Job titling is often overlooked as a strategic element of the hiring process (as evidenced by ubiquitous job title inflation). Many companies use the same job titles internally (i.e., in human resources documents) as they do externally (i.e., in job posts). This despite the fact that job titles serve an entirely different purpose outside the company than they do inside it. Internally, a job title may serve as a mechanism for leveling up, for example. Externally in a job post, it serves, first and foremost, as a keyword for searches on Internet Job Boards.
In our analysis, we saw an overall increase in advertisements for jobs in Information Technology (IT) Support, Product Management, and Mobile Development between 2019 and 2021. We cover this in Section 1 of our report. We also saw a continued trend of companies including internal elements (e.g., letters or numbers) in external job titles.
For this report, we collected job listing data directly from over 10,000 companies for the years 2019, 2020, and 2021. Looking solely at U.S.-based technology jobs, we analyzed the data for trends. Focusing on individual job types, we found that trends in titles, skills, and qualifications were intricately linked to job type.
→ The sizable growth in 2021 of advertised Junior jobs (typically requiring fewer than four years of experience) and Mid-level jobs (typically requiring between four and 10 years of experience) was accompanied by increasingly inflated job titles. About 25% of jobs previously classified as Junior were classified as Senior (typically requiring 10+ years of experience). Similarly, Junior jobs with the word ‘Lead’ doubled.
→ Title inflation also took root in Mid-level jobs. We saw a 20% increase in the prevalence of the word ‘Senior’ and a 25% increase in the word ‘Staff’ in these jobs. Simultaneously, we saw a significant increase of Staff Engineer jobs at Startups (Privately Held, smaller but backed by funding and rapidly growing) and Unicorns (Privately Held with a $1 billion evaluation). These were historically prevalent among the FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) and Big Tech companies (the largest technology-focused U.S.-based companies). Principal Engineer jobs also increased significantly at Startups, as these smaller organizations attempted to keep up with their larger counterparts.
→ It’s worth noting that, although job title inflation in this labor market is understandable, it can often be counterproductive. Inflated job titles can deter qualified potential applicants and, worse, significantly decrease the diversity of applicant pools.
→ In 2021, jobs that had numerical levels in the title to denote seniority (e.g., Engineer III) decreased, although the practice continued at some larger organizations. Driving the decrease were older organizations that had long used numerical levels modernizing their job postings. (It’s important to note that numerical levels often confuse potential applicants and result in poor job post performance on search engines.) The decrease also came from declining representation of Fortune 500 companies in the overall tech hiring market.
In tight talent markets, we see a tendency of hiring teams to inflate titles. The thinking is that inflated titles may attract a more qualified candidate pool or make the job more attractive to job seekers. While this may be valid during the offer negotiation process, it’s often counter-productive in the job search process.
Title inflation reduces the visibility of the job, and impacts both candidate quality and diversity at the top of the funnel. The word ‘Senior’ in Financial Analyst titles, for example, can deter qualified job seekers from applying even when they match the requirements in the job posting.
When we looked at all tech jobs between 2019 and 2021, we saw an increase in title inflation for Junior jobs and a corresponding decrease in ‘Junior’ and ‘Associate’ job titles.
Titles like Staff Engineer, Distinguished Engineer, and Principal Engineer have historically been most prevalent in Traditional Big Tech companies (well-established large companies). In 2019, the proportion of Senior jobs with these titles was generally highest among Traditional Big Tech companies.
However, 2021 saw two interesting trends: New tech companies (FAANG) have significantly increased the number of Staff Engineer job postings. In contrast, at Big Tech companies, Staff Engineer jobs have remained largely stable. Principal Engineers have seen some growth in tech companies. This is in contrast to non-Tech companies where these roles have remained stable.
By company type, Startups and Unicorns saw significant increases in Staff Engineer job postings. They also saw lesser increases (but increases nonetheless) of Principal Engineer jobs. It’s possible these increases are the result of hiring teams using job titles to lure talent away from Traditional Big Tech and FAANG companies. (Time will tell if this strategy is successful.)
Startups led the way when it came to adding jobs with the title of Principal Engineer.
In our analysis, we saw an overall increase in listings for Entry-level jobs (not typically requiring prior work experience) between 2019 and 2021.
When we looked more closely at these Entry-level jobs, we observed an increase (ranging from 15% to 50%) of titles using relevant keywords to define them as Entry-level (e.g., ‘New Grad’ or ‘Associate’). In other words, titles for Entry-level jobs were better aligned with their accompanying job descriptions.
One major trend our analysis revealed was a decrease in numbered job titles (e.g., Software Engineer III or Software Engineer IV) between 2019 and 2021. In their place we found an increase in references to seniority levels.
We found a 20% to 40% decrease in titles for Junior, Mid-level, and Senior jobs that included a numerical suffix (e.g., II, III, IV, V, and VI).
Meanwhile, we found increases in listings that included a reference to seniority level in the job title.
Software engineering jobs with ‘Senior’ in their title typically map to levels III or IV. Software engineering jobs with ‘Staff’ or ‘Lead’ in their title typically map to levels IV and above.
During our analysis, we speculated on possible causes of the shift away from titles with numbers to titles with seniority words. Was it simply companies changing the way they title and level jobs or maybe a result of less hiring at companies that use numbered titles? In the end, it was a combination of the two.
Some companies changed the way they titled their jobs, shifting from numbers to words. These included Fortune 500 companies like Boeing, Verizon, and AT&T. Others like Walmart, Oracle, and Wells Fargo simply saw a decline in tech hiring needs.
At the same time, we also saw a small group of companies revive the use of numerical levels between 2019 and 2021. These included Bank of America, PayPal, and Uber.
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