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Job Listings: What They Really Mean

7 want-ad terms you need to know to get that dream offer

En español | Can you deliver "sustainable disruptive value?" Are you an "active external learner who is comfortable influencing at all levels?"

See also: 5 businesses you can start.

Job seekers often encounter inscrutable phrases like those in help-wanted ads. It's almost as if recruiters are using a code that they believe attracts applications only from people who understand it.

The truth is, many companies are simply very bad at writing job descriptions, says Kathy Simmons, CEO of Netshare, a San Francisco-area online career services company for senior executives. The descriptions are often crafted by committee, with the hiring manager, human resource chief and line workers all adding favorite words and phrases to what becomes a mixing bowl of hiring buzzwords.

Still, if you're looking for a job, it pays to know what recruiters are trying to get at with their opaque language. Below is a list of seven terms found in actual job listings, decoded and explained.

AARP writer Dan Kulpinsky decodes jargon phrases in a typical want ad for job seekers

Photo by Getty Images

Do you know how to decode the jargon in a want ad?

1. "Required skills" and "preferred skills"

Required skills are what you must have, the price of admission. If you don't have these, don't bother to apply. Preferred skills are extras that companies have traditionally used as the tiebreaker to decide between two comparable candidates.

In the current market, there is so often such a huge oversupply of applicants for each job that many companies feel "they can look for someone who walks on water," Simmons says. So they bulk up the list of preferred skills.

Her favorite one recently asked for people with 10 years of experience in advertising on mobile devices — even though that market didn't exist 10 years ago.

2. "Must be willing to work flexible hours"

This phrase can have different meanings. It may signal that you shouldn't count on working 40 hours a week, or that you should be willing to work some overtime.

Or it could mean that some of the regular work hours will fall outside a normal 9-5 schedule. Many jobs in hotels and hospitals have these kinds of hours to accommodate different schedules, says Michele St.Laurent, recruiting practice manager at Insight Performance Inc., a human resources consulting firm in the Boston area.

3. "Entrepreneurial spirit"

This is a favorite in today's hiring world. It's an indication that the company is looking for someone who doesn't wait around for instructions, is comfortable with a high level of risk and is eager for hands-on work, even without a support staff. Definitely not a corporate type.

This might also imply a greater time commitment. "An entrepreneurial company probably works long hours," says Bill Peppler, managing partner at Kavaliro, a national staffing agency. "It's more of a lifestyle, not just a job. You're always on the clock, you never know when you'll meet opportunity."

4. "Effective at influencing at all levels"

This could mean you'll need to be good at winning over people who outrank you in the organization and people who are below you. Expect that office politics will be a big part of this job.

HR people sometimes use another bit of favorite jargon to define this one, "manage up" and "manage down."

5. "An active external learner"

"External" tends to mean outside the specific duties of the job and workplace, such as at seminars, trade shows or a local college. It can be particularly important for job hunters age 50 and over to demonstrate that they're "active learners," able to acquire new skills and not just continue to do things the old way.

6. "Deliver sustainable disruptive value"

Many companies like to describe their technology as disruptive — it's so new and innovative that it disrupts the market, the established way of doing things. So they're of course looking for people who like to overturn the old ways. "Sustainable," another favorite word in HR circles, means that the "value" will stick around.

7. "5 years progressive experience in a significant leadership position"

"Progressive" in this context has nothing to do with political views, but implies a career that's been smoothly trending upward.

Notice that the seniority of the advertised position is not specified. Simmons interprets it as meaning someone at a level to have profit-and-loss responsibility for a department. Leslie Hawkins, human resources director at Realty in Motion, a company in Bellevue, Wash., suggests that the company is looking for someone who's been a vice president or who has run a division, as opposed to a small team of five people.

For better or worse, you need to understand these terms and take them seriously when you apply. Lots of reputable companies use them.

Then there's job posting language that companies might have been better off leaving out, because they send up red flags for applicants: stay away.

Take the phrase 'Must be comfortable with ambiguity,'" Simmons says. "It can suggest the company really doesn't know what it's doing."

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