8 signs your job search strategy needs help

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If you’re having trouble finding a job, it might simply be the reality of a tough job market — but it might signify that the problem is in how you’re approaching employers. Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about signs that it might be time to take a fresh look at how you’re approaching your job search — from getting first interviews but no call-backs, to not getting any takers when you ask for networking help, and more.

You can read it here.

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    7 out of 8 for me. I am not going to trust friends or colleagues to tell me accurately what HR departments and/or hiring managers want to hear or how to present my story in the best manner.

    I’d like to hire an HR department to work for me. Is there a list of people who will help me?

  2. Chaucer

    Alison, great list, as always. Networking, though, has been a struggle for me and I am wondering if you have an suggestions about my scenario (graduated from college about two years ago.)

    My Alma Mater (which, to be honest, is kind of crappy when it comes to helping students and alums with job searching,) hosts these luncheons for other alumni. They will have food, a presentation and a head coach from our sports teams as a keynote speaker. I feel awkward there because I get this impression that the majority of alums who are there are not interested in me because I don’t have anything to offer (I am slogging along in retail at the moment.) Actually, this is the impression I get from most networking events and mixers I have been to. I have stopped going to these because I feel like they don’t help me and leave me 50 dollars lighter.

    My other obstacle is when I find employers that I am interested in working for and talk to people from those employers, or make connections, they only refer me to the positions they have on their careers page. In rare cases, like if I meet them at a career fair hosted by my Alma Mater, they will tell me not only to apply but to also e-mail them as well. I have done this each time to little effect. I try to tell them that the majority of jobs available are unlisted, but they tell me that pointing me to the open positions on the career page of their website is the best they can do.

    What suggestions do you have for conquering those two obstacles?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Well, you don’t want to tell someone who’s pointing you to their careers page that the majority of jobs are unlisted. If they’re pointing you to their careers page, that’s because that’s all they have for you. Realizing that some jobs are unlisted is more background info for you, not an argument you should be making with the people you’re talking to!

      I would focus on making sure your resume and cover letter are as strong as possible … and if you think they already are, it’s worth revisiting them again anyway. I often hear from people who say that and then I look at their materials and discover that they’re generic!

    2. Ivy

      I’m pretty much in the same boat as you, but I’ve had quiet a bit more success in terms of networking, so maybe I could help?

      I think you might have the wrong mentality going into these networking events. I like to think of it more as going there to meet people, rather than with the explicit reason of getting a job. I’ve talked with several people on the other side of things (the employers at these events), and they tell me that there are two types of people you don’t want to be: 1) the overly shy and timid person and 2) the far worse, overly pushy person. This: “I try to tell them that the majority of jobs available are unlisted”, makes me think you might be #2. I’m sure the employers are aware that most jobs aren’t listed, but it’s overly insistent of you to try to get these jobs out of them. It’s almost painfully obvious that you’re only talking to them to get a job. Imagine being them, trying to hold a polite conversation while the the other person only wants to get a job out of you. Try actually making the effort to get to know the person. Ask them about their career path, their industry, what they actually do, etc. Ask them out for coffee to get to know more about what they do, and mean it. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll make stronger contacts, which may actually lead to some of these secret jobs ;P

      1. Ivy

        Also, most people don’t have a lot to offer at our stage. Most are working in retail, so don’t let that get you down. Again this goes back to the whole mentality thing. Don’t think of it as a “job hunting” experience, think of it as a “getting to know people” experience.

        Also, I can’t believe they charge you $50. Most networking events are free at my Alma Mater (or cost $15 at the most if they’re organized by clubs i.e., marketing club). Feels weird to say “Alma Mater”; we don’t say that in Canada. :P

    3. Eric

      “I try to tell them that the majority of jobs available are unlisted,”
      I might be reading too much into this one statement, but it sounds like you are trying to tell a potential employer what jobs they have open. If you are, that may come off as overly pushy and inappropriate. True or not, trying to convince someone that you know more about their hiring process than they do is a bad idea.

      I’ve always thought that coming out of a networking event with a specific job to apply for and in inside contact to follow up with via e-mail is a great place to be. If you don’t get anything from the first job, and you see something else posted that you think you are qualified for, you could always try e-mailing them that you are applying for it.

    4. GainfullyEmployed

      I think you’re approaching both of these wrong, and since I’m probably in a similar position to people you’re approaching, here are my thoughts.

      I try to tell them that the majority of jobs available are unlisted, but they tell me that pointing me to the open positions on the career page of their website is the best they can do.

      It sounds like you’re being too forward with people that you just met one time. If these are people you are meeting randomly, they don’t owe you anything and it’s unlikely that they have a direct connection to the job that you’re looking for. You may not be being specific enough about what type of job you’re looking for, so they don’t even know who to point you to.

      If you’re advising people who work IN the companies you’re scouting about hidden jobs in their companies, you probably sound a little offbase. Yes, I know there’s always room for a Highly Recognizable Chocolate Teapot Expert if such a person happens to be available and approaches us, and yes, there might be a hidden opening for the top executive’s niece, but otherwise postings for entry-level jobs on our own website really are what’s open. As for career fairs, the employee representatives are usually HR recruiters or recent grads, who are not going to be able to hire you directly. They pass on your resume to hiring managers. If you don’t have a compelling resume or story about why you are a great fit, they can’t force the hiring manager to be interested. You also have to at least make a minimum case to get your resume passed on. If they don’t like you at least a little, you’ll get round-filed.

      I suggest that when you meet people, you are very clear about your skills, experience, and education and how that fits with specific jobs you are looking for. People probably are not interested you if your attitude is that you have nothing to offer. YOU have to find a way to make your retail experience interesting to them. This means you have to know what you want to do in the corporate world & figure out a pitch that translates your retail experience into skills needed for your prospective job.

      I’d also stop being so direct about jobs with new people. Try to make genuine connections with people the first time you meet them instead. Target people in the industry you’re most interested in. Ask them if they’d be willing to talk with you more about their industry & look at it just as a learning experience. Once you have a had a few email, phone, or over-coffee conversations with someone, you’ll know more about who the right people in the right departments are for you to connect with, and you can then tell your new connection to keep their ears open if they hear about XYZ position or ask to refer you to others in the right departments/positions to see if you can set up more informational interviews. If you actually have a relationship with someone, they might do more than just refer you to their career page, but otherwise you are asking too much from strangers.

      Finally, just as a sidenote, you might be surprised how far-removed many people are from what you are looking for. I work for a major company in my industry at a headquarters location, but I only work directly with about 20 people. You’re a stranger asking to be referred to people in my company who are strangers to me. I might know the right name, but I probably don’t have a strong enough relationship with you or the hiring manager to really make anything happen.

      1. Chaucer

        Thank you so much for the advice. As to telling people I want to connect with “The majority of jobs are unlisted,” I have unfortunately used once, and it’s one of those things that in hindsight even I know was really stupid, but I spoke that more out of pure frustration than anything else. It happened at one career fair through my University (the third I have been too,) and that was just a bad day that I hope not to repeat again. Outside of that, I have never said that to another employer, even if all they can offer me is what’s on their careers page. I did meet someone at one of the luncheons I mentioned who was in a high position for the field I am interested in, but he is currently selling MLM things and when we met for coffee was more interested in trying to get me to buy his product and join his team than helping me get into his previous field.

        Unfortunately, the attitude of “retail doesn’t give me anything to offer,” didn’t stem from myself, it came from quite a few employers telling me that directly when I tried reaching out to them. One of them went so far as to inform me that, “work that teenagers can do doesn’t count.” I know I have skills to offer, I know that in addition to my degree I have work experience while I was studying that can translate to an entry-level position. The problem is that in my city, the majority of job listings want industry specific past experience, and even if I had experience in the same position that they’re advising, since it’s not in their particular field they won’t consider it. In past mixers, as soon as they ask me what I am doing, they immediately look uninterested despite my best efforts to keep them engaged.

        Alison, I honestly don’t think it’s the resume. I have had it critiqued by my career center quite extensively and have followed all the suggestions they have given me. On my most recent rejection, I had my resume critiqued, went to a couple mock interviews, and when asked for feedback was told that I interviewed extremely well and had an attitude that he liked, but I didn’t have the background they were looking for.

        I admit that my biggest flaw is, unfortunately, my patience. I know that patience is extremely important but it’s getting harder and harder to stay that way after it’s almost been two years.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I hate to say this, but just having it critiqued by career centers may not be enough. Many of them are really awful (although some are good). In the interests of another experiment similar to the one we did a while back in a similar context, I’d be glad to take a quick look and tell you if I agree with them or not (if you’re willing to let me respond publicly)!

        2. GainfullyEmployed

          I’m wondering if when you have conversations at alumni mixers & such if you could manufacture a conversation that would help the alumni give you advice on getting experience that they would value.

          I’m involved in this sort of thing, but only with people who are currently students, so I’m winging it on this suggestion.

          Usually I have to approach the junior person. So, if I came up to you, I might make a friendly introduction and you would respond after a couple pleasantries that you are looking for work in XYZ field. I might say, “That’s great, we’re always looking for people in XYZ department. Tell me about your experience.” If you said, “Well, I don’t have any. I work at Kohls,” that wouldn’t be very exciting for either of us. I don’t even know what to say to that, so I think that’s why your conversation dies. If you said, “Well, that’s the problem. I don’t have the right experience. I’ve been working in retail while trying to find a full-time position, but everyone wants some experience in Chocolate Teapots. Do you have any suggestions about how I break out of the chicken-and-the-egg scenario?” that would give me something to say next. I could ask you if you’ve joined a professional association. In my field, I could tell you about opportunities to join a “Without Borders” organization where you might be able to do real work as a volunteer. I don’t know that they would have a suggestion for you every time, but you at least give them somewhere to go with the conversation.

              1. Ask a Manager Post author

                Received! Okay, I mean this in the kindest way possible, but Your Resume Is The Problem.

                And that career center didn’t have any idea what they were talking about.

                For each job, you’re just listing duties — there’s not a single accomplishment listed, just descriptions that are similar to what you’d see in a job description. That’s the biggest thing that will get your resume passed over — there’s nothing to make you stand out or make a hiring manager think you’re someone with a track record of getting things done. There are other changes I’d recommend too (some proofreading stuff, like adding a line space between education and work because right now it all runs into each other with no separation), adding some kind of profile or summary to explain what you’re all about, and not saying “Proficient writing and communication skills as per academic background” because that doesn’t really convey anything at all, but the accomplishments vs duties thing is the biggest.

                This is another lesson in how just because a career center told you that your resume was fine, it doesn’t mean that it is! This is probably a whole post in itself at some point, because it keeps happening.

                1. Chaucer

                  Alison, I kind of figured that my resume was indeed the problem. Ugh, I wish career centers were of better quality.

                  Thank you so much!

                2. ChristineH

                  It’s tough because people say that you can give your resume to 10 different people, and you’ll get 10 different opinions.

                  I do think the career services at my university is one of the better ones out there (far from perfect, but definitely not entirely useless), but I’d too be interested to see a post about this.

          1. ChristineH

            Wow….this is terrific! My networking conversations tend to die quickly too for similar reasons; the verbiage you suggest will be incredibly helpful (I hope!)

  3. Going anon for this one

    Ugh! At least half of the items on that list apply to me…I am in dire need of a reboot :(

    One item in particular I’m struggling with is #4 (“You’re not sure what jobs you’d even be suited for.”), and I think it’s because I’m constantly assessing and re-assessing myself; thus, I have lists upon lists of my interests, skills/knowledge, possible career ideas, disability-related concerns, etc, but the picture never stays clear for long. My sister calls it “analysis paralysis”. Alison, do you have any suggestions on moving past this mental block?

    1. Going anon for this one

      By the way, I am a fairly frequent poster and normally use a screen name…I’m just a little embarrassed to say who I am on this one lol.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Hmmm, hard to say just from what’s here, but the key thing is that whenever you do apply for a job, you’re clear on why you’re qualified for it and you lay out that case for the employer (in your cover letter and in your resume). So you might have multiple different paths that you’re thinking of, but you need to be really clear with each how you’d show an employer you’d excel at it.

      1. Jamie

        So you might have multiple different paths that you’re thinking of, but you need to be really clear with each how you’d show an employer you’d excel at it.

        Such a good point. And it’s one I think a lot of people get stuck on, thinking that if they try to sell themselves on anything less than their ideal position it’s somehow disingenuous and it’s not.

        If I were on the market and really needed to find a job quickly I would have several different resumes. One stressing my IT stuff, one for QC, and one for the fabulous world of cost accounting. It would be the same information, I wouldn’t lie, but the emphasis on accomplishments would be different. The same with my cover letters. If I write about what I have to offer you in the area of inventory control, as long as I’m being honest, there is nothing wrong with not mentioning my experience in the other areas as it’s not necessarily relevant. Unless it is – but my weird amalgam of a job doesn’t come along every day.

        It’s really hard to commit to one path when you’re looking – because it’s all theory…so it’s great to be open to different things that fit your interests and skill set.

        1. ChristineH

          Unmasking myself: that was me up there.

          Yes I’m open to several options and am excited by the possibilities, but a big part of the problem is my self-confidence. Because of my disability, I’ve had too many instances where that’s gotten in the way, and I’m just too skittish about investing time and/or money (for further education or workshops) for something I can’t guarantee will work out. It’s very hard to explain without writing a novel.

          I know this is not something you guys can fix….I have to work at this on my own and, as AnotherAlison said, get out there and do something! That’s why I’ve been doing the proposal review panels…to “test drive” that part of my field (as opposed to direct work with clients, which is what I did before my layoff). So that I’m proud of :)

          1. Joey

            ChristineH,

            If youre in the US its important to remember employers have some obligation regarding your disability. Depending on what it is it may or may not affect your job at all. But if it does assume that the employer WILL provide a reasonable accommodation when you’re applying/interviewing, etc. The folks with disabilities I’ve dealt with have tended to view it as a favor instead of a requirement. And if you’re unsure of what is reasonable askjan.org has some really good examples.

            1. ChristineH

              Thank you Joey. Yes I am in the US and am familiar with askjan.org. I do need to assert myself more about reasonable accommodations, that’s for sure.

    3. AnotherAlison

      I see this a lot. I call this wanting to mentally test-drive everything.

      You cannot possibly figure out what you like and don’t like sitting in your room taking online personality profiles and surfing career websites. Get out there and do something! Anything!

      If you are really honest with yourself, you know if you want to work in an office or outside, if you prefer spreadsheets or writing. And you know your degree in sociology didn’t give you any experience in SAP. : )

      Take a guess at what you’d like, apply for jobs for which you can fill the basic requirements, and try it. Once you’ve had a year or two of doing *something* you are in a position to say you want more of this, less of that and get prepared by learning the skills you need to advance to a job that lets you do “more of this.”

      Finding a job you really like cannot be a thought experiment.

  4. nyxalinth

    I often run afoul of the “can’t get past the first or second interview” thing. I fixed up my interviewing skills, and the few times I’ve had feedback, it came down to “You were great, but the person we went with had slightly more experience in X/is content to sit and take calls forever and not move up in the call center/We actually wanted someone with Y, and you are Z in terms of thinking style/personality” which is great feedback! I’ve been very lucky. there was never anything in the ads to indicate any of those things, so I was just always being me. Professionally, of course.

    A few times, I knew it was wrong for me as soon as the interviewer went into the position more in-depth, so I wasn’t terribly disappointed.

    Regarding the advancement off the phones thing, I always made it very clear that while I had X years of experience, I fully expected to be on the phones for at least a year and earn my way into quality Assurance or Team Lead, and approaching it without an entitled “Well, I’ve been stuck on the phones for five years cumulative, I want to get into QA now!” attitude. Not sure what else I can do on that one.

    1. Amanda

      Is it a bad sign that none of my interviewers have given me feedback?

      I hear about other people getting really good feedback after interviews, but I always get the form “we have decided to go with another candidate whose qualifications better fit our needs” and then radio silence. Of the (only!) four interviews I’ve had, I’ve explicitly asked for feedback once and got no response, and in the other three, I’ve not explicitly asked but sent what I thought were very gracious emails thanking them for the opportunity to interview with them and saying that I would certainly like to be considered for similar positions with their organization in the future. In each case, I have gotten no response.

      Does this indicate a problem with my interview skills that employers aren’t keeping the lines of communication open? I feel that if they thought I was truly a good candidate (and just not the perfect one for that particular job) they would want to keep me in the loop.

  5. Tiff

    I began looking for another job about 3 months in to my last gig – I knew then that I wouldn’t last too long there. I didn’t get a single interview besides temp agencies, which I wasn’t interested in at the time. I was discouraged but continued to slog along. It was actually a good thing that I didn’t get any bites early on, I needed to do some maturing and gain more skills. Basically, it took me awhile to even have a resume worth looking at.

    Once my resume started getting attention I went through some rigorous interviews – one company had me do 5 interviews, only to tell me that they went with the other candidate. Of course it was frustrating, but I kind of look at it like my journeyman period. I didn’t know that I would NEED to lean on all that interview experience (all told I went on about 20 interviews in a 3 month period) because the job I have now had the most difficult interview process of them all with panels and assignments and such.

  6. Chris Walker

    Resumes–Customize, customize customize. If you are submitting online to a resume database, you will be selected based on a keyword search. If their ad refers to ‘recruitment strategies’ but your resume stresses ‘talent acquisition’, you won’t get picked. If you are submitting via e-mail or on paper, you must survive the glance test, that 5 second look that puts you in the yay or nay pile. If the one thing that would click with the reviewer is buried at the bottom of page two, they will never see it. Get something in the first third of the page that grabs.

    Networking–If the only time you contact people is when you want something from them, you are not a networker, you’re a leech.

    1. Jamie

      Networking–If the only time you contact people is when you want something from them, you are not a networker, you’re a leech.

      I know there are a lot of people who feel that way, but I disagree with this and to be honest, have never really understood it.

      I’ve been contacted by people who are friends of friends or who worked for a former boss or whatever who got in touch with me to network and I was happy to have a discussion about the field or any opportunities I knew of, etc.

      I would not want people reaching out to me out of the blue to make small talk to develop some kind of faux friendship so it seems less callous when they need something. Cutting to the chase seems to me more respect for my time than wanting chit chat every couple of months so I don’t forget who you are when you need something.

      I appreciate the direct approach – I don’t think it’s rude but I do know ymmv on this – I think I have the minority opinion on this topic.

      1. GeekChic

        Well I’m with you in being in the minority then. I’m perfectly happy to help someone out even if they haven’t been in touch much – or ever. I also don’t much care for the faux friendship part of networking – makes me itch.

      2. ChristineH

        I’ve wondered about this myself. I’ve found myself feeling almost guilty for reaching out to people for help without having any real idea of how I could help in return down the road. It’s also the reason I tend to not follow up when a network contact doesn’t reply to my initial contact (via email or voice mail) or if they didn’t have any immediate ideas.

        1. Amanda

          I have the same problem! Most of my networking contacts are quite a bit older and much more established and I really don’t know how I can help them back. It does make me a lot more hesitant to network.

    2. Kerry

      I continue to hear people say this, but I have never, ever seen anyone operate this way in 14 years of recruiting and four more of consulting.

      If you have a recruiter who searches for “recruitment strategies” but misses “talent acquisition,” you have someone who is utterly incompetent. I’ve seen lots of incompetent recruiters, but none THAT bad.

      Also, the ad isn’t necessarily written by the person doing the database searching, so the keywords aren’t even the same.

  7. fposte

    Alison, do you have any thoughts for people with geographical limitations? I know that’s something a lot of people hit in my saturated college town, and they struggle with deciding whether to leave or how to widen their approach.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think my biggest piece of advice there is to be really, really brutally honest with yourself about your options. I sometimes hear people say there’s no work in their field in their geographic area but they can’t or won’t move. If that’s the case, then they’ve got to decide what they’re going to do about that — change fields, revisit the decision not to move, or what. Too often, people just stay stuck and frustrated rather than confronting the (frustrating) reality they’re in and responding accordingly.

      1. Anon in this case

        Geographic limits are a big hassle for me. Recently I got several preliminary interviews for jobs in the DC region I was enthusiastic about. If I already lived down there, I could have considered the jobs at the salaries offered. But with no relocation, taking a low salary in a high-cost real estate market just didn’t seem realistic, but I was willing to move if I could unload the house.

        Now I have a sinkhole in my yard. The house is fine, but I don’t think I can sell it in the near future. So I’m back to trying to figure out how to strengthen some of my skills to get a job when the money I was going to use for classes and some software for my home computer just got poured into a hole in the ground. Literally.

      2. fposte

        Good points. I also sometimes think people don’t realize the role geography can play, so they’re not aware that the situation isn’t as tight elsewhere and that there really may be a benefit in being willing to widen their search and even relocate.

      3. Amanda

        But I keep hearing that long-distance job searches are pretty much impossible these days. I mean, I’d love to relocate from my sleepy town in one of the states with the highest unemployment in the country, but that would mean trading rent-free accommodation at my parents house for extraodinary high rents in the big cities (where it seems like most of the jobs in the non-profit sector are) and I’m scared of relocating without a job and ending up penniless.

        But if I were actually offered a job, I would be on the next plane across the country. I just need a chance.

  8. Cass

    Does anyone know of any reputable, national services for resume help? I’m in the same boat as the OP (2 years post college) and got laid off a month ago. I’ve gone over it so many times I could cry! My former coworkers/manager looked over it and said that it “looked fine”, but I’m afraid “fine” won’t get me in any door. I’ve only received one call back in the last month!

    I’ve read every resume article Alison has written (literally, back to 2007!) and applied her awesome advice, but need independent second opinion. There’s lot of “resume services” online, but I’m afraid that they are scam artists. Anyone successfully used one?

  9. jesicka309

    There’s a part of me (very tiny) that wishes I was unemployed so that I could focus on my job search. Obviously that’s stupid, as I need the money, but the overwhelming desperation of “I must get out of this horrible work situation” is coming across in my interviews. If I were unemployed, I would be applying to more jobs, and feel more confident. I’m so caught up in the horrible depression caused by my current work that I can’t interview confidently. I’ve been in such a depressed state for so long I can’t even talk about my strengths any more. An interviewer recently gave me feedback that I’m sabotaging myself in interviews by highlighting my weaknesses…but I honestly don’t know why anyone would want to employ me anyway because of them. Why do interviewers ask about how you work in teams? I always want to respond “Yes, I work well in teams, as long as the other people in the team aren’t bullies/jerkwads. Have you hired any of those recently? Because I”m fine otherwise.” Because of the bullying situation at my current job, it’s a touchy subject, yet what do they want me to say? Most people just say, yes! I do! But because I’m so horribly burnt by my current job I can’t answer teh question with confidence in my voice.
    Sorry about the rant/vent, but I’m hurting over this!

    1. Miss Displaced

      Oh Jesicka, I work for a bully too and I know firsthand how they can suck the life out of you! Bullies just love to tell you how horrible/stupid/bad you are in the hope that you will start believing it because then they have you under their thumb.

      You need to keep telling yourself that you are better then that and you WILL get out of your horrible work situation.

      As for the interviews, practice, practice, practice. Some career centers or your college career center will mock interview you and tape it for you, as well as helping to coach you through these areas where you are “sabotaging” yourself. If you don’t have access to a place like that, get a friend and video yourself or have them do it through Skype and record it.

      It takes a lot, but try to remain positive. And need I remind you not to grab just “any” job just because you want out. Take your time and find a good fit! Good luck.

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