Waits has a vast human resources department. Housed on the third and fourth floors of the southernmost building on campus, the talent acquisition office consists of hundreds of employees. All day long, they review applications from around the world, select good fits, make phone calls, invite interviewees, and conduct orientations.
“The real interviews are done by the senior staff,” Barbara Twain explains. “But we’re essential to selecting the applicants.”
“It’s necessary to root out raw talent,” she says, pulling up an example application. “This person applied for a programming development role, but look, they have all this theatre and forensics experience. Mock trial. Great presentation skills. That’s what we need in project management. This person is on the team now and travels over the country introducing people to our products and loves it. They confessed they had no idea why they applied as a programmer in the first place.”
Barbara puts the application back in a desk drawer. “That’s the key in Talent Acquisition. Digging for the essential and the passionate.”
Essential, key, necessary, critical, and more absolute language is employed by the Talent Acquisition department. Here, there is a general sense of urgency. On each floor, there are four small lounge areas with coffee and tea stations, but no one ever relaxes there. Associates dart in and out of their offices for refills between interstate and intercontinental phone calls.
A young man in slacks and a t-shirt peaks in around the corner of Barbara’s office. “Do you have five minutes?” he asks.
“No,” Barbara says.
“Okay. I’ll try tomorrow.” And disappears.
It costs Waits an average of $500 to bring each candidate in for an in-person interview.
At 8:30 AM on May 5th, Barbara meets at least $5,000 worth of candidates in the Tyrell Building. The “lobby” is a tremendous glass rectangle, like a terrarium, full of potted plants that reach up to the ceiling. The plants surround tiny alcoves and half-moons of chairs and couches. There’s a little pond in the corner. No fish, but plenty of change.
“Thekla Moran?” Barbara calls, after consulting her clipboard.
Ten applicants sit in a tight knot around the pond. All are impeccably dressed and all are in their early twenties. One, a young, athletic-looking blonde woman wearing a grey suit, stands up and smiles. She walks forward, and shakes Barbara’s hand.
Waits brings in roughly twenty candidates a day, or one-hundred a week, in its insatiable search for enough workers to meet the growing demand for its products and services. Starting with a staff of twenty, it has grown to nearly ten thousand in 2013. Two years ago, they moved from Ann Arbor proper to their new campus just outside of town. It has enough offices to house two thousand.
Tabatha Renzel founded the company in 1995 and it’s still privately held between three partners. All went to school together in 1975, graduating from Brown. They went their separate ways and joined forces twenty years later to seize an opportunity.
No one at Waits seems to be able to articulate exactly what Waits does. Responses vary between, “We’re a solutions developer” to “government contracts,” to “consulting.” This in itself isn’t surprising. All positions at Waits are specialized, all employees are experts in a thin slice of the grand design.
“We’re all specialists,” Barbara says.
Lars Whitesmith, a senior manager in HR, has been with the company thirteen years and says, “We look for passion, intelligence, and a willingness to work.”
All advertised positions on Waits’ website are entry-level and the average age of their employees is 28.
“Yes, we have a lot of millennials on staff,” Lars says. He’s in his late forties, somewhere between the Baby Boom and Generation X. Also, he’s one of the only staff in the building wearing a suit. Everyone else wears jeans and t-shirts, skirts, an occasional flannel, button-up shirt. Hair receding and with a subtle field of cologne, Lars looks like a professional, as out of place in the cohort of young, enthusiastic associates as a middle school math teacher at an arcade.
“People work better when they’re comfortable. That’s why everyone has their own office, too. Studies show that productivity increases by 15% when people have their own offices.” Lars gestures down the hall of the Tempest Building, where a healthy chunk of the programming and trouble-shooting department is. There are doors evenly spaced down the entire length.
“It kind of reminds me of my college campus,” Thekla says while she sits in one of the lobbies between interview sessions. She attended Hamline University in St. Paul.
Indeed, Waits’ campus does resemble a small liberal arts school with seven of its buildings designed in a harmonious, geometrically complicated fashion – grey cement and apple red framing and supports, the company colors. The three other buildings look far older, though they are not. One is an immense, concrete cube, a throw-back to postmodern, strictly utilitarian and soul-draining design. The other two are large, stone and brick – colonial-academic.
Thekla studied anthropology and psychology, graduating with honors. All throughout her education, she claimed she knew how worthless her degrees would be, but is still upset at her prescience. “This is my tenth interview in seventy applications. Statistically speaking, this should be the one that I get an offer.” She shrugs and pulls out the maroon folder Waits sends to all applicants. A heavy thing full of glossy brochures and one-pagers. “Absolutely substanceless. I’ve read over all their materials and their website and I still have no idea what they do. A lot, I guess. Everything, maybe.”
“I’m good at giving interviews,” Thekla says. She smiles wryly, then shakes her head. “Either that or I’m delusional. The hard part is getting the interview, but I always make it to the second once I get that first. Then I’m told they are going with someone with more experience. Or someone more enthusiastic. It’s a buyer’s market.”
“I had to re-learn how to tie a tie,” Justin Reice says, holding up the silver silk. He’s wearing too much cologne and his suit looks a size too big for him as if his mother bought it for him expecting him to grow into it. “I haven’t tied a tie since Prom.”
Justin is from Ann Arbor, though he studied in Beloit, Wisconsin. Before he graduated, his dream was to work at the gaming company White Wolf. It turned out that was every English major’s dream and he was one of the unfortunates that didn’t have it realized.
After Thekla and Barbara leave the room, a twenty-four-year-old project manager named Bastian Christie leads Justin away from the group. They sit in a cluster of chairs, secluded in the vastness of the hallway. The Tyrell building is a tremendous structure with glass windows from floor to ceiling, two stories up, letting in as much daylight and view of the spectacularly manicured landscape as possible.
“This is your chance to interview me,” Bastian explains. “Go ahead and ask me anything.”
This part is meant to bestow on the applicant a sense of agency, which in some proves fatal.
Between projects, this is occasionally Bastian’s duty, to offer himself as a sort of known insider to the company. “I love my job,” he says, grinning. Since he’s not on the road, visiting clients, he wears jeans and a t-shirt. He always dresses casual around applicants.
“I hate wearing formal clothes,” Bastian says. “It makes me feel like I’m trying to be something I’m not. I think most people my age feel that way.”
According to Forbes, the single most common mistake millennials make in interviews is not dressing professionally. Also, 75% of some 500 hiring managers interviewed say they’d prefer to hire someone fifty years old or older over a millennial, or someone below the age of 31. They worry that the younger generation is unprofessional and uncommitted.
“Last week, I was giving a presentation to a group of grey-haired doctors,” Bastian tells Justin. “And it occurred to me that I’m twenty-four and acting as the sole representative of a multi-billion dollar company, teaching people decades older than me how to use our software.”
“Do you ever run into people who are resentful for that?” Justin asks.
With a wave, Bastian replies, “Yeah, sometimes. But people get over it if you just act knowledgeable and confident. Come on. Let’s get some coffee.”
Bastian leads the way down the hallway to a coffee station. Dawdling a step behind, Justin is visibly sweating.
Bastian says, “This job will make you into a caffeine addict. I keep a bottle of Nodoz in my desk and my travel bag for emergencies. The first thing I bought myself when I got this job was a three hundred dollar espresso machine.”
“You’ve got to learn how to say, ‘No,’” Barbara says, tapping a pen against her desk irritably and glancing out the window. “That’s the hardest lesson I learned when I came to work at Waits and it took me a year to figure it out.”
She is between interviews. In this respite, Barbara gets coffee down the hall, pours milk into it so that she can drink it faster. In college, she studied music, a time-demanding major, and became an addict. Sometimes, she didn’t go home for a week, just cat-napped in the practice rooms on hard, polished piano benches, so ferocious was the competition. It was good preparation, she thinks.
“I really loved strings. I learned the blues guitar. Sometimes I even get to play with this band at bars still.”
A heavy young man with rings under his eyes and a smile on his face walks up to Barbara and asks if she has a moment. There’s an iPad in his hands, a stylus poised. Barbara tells him, “No.” Halfway through her coffee, she still thinks she can go home at five. After the young man walks away, Barbara rolls her eyes. “He’s new.”
“I used to work until 9 at night. A few months ago, I swore I’d never do that again.”
She drains the coffee, twists her abdomen so her back cracks loudly. “They don’t encourage it. But they don’t discourage it, either. A lot of new employees work sixty hour weeks.”
After college, Justin worked sixty hours a week at the Ann Arbor Walmart to pay back student loans. He hurt his back every few months because he was a night-stocker and the boxes he unloaded sometimes weighed as much as he did. The average student loan debt for the graduating class of 2011 in America was $26,600, a 5% increase over the previous year.
“I feel like I’ve been lied to,” Justin says. He sits at the hotel bar where Waits put him up for $220 a night, not including tax or meals. It is the most expensive and luxurious hotel room he has ever stayed in. He owes his university $80,000.
“Sure, everyone told me that an English major was a bad choice, but I have a friend with a degree in computer science and she worked for the university for two years. She still can’t find a job.
“We’re indentured servants,” he says.
He orders a High Life that isn’t covered by Waits. It’s the night after his interview and he wants to unwind.
“The company has a reputation in Ann Arbor, you know,” Justin says after finishing his first beer. “They have this program where you can take three months’ sabbatical after you’ve worked four years. I don’t know anyone who’s made it. I didn’t want to apply here, but I feel like I have to.”
There is a strict philosophy and procedure to interviews that Lars has developed. “Most applicants think it’s a purely adversarial situation. I’ve got answers I want to hear and they are trying to figure out how to give them to me. That’s not a good way to look at it. I want you to get the job you want. People work better if their expectations are met and they’re satisfied with the job.”
In a small room with bright fluorescent lights, Lars sits across the desk from Thekla. The desk is bare. He pulls out a notebook from his jacket pocket and a pen. The walls are a soothing blue and it smells like lemon cleaning supplies. Sterile. The overall effect is what Thekla later describes as, “A very nice interrogation room.”
“I’m going to give you a situation and I want you to tell me what you’d do. You’ve interviewed a marketing specialist with 20 years’ experience. These people are hard to find. She’s perfect for the job and a day after the interview she calls to say that she’s been offered another position, but she’d prefer to work with us and would like to know if we would like to make a counter offer. It’s 3:00 PM and she needs to know before the end of the day.”
“Do I have the authority to make a counter offer?” Thekla asks immediately.
Both Lars and Thekla are neutral. They look like they’re playing a game of poker. Eyes locked, Thekla takes her time and answers slowly.
“I assume the supervisor is out of the office.”
“Yes,” Lars says placidly.
“Who would I need to go to, to get approval?”
“The head of HR.”
“I go to her office and knock on the door,” Thekla says. The conversation begins to sound like a text adventure or game of D&D. Which, in a way, it is.
“She’s not there.”
Thekla nods. “Who would be the next best person to go to, then?”
“The CEO and founder, Tabatha Renzel,” Lars says.
“Have I met her before?”
“I’d go to her secretary and ask if she’s available immediately.”
“Her secretary is away and the door to Tabbi’s office is closed. You can hear discussion inside.”
“I’d knock on the door.”
Lars nods. “No answer.”
“I’d knock again.”
“I’d open the door and say, ‘I need to speak with you immediately.” Thekla sighs. The chair creeks as she leans back, her expression stony.
The interview continues. Thekla’s answers are curt. Finally, Lars says, “You don’t seem excited about this job.”
“That’s because I’m not,” Thekla replies. Lars’ expression doesn’t change.
Because she is well informed and reads widely, Thekla considers herself a cynic and pessimist. She knows she comes across as fierce, intelligent, accomplished, and distrustful. A Pew Research report in 2010 said millennials were the most open to change of any generation, and Thekla represents the darker side of this positive assessment, a deeply held belief that everything in their lives, especially in the professional realm, is transient and unreliable.
A hard scratch. Lars makes a single stroke with his pen across the notebook. After, he looks up and asks another question.
At the end of the day, after the applicants have left, Lars says, “The millennials are all hard working, intelligent, well educated, and driven. But they are very sensitive. They’re not risk takers. And they don’t like people being mean to them. I look for those who can take criticism and stay motivated. Most of them can’t handle that.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” Bastian asks Justin as he pours coffee into two Waits mugs.
Flustered for a moment, Justin lies, “No.”
“That’s good.” Bastian nods enthusiastically. “You don’t have much time for a social life with this job. You’ve just got to live and go with it. I had a girlfriend and that didn’t work out.”
Bastian is now a lead project manager. Barbara is a supervisor in Talent Acquisition. None of the ten applicants in Thekla and Justin’s cohort were hired by Waits. Thekla now lives in Santa Fe working as a freelance consultant while Justin manages at a coffee shop in Ann Arbor.
Half of Waits’ offices are still empty.