Beyond “table stakes”: How to set your STEM jobs apart…dramatically

June 25

Government and its contractors are scrambling for talent, especially the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and math. Even during the height of the recession in 2009, STEM unemployment hovered at just over five percent, and a third of manufacturers reported STEM shortages. A new report from the U. S. Congress Joint Economic Committee paints a picture of rising demand and dwindling supply. As for Gen Y replacing retirements, some 40 percent drop out of scientific and engineering majors early on their academic career. As a result, Federal defense and civilian agencies as well as defense, aerospace and technology companies are facing increasing “co-opetition”: Cooperate in building a diverse student pipeline while you compete hard for qualified candidates.

While budget cuts force government and the private sector to reshape their workforces, intensified competition may not be top-of-mind. If you don’t give thought, however, to your genuine competitive advantage, you could fall back on “table stakes.” In business, “table stakes” refer to the minimum it takes to enter an industry. In consumer marketing, we call such products commodities, competing solely on price without any special emotional benefit to the buyer. In “employer branding,” these parity attributes constitute the basics that you and your competitors offer, e.g. pay, benefits, work life balance, etc. You need them to get to the table, but they are unlikely in themselves to tip the scale in your favor.

That is why TMP Government encourages clients to research employee and job seeker attitudes. Doing focus groups with your STEM employees and, if possible, the candidate audience, can help you find the emotional and psychological attributes more likely to differentiate your offering. Unlike surveys, the interactions can help you zero in on the “dramatic differences” that set you apart and stay in the mind when candidates apply for jobs.

Positioning: conveying your genuine advantage to sought-after STEM candidates

Think of the entry-level technical employees that your organization needs most. When they think of where they are going to apply next fall or early winter, are you on their list? Knowing where you stand is the crucial first step. Then if you position yourself with a succinct, memorable expression of a credible competitive advantage, you can change your ranking in your candidate’s mind:

• If you aren’t on the list, you can get onto their consideration set.
• If you rank low on the list, you can improve you standing.
• If you rank high, you can move from the “consideration set” to “decision set.

Relevant differentiation: where your advantage has meaning for the candidate.

Suppose we gather ten of your top leaders and ask them what things you have that draw STEM candidates. At the end of the brainstorming, your executives see a long list of 20 attributes. Each one represents value you offer the job seeker. Then we try to whittle down the list to the top three or four. Finally we get to the kicker: Which attributes offer you a competitive advantage?

In almost every case, we have found that those attributes are connected with a unique, exciting mission and its challenges. If you think that your organization offers nothing exciting to distinguish itself from the pack, the chances are you haven’t heard from those employees who are passionate about what you do. Remember that in the career marketplace, unlike commercial transactions, both parties play seller and buyer.

That is why we often compare “hiring for fit” to matchmaking. For instance, as buyers HR people and hiring managers are now using competency-based hiring as a tool to find who is most likely to succeed in their workplace. They are looking beyond typical quantitative measures like years of experience and training to a blend of hard and soft skills (e.g. the Office of Personnel Management’s new guidelines). As a buyer, job seekers use communications, based on your positioning, as a tool to evaluate your opportunity. If you provide them with a dry list of duties rather than a vivid description of what they’ll be doing, they won’t have much to go on.

Many focus groups in government and the private sector have shown TMP that the majority of job seekers want to hear about the work and themselves. They want to know how they will fit into your enterprise. STEM candidates in particular want to know what problems they will be solving, from alternative energy and environmental protection to public health and safety to homeland and national security. In fact, just giving them an idea of your challenges can constitute a competitive advantage over organizations that are vague about problem solving.

Your challenge: How about landing aircraft in a jungle?

Look below at the TMP Government-designed site to recruit civilians for the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Center (ESC), which sits on Boston’s high-tech Route 128 corridor. When we first began this project, much of the audience wasn’t even aware that ESC existed. Meanwhile ESC’s competitors along the route were the household names in electronics, who could spend millions in consumer advertising. Some of them had built highly regarded brands that gave them a leg up in candidate awareness. Many sported higher pay. Yet none offered the specific challenge and one-pointed mission of ESC: Supporting the mission of the Air Force’s uniformed women and men through advanced electronics that got the job done and brought them home safely.Career Site

Note that the site poses an air traffic control challenge. Engineers must find a way for the pilot to land safely in a cloud-covered forest, far from neatly organized runways, radars and towers. Underneath the challenge are six words: “It’s not impossible. It’s imperative.” The Center is conveying its unique mission to job seekers, who want both a tough technical challenge and the sense that their work is worthwhile. It’s also drama.

Finding the inherent drama: expressing your jobs interestingly enough to remember.

There are many selling points that recruiters can convey at a job fair and that the seeker can find on a comprehensive career site. But only a few the most relevant or the strongest. To assess your priority attributes, the discipline of positioning requires an understanding of the dynamics of your entire situation:

• Who are you? What vision, aspirations and messages do your leaders wish to convey?
• How do your current employees feel about their workplace realities?
• How do your external audiences perceive you? How do their expectations match what your leader’s aspirations and employee realities?

In his recently released Brand Is a Four Letter Word: Positioning and the Real Art of Marketing (Advantage: 2012) veteran brand strategist Austin McGhie calls this approach culture-based positioning, building a brand from the inside out, rather than pinning it on product and service differentiation. Although McGhie does not address “employer brands” directly, he frequently comments on the importance of culture versus the consumer equivalent of table stakes, commodities: “Categories often seem dull and undifferentiated…to the point of being described as commodities by a majority of participants and observers. And that stays true right up to the point where some company creates a truly differentiated value proposition and a passionate culture around which it can create competitive advantage and passionate growth. Suddenly, no one is talking about a ‘commodity” anymore.”

The legendary Chicago ad man Leo Burnett called this approach finding the “inherent drama,” discovering the excitement within a product or service. Perhaps this style commends itself even more to recruitment advertising, where people make momentous “life decisions.” After all, those who enter and stay with the STEM professions tend to be the problem solvers and pioneers, daring the unknown. And what can be more dramatic than that?

For to learn how TMP Government can position your agency or company, contact Mark Havard at or call him at (703) 269 -0144.

Follow the author, Ellis Pines, on Twitter (@EllisPines) and blog at

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