Typical problem areas: Working around hurdles

Gaps in your work history

Most accomplished people have been out of work at one time or another, and one out of every five people in the workforce experiences some period of unemployment each year. One way of downplaying gaps in your work history is by documenting it by years, that is, writing “19XX to Present” when referring to your most recent job. This technique makes it look as if you are still employed. But, if you use this trick, realize that it puts you in an uncomfortable position right off the bat. One of the first things you will have to do in an interview is explain that this is not actually the case.

If, however, you have a legitimate reason for major gaps, such as going to school or having a child, tell the interviewer in a matter-of-fact tone. You should certainly not apologize for it. You should add details about any activity you did during that period, which would strengthen your qualifications for the job at hand. This tactic serves to reinforce the idea that you are not out-of-touch with the current workplace or with what the employer needs. Instead, you have simply chosen not to actively practice your skills for a while.

Having been “fired”

Many people get “fired,” and it often hurts their chances of getting some jobs because employers are afraid that such people will also be a problem for them. Of course, if you were fired for just cause, you need to learn from the experience and either change or consider another career.

In most cases, people harm their own chances of finding a job more than being fired requires. This is because people don’t know how to explain their own situation, so they don’t do well in interviews. Too often, they leave a potential employer wondering just what happened previously. Without further knowledge, employers assume the worst. Leaving an employer with the impression that you are hiding something is the worst thing you can do in an interview.

Employers will not generally hire someone unless and/or until they know why he or she left his or her last job. They want to make sure that that person will not be a problem in their office. Thus, if you have lost a job, the best policy is to tell the truth. Avoid saying negative things about your previous employer, and get used to putting a positive spin on what happened.

If you are NOT a big problem, say so — and explain how you are especially qualified to do the things that this job requires. In short, tell the truth about what happened in an objective way, and then begin presenting the skills you have to do the job now.

Too old”

It’s true: Older workers — particularly those over 50 — have a harder time finding new jobs in the labour market. Anyone who is over 50 and has looked for a job realizes that age can work against him or her.

There are some commonsense reasons why older workers have a more difficult time finding a new job. For many, they had not kept up with the latest technologies, and their skills are no longer in demand. Younger workers often receive better training and win jobs over older workers who lack such extensive training.

While most people do not discuss them, there are two other reasons why a third of older workers end up in worse jobs than the ones they had. The reasons have to do with money and assumptions about being “overqualified.” People with more experience tend to be paid more. And, as anyone who has been in the labour market recently knows, the competition for higher-paying jobs is intense. The data indicate that the more you make, the longer your job search was.

When deciding on whom to hire, most employers will try to avoid hiring someone who was paid more in his or her previous position. Why? Because they fear that the person earning less that he or she is used to will be unhappy and will eventually leave.

This is one reason why employers will hire a person with less experience — they figure that he or she will be more satisfied with his or her pay. Compounding this is the fact that many of the jobs created in the last ten years have been in smaller companies that simply cannot pay as much as established firms.

Here are some things that older job seekers should do:

  1. Realize that “older” workers who know what they are doing run many of the successful small businesses.
    Experienced workers have started businesses and consultancies in droves over the past few years. If you’re not ready to start your own business, put your experience to work by approaching larger or smaller businesses and telling them how you can help their bottom line.
  2. Be specific.
    If you know how to develop product, manage, sell, or make other significant contributions, go to the places that need your skills and tell the people in charge what you can do. If you can convince them you can help generate more money than you cost, they might very well create a position for you. And, be sure to present your substantial experience and good work history as an advantage.
  3. Talk longevity.
    Understand you will probably need to be trained, and that employers want to know you’ll be around for a substantial period of time. Considering the amount of turnover in the labor force, the fact that you intend to stay in one position for more than five years will be a positive thing. You might also stress that you have no small children to be concerned about, and that you do not plan to move any time soon. Your stability is a positive, but don’t make it seem like stasis or a dislike of learning.
  4. Avoid sounding too old.
    To avoid sounding too old, mention something topical in your interview (e.g., the fact that you just purchased a notebook computer, prefer PCs over Apples, would welcome the chance to operate in a self-directed team situation, enjoy collaborating with your co-workers, or have just enrolled in a technology course related to the job). Your background research should reveal a host of ways to plug your up-to-date knowledge and current worthiness.

Too young”

Young people need to present their youth as an asset rather than a liability. Perhaps you are willing to work for less money, accept less desirable tasks, work longer or less convenient hours, or do other things that a more experience worker might not. If so, say so during the interview. Emphasize the time and dedication you put into school projects and the activities you gave up to reach your goals. Above all, conduct yourself with maturity and show some genuine enthusiasm; that way, you’ll leave the interviewer with the impression that you need a chance, not a guidance counselor.

If you are turned down in favour of a more experienced worker, don’t despair. Keep hammering away at your particular skills, your trainability and your available years of dedication. Eventually, some employer will be happy to snag you.

Overqualified/Too much experience

It doesn’t seem to make sense that you could have too much experience, but some employers may think so. They might be concerned that you will not be satisfied with the job currently available and that, after a short while, you will leave for a better one. So, what such employers really need is some assurance of why this would not be the case for you. If, in fact, you are looking for a job with higher pay — and if you communicate this in some way during the interview — it is quite likely that the company will not offer you a job at all.

After a period of unemployment, most people become more willing to settle for less than they sought in the first place. If you are willing to accept jobs where you may be defined as “overqualified,” consider not including some of your educational and/or work-related credentials on your Résumé. In the interview, be prepared to explain why you do want this particular job and how your wealth of experience is a positive rather than a negative or potential liability.

Above all, go out of your way to assure the interviewer that you are not a gypsy. Maintain high enthusiasm for the organization’s future, and articulate ways you could grow in this position. For example, suggest how you could assist other departments, solve long-term problems, and build profit. Your goal is to raise your desirability to the point where the organization is willing to allocate extra funds in an effort to secure you.

New graduate/Not enough experience

Sure it is difficult to find a position with a skinny Résumé, but a well-rounded one is not guaranteed to magically unlock doors, either.

Remember that small employers are where the action is. Today, small-to mid-sized companies tend to be the most active employers. For your part, companies outside the FORTUNE 500 can be more open to letting you take on new projects and branch out in new directions. 

Students are recognizing that they must take control of their careers and make their own decisions. More than 83% of new graduates cite their own interests and skills as the major influence on their career choice. Other more traditional influences — family pressure, anticipated salary, and dumb luck — are less likely than even to come into play in career decisions. When you interview for a position that matches your personality and talents, your natural enthusiasm for that job goes a long way in impressing interviewers.

Employers have more incentive to train because, now, the young labour force is much smaller than it was during the Baby Boomer years. Computer literacy is the key, and young people are more computer savvy than their elders are. 

If you fall into the “not enough experience” category, emphasize your adaptive skills (your personality traits and personal characteristics that can be employed in the workplace). And, don’t overlook experience that is acceptable for a Résumé: volunteer work, family responsibilities, education, training, or anything else that you could present as legitimate activities in support of your ability to do the work you feel you can do. 

Finally, consider expressing a willingness to accept laborious or less desirable working conditions as one way to break into a field and gain experience. For example, indicating that you are willing to work weekends and evenings, are able to travel or can relocate may appeal to an employer and open up some career possibilities for you.

Recent graduate

If you have recently graduated, you are probably competing against those with similar levels of education and more work experience. If you don’t have a lot of experience related to the job you want, you will obviously want to emphasize your recent education or training. This might include specific mention of courses you took and activities in which you engaged that most directly pertain to the job you now seek.

New graduates need to look at their schoolwork as the equivalent of work experience. Indeed, it is work insofar as it required self-discipline, task completion and a variety of other activities similar to those required in many jobs. You also may have learned a variety of skills that are directly related to the job you want. You should present these during the interview in the same way that you would detail work experience.

If possible, you should also underscore the fact that you are very familiar with the latest trends and/or techniques in your field, and that you can apply them in your work presently. And, since you are experienced at studying and learning new things, you will be better able to learn quickly “on the job.”

No degree/Too little education

If you want a job, which is typically filled by someone with more education, you must emphasize the experience and skills you have to do the job. You also need to provide assurance that your lack of an advanced degree will not prove a hindrance to your job performance. You can simply avoid mentioning that you have less education than is usually required.

This is not to say that you should misrepresent yourself by overstating your qualifications or claiming a degree you do not have. Such actions would result in your being fired, and is clearly not a good idea.

Criminal record

It should be obvious that your Résumé should not include negative things about yourself. So, if you have ever been “in trouble” with the law, you would certainly not mention it there. New laws even limit an employer from including, on an application, such general questions as “Have you ever been arrested?” and limit formal inquiries to “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

Since Canadians are innocent until proven guilty, employers are no longer allowed to consider an arrest record in a hiring decision. Being arrested and being guilty are two different things. Arrests for minor infractions are not supposed to be considered in a hiring decision. A conviction is, however, a different matter. Such crimes are more serious and current employment laws do allow an employer to ask for and get this information — and use it to make certain hiring decisions. Fro example, few employers would hire an accountant who had been convicted of stealing money from a previous employer. Certain types of arrest records, such as those for child molesting, are allowed to be considered by an employer as he or she decides whom to hire. For example, employers would not place a person with this kind of record in charge of children’s programs.

If you have an arrest or conviction record that an employer has a legal right to inquire about, you should avoid looking for jobs where your record would be a big negative. As always, you should emphasize what you can do rather than what you cannot do. If you choose your career direction wisely, and make a convincing argument that you can do the job well, many employers will ultimately overlook your past. As you prove yourself ands gain good work experience, your previous criminal history becomes less important.