Not Enough Applicants For Library Position
October 18, 2010 7:14 AM   Subscribe

Interviews for a job I really, really want postponed because there were "not enough applicants." Help me understand this and maximize my chances.

Public librarian here. Found a position that matches my skill set and work experience, in a city I'd love to live in, at a library system I'd love to work for. About a week after submitting my resume packet, I received a letter in the mail explaining that the library board felt that there were not enough applicants for the position, and that the position will be re-posted. My application will automatically be added to the new applicant pool, and the consideration/interview process will start fresh this coming January.

Though I'm sure it's not uncommon, I've never run into this situation before. I suspect that part of the reason there were so few applicants was that given the application deadline, the application packet was quite lengthy and involved, and entailed several essay-type questions.

My questions are:

1) Since I didn't get a rejection letter right off, is that a sign that I'm a viable contender (i.e., a good chance at an interview), or, in the interest of fairness, did every applicant get the postponement notice with the promise of being added to the applicant pool in January?

2) If the "big application, small window of time" factor was the reason for the small applicant pool, wouldn't my applying in time be considered a good thing? That is, since I made the time to get everything in by the deadline, doesn't that show I have the initiative and resourcefulness to "make it happen" where a job is concerned?

3) If I (or another current applicant) had submitted a stellar application packet, would the search have ended there? Or do hiring entities tend to want a big applicant pool for some reason?

4) Along the same lines,could this be a case of the system director (who will be doing the actual interviewing and selecting) being satisfied with the original applicant pool, but the board wanting a bigger pool?

5) Given this delay, how can I put my best foot forward? Is there an indirect way of calling (positive) attention to myself or my application ahead of the game?

A few factors that might be at play here:

-Though I am qualified for this position, it would be a step up (it's a supervisory position, and I'm not currently a supervisor--though I have been in the past). I did get reference letters from current supervisors and a director, who said I'm a great fit. But I can see where, all other things being equal, a candidate with lots of supervisory experience would be desirable over me.

-The city in question is a pretty cool town that attracts librarian types. So the lack of applicants is probably not because of location. And the job market there is not saturated-- there is a library school there, but recent grads don't meet the experience requirements of the position.

Honestly, I'm not trying to worry too much or overthink this, and obviously nobody except the director of this specific library knows the answers to my questions. I just really want this job, and I'm just curious as to whether anyone has been in this situation, on either side of the interview table.
posted by Rykey to Work & Money (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, I work in business, so this may bias my answer somewhat, but no position that I've had open has ever remained open due to an insufficient number of applicants. That just doesn't make sense to me. If I have a position to fill, I don't care about the number of applicants for the position. I care whether any applicant in particular has the background that I am looking for.

If someone were to tell me that a position remained open because they had not received enough applications I would think that a euphemism for "sorry, we don't like you and want to hire someone else."

Of course maybe it is different in the library world. Maybe there is some legal requirement that library administrators prove that a certain number of people applied for a position in order to fulfill diversity requirements or some such regulation.
posted by dfriedman at 7:21 AM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lots of publicly-funded jobs have very specific rules about the hiring process, sometimes including a minimum number of applicants to choose from (it varies from place to place.) Is there a person with whom you've been in contact? Check with that person to see if there's anything you need to do to make sure you're in the applicant pile for January.

I doubt that this has anything to do with the quality of your application. They may have realized that the combination of a huge packet and short deadline wasn't fair/was against some regulation.

Good luck!
posted by corey flood at 7:26 AM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm thinking that publicly funded positions probably have lots of prerequisites about having to be made available to x number of people and possibly x number of minority groups et al, so I'd buy that they couldn't interview for it because the available pool of applicants didn't look wide enough for the paperwork to prove they'd been open enough. Maybe.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:26 AM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I believe that you are still a viable contender. Nothing about this situation suggests that they don't like your application. They just want to find out if an even better application is going to come their way - which may or may not happen.

I also do not believe that there is anything else you should be doing to bring yourself to their attention. You have done what you were asked to do, and the metaphorical ball is in their court.
posted by grizzled at 7:27 AM on October 18, 2010

This is the type of BS that takes place all the time with amateur boards. They frequently get overly precious with decisions that, if they don't work out, will reflect poorly on their leadership; the more people use the library board as a stepping stone to better boards, commissions and elected offices, the more this dynamic occurs.

Often such boards seek to mask indecisiveness or laziness (holidays are just around the corner!) with some variant on claiming insufficient data/sample size or incorrect sequence of events. Other times it's expressed via an overly precious approach to process (so-and-so, who's opinion is valued or holds power, can't make the meeting and we're not confident enough to proceed in his/her absence so everything goes on hold). They may also be saving face because they actually botched the job posting process from an HR perspective and this is the easiest way to start over without publicly blaming anyone. There's conspiracy possibilities (my SIL would be perfect for this job!) and last, but not least, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar: if they only received a few applications, they may not feel comfortable.

Can you visit the town and meet the system librarian?
posted by carmicha at 7:33 AM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Consider sending them a quick note thanking them for keeping you in the pool and expressing your continued interest in the position. I got my current librarian job several months after it was posted, in my case budget cuts were the problem and they put the hiring on hold. By the time they had the money back to hire someone I was still interested, I don't know if the other applicants were.
posted by mareli at 7:36 AM on October 18, 2010

Some types of institutions have all sorts of rules and regulations to follow when it comes to hiring new staff. The position has to be advertised publicly and in the right way etc ( I think its to stop them from just hiring friends and family - not that they can't hire friends and family if they're the best fit for the job but they need a solid paper-trail showing that). If there weren't enough applicants the board may have decided that it was improperly advertised and want it done again so that they can show they have followed proper hiring procedure.

My dad has been applying for jobs with conservation charities and he runs in to this sort of thing quite a bit. Ones where the person getting the job is a foregone conclusion but the rules state they have to advertise the job publicly and go through the whole selection and interview process even though everyone knows they already chose and ones where the board have decided the advert wasn't correct in some way and they have to start over again. I wouldn't get your hopes up that this means anything more than they've said. They will almost undoubtedly have sent the same letter to everyone who applied, regardless of their chances.
posted by missmagenta at 7:36 AM on October 18, 2010

Something like this is happening where I work, a small non-profit. We have an aggressive affirmative action program, and so we never move forward on a significant hiring position until we have a diverse pool. We recently advertised for a management job but all the initial qualified applicants were white males. So we held off on interviews and tweaked our marketing and networking until we received some female and minority applicants. It didn't take all that long and now the interviewing, presumably of many of of the initial white male applicants who were anxious about the position and the lack of action on it, is commencing.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 7:37 AM on October 18, 2010

Great feedback so far-- thanks!
posted by Rykey at 7:50 AM on October 18, 2010

Yeah, my employer has to get sufficient quantities of plausibly qualified applicants before we can hire someone. If it's been a while, send a "I am still interested" note.
posted by SMPA at 9:01 AM on October 18, 2010

Public librarian here. Our library is a city library, so we're all municipal employees. The city HR folks are the ones who decide whether the pool is OK or not -- not the director, not anyone in the library, not the board. We're held to the same standards as any other city department is. If the library you're applying to is a city or county library, there might be standards in place at that level which determine whether or not the process can move forward.

I would guess that everyone who applied got this same "you'll still be in the pool" communication so it doesn't mean anything. But it can't hurt, the next time you see it advertised, to send them an email/letter/phone call saying "I'm still interested!" -- and look closely to make sure the packet is exactly the same. If they're requesting any info they didn't request this time around, give it to them and ask them to add it to your application packet.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:27 AM on October 18, 2010

Everyone's advice above is excellent, but in particular answer to your question,

5) Given this delay, how can I put my best foot forward? Is there an indirect way of calling (positive) attention to myself or my application ahead of the game?

Don't hesitate to send them a thank-you note, just as if you'd interviewed. Send whomever you sent the original application packet a card, handwritten, that expresses your enthusiasm over the position, and how much you're looking forward to the renewed application process in January. Since you mentioned that you're not local, you may want to address that in your note too, letting them know that you're already planning a move to the city.
posted by juniperesque at 10:49 AM on October 18, 2010

Public Library administrator here.... while it's certainly possible that this is legit, especially if it's a municipal or county library, my read on what you've been told is that you're not getting the job. Board involvement is a bad sign, essay questions are a terrible sign, 3 month delay is a really bad sign.... all indicate that there is some serious dysfunction afoot and in this economy it seems hard to believe no matter how rigorous the application that the pool would be too small.

So, I read between the lines and see "there's nobody in this pool that we want, but we don't have the HR or the cojones to be straight up." I could certainly be wrong, but if I were you I'd rather feel disappointed now and surprised later than hopeful now and crushed later....
posted by ulotrichous at 2:23 PM on October 18, 2010

I appreciate that, ultrichous, and I agree I'd rather be disappointed sooner than later.

Just curious about one thing you mentioned-- why do you say essay questions are a terrible sign? That was actually one thing I liked about this application process-- I felt the questions allowed me to offer some picture of my reasoning, intelligence, and personality beyond what my cover letter and resume could, and to do so before being prematurely screened out of being interviewed.
posted by Rykey at 9:09 PM on October 18, 2010

Well, that's exactly it; essay questions are more of a benefit for the applicant than the employer. You feel like you had an opportunity to distinguish yourself, and they get another set of potential reasons to exclude someone more often than they would get impressed by someone who wasn't already impressive. Again, I'm trusting my gut here in the absence of the details you can't provide, but when I think about the reasons that an employer might include essay questions in an application for a non-writing job (even if it involves writing) few of them give cause to believe this is a group of people who know how to run a successful hiring process.

Shorter, essay questions really don't tell the employer anything about the applicant other than how well they write and how well they anticipate the answers the employer wants to see. Their presence in an application process is a sign of staff or board inexperience with hiring, or deeper organizational nuttiness. Which is certainly not unheard of but also increases the likelihood that you're being jerked around.

I hope I'm wrong!
posted by ulotrichous at 9:03 PM on October 19, 2010

dfriedman: "Well, I work in business, so this may bias my answer somewhat, but no position that I've had open has ever remained open due to an insufficient number of applicants."

Businesses generally rely on being able to fire underperformers, and are typically very short term focused. You need to fill a position now, because it's costing you money.

Governments generally have to rely more on upfront salary negotiation, and can afford to slow down a bit if it means being able to reject a counteroffer. In a sense, a business can rely on the expected value of the hire to set a reasonable ceiling, while it's harder to say "filling this position will generate X in sales" at a library.

Anyways, having worked at a community college (it's got a library too...) that is also frequently a political career springboard, two thoughts come to mind. 1) I've seen a board of trustees approve a 1 applicant situation without any discussion or pushback. 2) Occasionally they can make trouble if it looks like a political cause. For example, I saw a Trustee object to a grant to an arab sounding professor to travel to Morocco to study Islamic culture.

So I'd definitely second board involvement shifting the probability towards "dysfunction". You might try locating the minutes from the place you've hired for clues about how they normally act.
posted by pwnguin at 12:49 AM on October 20, 2010

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