathway—what we call our “work-based learning” initiative. Employers want these young people to have work experience. So how do we entice employers to give them that initial work experience? Well, we offer them the individual to work for them for three months, at no cost to the employer. Instead, ACDS covers the cost of their hourly pay—$13 an hour for three months.

This program was a little slow to kick off, but our first three candidates to complete their 90 days have all received full-time job offers from the companies we placed them with. And by the time this magazine comes out, we will have placed many more Arkansans in work-based learning with Arkansas companies.

It’s essentially the same concept that the internship is for college students. Employers are significantly more inclined to hire you if they know you’ve had some actual exposure to office life, including business etiquette.

That’s a good segue to the soft skills you mentioned earlier.

It’s funny, we sometimes have to do what we call “Adulting 101.” Some candidates need advice on what to wear, the importance of taking a shower, proper email etiquette—that is, don’t use an exclamation mark on every single sentence! And don’t talk in too many of the texting acronyms. Then there’s calendar etiquette. A lot of them don’t understand that if a calendar invite is sent to them, they have to accept or decline. You know, those soft skills are so key.

I can’t overstress the importance of first impressions in an interview, especially in regard to communication style, or the do’s and don’ts. They’ll set up a confirmed interview with me and it’s on their lunch break. I can hear them in the car—they’ve put me on hold so they can order their lunch.

Sometimes my staff and I have to do three touch points of coaching calls before we feel comfortable sending out their resume. A lot of them immediately think they’re ready to be a vice president. Not everyone, but we’re having to coach quite a few folks on being humble. Yes, in an interview you are selling yourself, but there’s a way to strategically deliver that in a humble manner. Instead of saying, “I did this” or “I won that,” you say, “I was fortunate enough to have this job opportunity in which I could accomplish such and such….”

Okay, so you’ve held their hands, you’ve polished them up, you’ve finally sent out their resumes. Tell me about the extraordinary strengths that this generation brings to the employers in this state.

They’re a blank slate for an employer. They’re not going to be resistant to change. They’ve always had computers. They’re totally comfortable with the whole agile approach of quickly putting out a solution for the end user and seeing how it goes, then editing and modifying it after the fact. They’re also really good problem solvers, really good at thinking outside the box. They can visualize things better because they’ve always had technology and video games.

They were raised to embrace diversity, so they value individual personalities and cultures that are different. Another cool thing about this group is, at the end of a mock interview I tell them to come with two different questions that they like to ask an employer. Often, I hear some type of question about how the company gives back to society or the environment. They’re very in tune with green initiatives. And something that I’ve started seeing in benefit plans is, companies giving employees paid time off for volunteering. That speaks to this generation’s passion.

Let’s go back to that worrisome concept of careers. How would you say this generation deals with that?

This younger generation has an issue with job-hopping. They like to job hop every year, every two years, and we recruiters see that as red flags. It’s Recruiting 101—when we get a resume, the first thing we do is look at the applicant’s tenure at each recent position.

What amount of time is okay, and what isn’t?

We used to like to see four- or five-year tenures, but a lot of people were laid off during COVID and recruiters are a little more flexible because of that. As long as someone stays at a job at least two years, I feel like that’s acceptable. But the longer the better.

Bottom line, though: These young people want flexibility. In their ideal world, they want to rent an RV with their best friend and travel the country and send their work in via satellite.

Like the song says, nice work if you can get it.

Yes, but I think that the more “homework” you’ve done before getting into the working world, the more likely you’ll be to find an occupation and a company that’s right for you. We live in a time—thank you, Google—when there’s just so much research material available at our fingertips, from YouTube to online courses to LinkedIn and other social media. One easy thing we at ACDS suggest to candidates is to follow companies that you’re interested in on social media. That’s a great way to start educating yourself on what different career tracks are available to you today. Sometimes companies talk about the technologies that they use. Sometime you may even see job openings.

Another idea is job shadowing—otherwise known as an “informational interview.” If you’re connected to someone on LinkedIn, or you know your friend’s mom is a systems engineer at Acxiom, use that network to your advantage. Some 60 percent of all job transitions—first job, or a later job—are the result of some type of networking, the old “who you know” network. So just put yourself out there and say, “I want to learn what you do.” Maybe you’ll learn what you like, and maybe you’ll learn what you don’t like. Both are valuable pieces of information.

And if you do get with a company and decide it’s not working out the way you like, don’t just up and leave the company; be upfront with your manager and see what you can do internally by changing departments. Or talk to your HR adviser or mentor. That way, you avoid the “job hopper” stigma because you’re still with the same company. And at the end of the day, you just want to be happy in what you’re doing.

Ashley French, ACDS Director of Talent Acquisition and Development


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