Paint Yourself a Purple Squirrel

Become a sought-out candidate to maintain your employability

by Teresa Whitacre

In recent years, economic conditions have caused organizations and job seekers alike to reevaluate fulfilling needs. Companies have been reevaluating their need for talent, and job seekers have been reevaluating their talents for filling companies’ needs.

These days, lean operations are commonplace in most organizations. Companies are being more productive with fewer resources—including people—which has become a theme in today’s organizations.

Additionally, more broadly defined responsibilities make it harder for job seekers to obtain positions. Companies are looking for more skills, depth and breadth in candidates—they’re looking for one person to cover many areas of responsibility.

When an organization cannot find the exact match, they simply do not fill the position, no matter how competent or qualified the applicants are.

Companies that aim to be more productive with fewer resources look for the "purple squirrel" candidates—the skilled, diversified and highly sought-out, yet elusive, candidates with the perfect combination of skills and experience.1

Secure that job

As a result, it’s important to become a purple squirrel to maintain your employability. But how can you go from a frightened, job-seeking squirrel to a purple, job-getting one?

Study the current market. Research positions and job descriptions in your current field. What skills, behaviors and experiences are among the long list of required qualifications? Perform a gap analysis against the qualifications list and your current skills and experiences. Additionally, benchmark against job positions to determine what qualifications you do and do not have. Determine how you can obtain the skills, experiences and qualifications the market wants but you lack. If you’re contemplating a career change, the same strategy can apply.

Anticipate the future market. What does your current field ask for now? What projected requirements are there for future opportunities? Determining how competitive you are currently is a good gauge for how competitive you will be in the future.  Try to anticipate how the field will change, grow and shrink so you can revise your skills and experiences to meet the qualification requirements of tomorrow’s opportunities.

Mentor with a purple squirrel. Multi-faceted, broadly skilled and experienced professionals are almost always engaged and employed in some opportunity.  These actively engaged professionals are often the ones companies seek out.

Find purple squirrels and learn how they got there. Did they broaden their focus from ISO 9001 to include risk management, social responsibility and trade-specific regulatory requirements? Did they marry their machinist background with a degree in computer programming, making themselves employable in two fields? Are they quality engineers who met the challenge of learning safety and lean?

For example, a divisional quality assurance (QA) supervisor who works at a company that supplies the oil and gas industry handles inspections, QA functions, safety, risk management, lean and Six Sigma, thus handling industrial engineering projects as well. Such a professional is now employable in many facets of this company and this industry.

A second opinion

For added insight, I spoke with Jamie Ross, who owns Ross LLC, a placement firm in Pittsburgh. He offered similar advice:

"To compare, if you look at multiple purple squirrels, it is likely you will find they all possess several key characteristics, in addition to excellent backgrounds and a stable employment history."

"When we conduct searches, we start with seeking out the essentials—which, in most cases, are key qualifications such as industry-specific experience, education and career levels. But what really makes candidates special are their intangible characteristics. These are the skill sets that are tough to measure or define—the ‘it’ factor."

"Because today’s candidate pool is vast, there are quite a few well-versed and experienced candidates available to employers and recruiters from which to choose. We really desire candidates who are 100% engaged in their careers and who strive to be the best they can be. They must have the right attitude to be a true fit."

"With a few exceptions, purple squirrels are also masters at communicating. They are able to communicate their experiences and desires while conducting themselves with a modest confidence that is appealing to the employer. They respect the boundaries of the interview setting but do not appear desperate."

"We like to tell our candidates that although they will receive interviews based on their résumé and qualifications, they will receive job offers based on how well their interview goes. The interview, in most cases, is focused on chemistry and the candidate’s intangible characteristics."

Many companies say they cannot find qualified candidates due to broadened job requirements. Help them solve the problem by creating the solution—become a purple squirrel.


  1. Urban Dictionary defines "purple squirrel" as, "A recruiter’s term for the elusive candidate, with exactly the right qualifications and experience, to match the client’s role. The term is synonymous with the term ‘ideal candidate.’" For more information, visit www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=purple%20squirrel.

Teresa Whitacre is a quality assurance manager in Pittsburgh and a principal in Marketech Systems. She has a bachelor’s degree in organizational management from Ashford University in Clinton, IA, as well as ASQ certifications as a quality auditor, engineer, manager and Six Sigma Green Belt. Whitacre is World Conference on Quality Improvement chair for ASQ’s Pittsburgh section, instructor for the section’s certified quality inspector refresher course and deputy regional director for ASQ Region 8. She is an ASQ fellow.

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