Monday, November 21, 2011

Some Job-Hunting Tips

Getting a job these days is harder to do, but not impossible.

At one point in my career, I toyed with the idea of closing up my shop and going back to work for a law firm.   I was just overwhelmed by the paperwork aspect of it, and thought that maybe, working at a firm might be less stressful.  I spent a few months interviewing with about 30 firms in the DC area, and it was an interesting exercise.  I did end up going to work for one firm, but quickly realized what a mistake it was.  I hung out my shingle again and never looked  back.

But it was an instructive experience from several aspects.  I learned that yes, all lawyers are really assholes (present company included) and that law firms suck, as a place to get ahead.  And I also learned about interviewing.  I did well on some interviews and really screwed up others.  It was an educational experience, to say the least.

This is what I have learned over the last 30 years of interviewing for jobs - and interviewing people who are looking for jobs:

1.  Resume:  Resumes are a pain-in-the-ass to prepare.  No one likes to toot their own horn and we often feel awkward writing these.  But it ain't hard to do, if you keep a few things in mind.

  • One Page or Two?  Some folks say a resume should always be one page.  I disagree, in part.  If you are young and just starting out, one page is a good idea.  Otherwise, it looks padded.  But if you have years of experience and need the room, use the paper - it looks impressive. Leaving out stuff to be brief can backfire.
  •  Reverse Chronlogical Order:  Put your most recent work experience first, then work backwards, with education at the end.  Most people put education first, or worse yet, their earliest work experiences.  People want to know your latest skill set first.
  •  Avoid those glurgy phrases and headings.  Things like "personal goals" ("to find an opportunity for personal and professional advancement") are just padding and fluff.  Your goal is to get a job - and they know that.  So just leave that crap out.
  • Emphasize WORK experience - things you actually did.  Avoid general phrases and blandishments.   Did you design a circuit?  Arrange a display?  Build a car?  What?  Use specific verbs, and not things like "supervised" or "oversaw" or "was tasked with" and that kind of "professional sounding" crap.
  •  Don't go overboard:  Unless you are a graphic artist, there is no need to go overboard with fancy handmade paper, exotic inks and fonts, glossy photos (unless you are an actor), or the like.  A resume that looks over-produced can be a turn-off, particularly if the content doesn't live up to the hype.
  •  Spell-check:  And spell-check again.  A typo in your cover letter or resume is deadly. Once you have the job, typos might be excused.  But not in the resume and cover letter.

2.  Interview:  Getting an interview is hard these days.  If you are granted an interview, they are serious about hiring you, so treat it seriously - but don't panic.  People sense nervousness and "flop sweat".  You have to take it seriously, without taking it seriously.  The rest of your life and your value as a human being does not rest with one interview!

  • Thank the Interviewer for the interview.  Express that you realize their time is important.  You'd be surprised how many people act like a job interview is a God-given right.
  • Answer questions simply and directly.  Let the interviewer talk.  Yakking on and on never helps. 
  • Emphasize your work experience - again, they are looking for a profit center, not some loss-leader.
  •  Never ask about pay, benefits, vacation time, or whatever.  You'd be surprised how many people hijack an interview with such talk.  You haven't been hired, yet!  It is too soon to ask about maternity leave benefits.  And chances are, the benefits and pay you will get are "what everyone else is offering these days".  Why bother asking?
  •  Wear nice clothes, no piercing , no six-inch finger nails, no visible tattoos, spiked hair, etc. - unless you are applying for some sort of arty job, or a position with the freak show in the circus.  Maybe they have casual Fridays, but this is no time to show off your t-shirt collection.

3.  Follow-Up letter or phone call:  It never hurts to send a follow-up letter after an interview.  This is a good opportunity to show you know how to type, how to write a letter, and how business etiquette works.  It is also a good chance to follow-up on questions asked during an interview that you did not answer completely, or even repair damage done!

You can say something like, "You asked me during the interview about my computer skills, and I didn't elaborate on that enough..."

Or perhaps something like, "I'm sorry if I seemed disoriented during the interview, but I had just returned from oral surgery at the Dentist and was still under anesthesia."

Well, maybe not.

Should you use e-mail in this day and age?  Perhaps.  But I am inclined to think that a letter is more special and also gets attention.  e-mails can be deleted with the click of a key.  A letter is a tangible thing, and can be passed around.

Again, no typos!

4.  Use a Shotgun:  It goes without saying that you should apply everywhere you feel you are qualified, all at once.  But this does NOT mean photocopying a generic resume and cover letter and mailing it out en masse.  Resumes that are not relevant to the company's business, or are addressed in a generic letter, are just tossed like the junk mail they are.  Why bother wasting a stamp?

But on the other hand, you should not use a rifle, either.  Sending out one resume a day or week to a targeted company is sure to frustrate you and disappoint you, when you don't get that job.  I've seen people target one company as their "dream job" and then are crushed when it turns out that they just aren't hiring.

Most companies hire when they need to hire - not on some idiotic recruiting schedule.  So if your resume lands on someone's desk the same day an employee quits (or is fired) you may end up getting that job - just because of chance timing.

This also means that if you are turned down for a job, it never hurts to ask again, later.  You might send a resume to XYZ Corp, and never hear from them.  Six months later, they are hiring, and if you send your resume in again, it might get looked at this time.

And in that regard, most companies never "keep your resume on file" except in the circular file.  They assume, rightly, that in six months or so, you will have moved on.  Going through files of old resumes is hardly an effective way to look for qualified job applicants - in most cases they are unavailable.

5.  Forget Ads:  Employment ads,, online listings, etc. are often not very useful.  Most job openings are never advertised, for several reasons.  First, they may be filled internally or by referral.  Second, they are usually filled so fast that there is no time to list them in the paper.  Third, the ones listed in the paper are usually odious jobs or jobs that do not pay well or where the employer is a chronic under-payer.   Or alternatively, they list jobs with credential requirements so strict that no one qualifies.   Read the employment section in the paper sometime.  See any good jobs in there?  Of course not!

This is not to say you shouldn't look at such ads.  But don't think of ads or internet listings as the end-all of a job hunt.  It is not even a beginning.  Websites like might sound appealing, but are about as useful as Internet Dating Services.

6.  Research the Company:  It pays to know something about a company you are sending a resume to, particularly if you get an interview.  Forget about putting, "I have always dreamed of working for XYZ company since I was a child" in your cover letter.  It is too generic and no one will believe it, anyway.

However, it pays to understand who you should be addressing the letter to.  "Employment Department" or "Human Resources Director" isn't going to cut it.   These folks have names, you know, and oftentimes they are on the website or can be found out through a phone call (which is a good chance to talk to a secretary or someone who will later open your letter).

So address the letter to the person who will read it.  Like the resume, the cover letter should be brief and to the point, preferably one page, unless you really have something to say.

If you do get an interview, get cracking on research.  Again, the Internet makes this a lot easier, as you can go online and see their latest products and learn who's who in the company.   The more you know and the more knowledgeable you seem (without sounding like a smart-ass) the better off you will be.

It also allows you the opportunity to figure out whether you want to work for this company or not.  However desperate you may be for a job, there are some jobs not worth having!

7.  Stick With It:  If your job hunt isn't going well, step back and re-read your resume and re-think your strategy.  Maybe you need to give it more time.  Maybe you need to think about "Plan B" and start applying for jobs in areas you hadn't thought of before.

The job hunt process is fairly predictable and follows a pretty set curve.  When people are first in the job market, either entering the market for the first time, or because they are unemployed, they tend to have high expectations, in terms of salary requirements and job position and title.

Over time, you may start to realize that you are not the hot shit you thought you were, and are willing to compromise more on pay and benefits, as well as job title and description.   This all depends on your work experience and skills, as well as whether your particular skills are in demand or not.   And in this regard, you have to be brutally honest with yourself.

* * *

Over the years, I must have interviewed at 40-50 places or more.   And over the years, I've had maybe a dozen or more jobs.  I found I was able to get jobs, even during times when unemployment was high (higher than today!) and when there were many other applicants, some who seemed more qualified than myself.

It is possible to get a job - maybe not the job you wanted or think you deserve.  But it can be done.  And in the 45 years I have been working, I can't count very many days when I have been unemployed or in want of work.