Mark Heckmann is the CEO and co-founder of Imagine Careers. He spoke with us about the job placement industry, the pressures of running a startup, and why Pittsburgh offers such a talented workforce.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Pittsburgh, South Hills – Whitehall. I attended Central Catholic High School Oakland. My undergrad was at Denison University in Ohio. From from there I completed my master’s at Carnegie Mellon in Public Policy and Management. It was at Carnegie Mellon where I first incubated my business idea.
Could you tell us about your company?
Imagine Careers provides an agency model – much like an athlete or musician would have an agent – to help job seekers navigate the job market with support and unbiased representation to the over 350 companies in our recruiting network.
Any candidate as young as a freshman in college and as seasoned as a mid-career professional can join our network, be provided with an agent, and have instant access to our recruiting network where we can help with your job placements or continued career development throughout your professional life.
How did you get into this field?
I previously served on the Board of Trustees at my alma mater – Denison University, a liberal arts college in Granville, Ohio.
Denison, like every university in today’s higher education market, was asking hard questions of today’s changing college landscape: as the cost of tuition continues to increase, how do universities generate a worthwhile return on investment for their students? Are we placing and matriculating students effectively into their fields of study and professional interest?
It was my impression that while a great deal of thought and resources were committed to these questions, a larger opportunity existed for someone looking to change how students develop value-added skills and position themselves for their futures while also financing their education.
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and pricing increases continue to challenge the conventional college landscape. Building a company that could handle some of the external recruitment activities on a student’s behalf – and maybe in conjunction with universities – would be a very potent mixture of competencies.
I created Student InTuition as a result, which began as a marketplace for small and medium-sized companies to source the best college talent on an adaptive basis. Those services live on within Imagine Careers, and our candidates enjoy expanded career offerings beyond their college days.
How did the company emerge?
Eric Harvey, our president and CTO, and I originally had two separate startups. My previous company, Student InTuition, was about a year old when we decided to merge. Eric’s previous company, YourTalentAgents.com, had been operational for about two years.
My startup was focused on finding adaptive ways to bring university talent to market without relying on the traditional, university-sanctioned work arrangements (internships, externships, etc).
Meanwhile, Eric was already building the innovative, talent-facing recruitment model that we currently offer to our candidates today. Employers were looking for more effective ways to source talent, and Eric had earned their trust by filling that needs.
On the job-seeker side, my startup model was helping candidates feel supported, informed, and properly exposed to high-quality, match-based job listings.
It made sense for us to merge. His model benefits from a pipeline of college student talent and my model benefits from having a placement conduit for our college candidates who are well into their professional lives.
How do you differ from the traditional hiring process?
Imagine Careers, first and foremost, represents talent – the job seeker.
We are unlike all third party recruitment agencies, as well as in-house recruiters, who are paid to represent the interests of the company hiring them. That means that if a recruiter is asked to fill a job on behalf of a company, they will do their best to fill it no matter the quality of the candidate (otherwise, they don’t get paid).
Imagine Careers reverses this process by onboarding the best talent we can find – from college students to mid-career professionals – and representing their needs first. We manage indirect relationships with companies through third-party recruiters. They can look at our high quality pool of talent when placements open up, but we aren’t forced to fill positions.
We do not allow those third parties to solicit our candidates with jobs that are not complementary with their interests. We only bring the best listings to our candidates based on their personal preferences.
Finally, we are able to do full-time, part-time and project-based engagements with any of our candidates and companies.
What advice can you give someone who is looking for the right job?
I would really think critically about what can a candidate can do inside the comforts of their home, during weekends or off-hours that positions them better for their long-term career interests.
For example, we recently had a candidate that wanted to get into the financial industry. He was a very strong candidate to begin with, and during an informational interview he found out that this particular employer uses a software package to which he had no previous exposure. At the conclusion of the interview, he spent two days learning that software online in his freetime through online tutorials, Youtube videos, etc. When the company called him back to schedule another meeting, he mentioned he had an apprentice-level understanding with that software now.
We help our candidates to curate that type of skill-building remotely so that they can demonstrate to employers a responsive nature and a serious attitude about being a productive employee. So much content is freely or cheaply available on the internet that anyone can refine a skill and make them more attractive as a candidate.
What’s in store for the future of Imagine Careers?
Provided we secure funding, we expect to be in 15 cities by year five. We’re targeting cities with strong staffing partnership opportunities as well as strong university networks. There’s a lot of talent that is underutilized or missing in smaller cities throughout the country, so there is no immediate rush to get to bigger cities right away.
We definitely have high aspirations for the number of people that can benefit from our offerings. There’s definitely an opportunity to reach high school students before they commit money to an education that may or may not serve them and their interests.
We are also building a robust suite of online tools that can inform your job search and career development in value-added ways.
How does running a company compare to working for one?
It’s not for the faint of heart, that I can say for sure. There’s certainly a lot of stress involved with being responsible for the well-being of an entire staff – we have 17 employees right now.
That being said, there is something empowering about being able to create a mission-driven corporate culture and to be able to create an instant, demonstrable impact in an industry that is ripe for innovation.
What makes Pittsburgh a great place for your company?
Pittsburgh is easily one of the premier higher education capitals in the country. We have incredibly strong technology-based industries and talent here, and yet a manufacturing and industrial legacy that is seeing rejuvenation.
This is a place where technology hires could include welders and technicians just as easily as they could include programmers and software engineers.
All in all, Pittsburgh is a great blend of talent and opportunity. It is a city that has the educational chops to support the diversity of talent our regional companies are demanding.