how to get a job when you don’t have experience

featured-on-usnJob searching without much work experience can be a frustrating experience; employers will tell you that need more experience, but how are you supposed to get it if no one will hire you?

At U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about eight tips that will help you combat lack of experience, whether you’re a recent grad or a stay-at-home parent re-entering the workforce. You can read it here.

{ 32 comments… read them below }

  1. Adam

    The inevitable experience hurdle. Oh how I hate this one. What I’ve been learning lately is to be confident in the things you have done instead of worrying about what you haven’t done yet.

    If you are alive, you have experience. At some point in your life you have done something that could be of value to an employer out there. So learn to recognize those things and highlight them, because you do have them. Unless you’ve spent your entire life as a hermit shut up at home, in which case you have a different set of issues and may smell vaguely of mothballs.

    1. Adam

      Proof I need to work on the confidence a bit: I end my comment with what I hope is an innocent joke but immediately start worrying that I may offend people who prefer to be at home. Apologies in advance to any person who was offended.

      Apologies to mothballs as well. You don’t really smell. I just spent most of yesterday cleaning and you have a tendency to get clingy.

  2. Anonymous Educator

    When I was first starting out as a teacher (or whenever I switched careers—and I’ve done so a couple of times), #2 (job description not a perfect match) and #3 (write an outstanding cover letter) were my go-tos.

    I’d actually highly advocate for #2. Some of the best jobs I’ve had have been because of #2. When I first got out of grad school (and I went to grad school straight out of college), I was hesitant to apply for anything requiring more years of experience than I had. My mom, of all people (yes, I know a lot of people’s parents give bad or outdated jobseeking advice) told me to just apply for things, even if I’m not qualified.

    I fully agree with Alison that you shouldn’t wildly reach (in my context, don’t apply for a department chair position if you have 0 years of teaching experience), but hiring managers will generally write a job description as a wishlist. Yes, we would love our candidates to have 3-5 years’ experience, have a master’s degree, be local, have worked in a school just like ours, be bilingual, etc., etc. Truthfully, though, they will hire whomever they think is best.

    Of course, the more of those job description tidbits you do fill, the more likely they are to look at you. Generally, though, having a good cover letter will help you stand out above other people who have X years’ experience, especially since so many cover letters are badly proofread.

    1. Meredith

      I totally agree with you, which is why I was shocked when I was rejected for two positions recently that weren’t a perfect fit for my experience. One position would have been managing 1-2 people. I do not have experience managing people, but 1-2 people seems like a great first step, yes? They were hesitant about my lack of experience. So they wanted to interview me in person for a position that did not involve managing people. I was still excited about this position, as it would be 100% based on what is essentially about 50% of my current job. But it came up in the interview that they were concerned that “only” 50% of my current job involved the work I’d be doing. Well, I’m certainly not leaving my current position to do the exact same job I already do… But I chalked that up to weird hiring practices. I’ll continue to reach for positions just above/slightly different from mine in an effort to get the kind of job I really love.

  3. IT person

    I have around 8 years of experience in one of the biggest IT consulting firms in the country, however I still cant claim in-depth expertise or experience in a particular skill or area (say programming language or a specific technical area like SAP etc.)

    I joined as an entry level person, got promoted twice in the past eight years, get paid well enough and so on, but if I were to go out into the job market again, I wonder what I should highlight. Most of the jobs out there ask for specific skills and several years of experience in it.

    1. Leah

      I worked briefly in IT head-hunting (no, I would not recommend them) so I might be able to help. I generally worked with software and web development, where they’re most interested in the fact that you know how to do the work even if its in a different language. If that is what you’ve been doing for the past 8 years then you’ll be able to pick up new languages more easily. Most places have proprietary things they don’t expect you to know but they don’t want to have to hold your hand through learning it either.

      Your biggest difficulty will be applying to companies that don’t specialize in IT but have to get resumes from HR who won’t know which languages are related. e.g. You have X years using Javascript and they advertise for X years using AJAX (a certain method of using JavaScript) and the HR person won’t know the relationship.

      Naturally, the more skills you have, the more options you’ll have. However, a company that hires you on the basis of your ability to pick up and implement new things is one that will continue to encourage you to grow once you’re hired. That’s why many of them allow you to use whatever resources you want when doing practical tests, sometimes in a fake language. If you know how to find the answers, it can be just as good as having everything memorized.

  4. Cruciatus

    But add online application systems to the mix and it feels impossible to get anywhere! I mentioned this in the latest open thread and a few commenters told me that humans do often see those applications, but for me so far, if I have to say no to supplemental questions (because I won’t lie) I’m out of the running in seconds–though I met the basic qualifications. But through the supplemental questions I realized they wanted people with this exact experience already, and tons of it (but then say that in the basic qualifications!)!

    1. JM

      I had posted this recently too – I have never got a response from an online application I submitted, but I always get calls when I post my resume on job sites like Dice, Indeed etc.

      1. Audiophile

        I’m leery of posting my resume for a lot of reasons. One being, that when I did in the past I got snared by insurance sales people. I have no desire to sell insurance. Would it be too glaring an omission if I posted with current employer listed as confidential?

        1. Stephanie

          Yeah, same. All I got were insurance sales calls when I posted my resume on the big sites. I also got a ton of job-related spam (like questionable-sounding mystery shopping).

          1. Audiophile

            Ugh mystery shopping. I actually signed up for one of those back when they weren’t all scams. Went and performed my mystery shopping and don’t recall getting paid.

  5. Mimmy

    This is excellent advice Alison! The experience hurdle has always been a challenge for me. I particularly like #5 (think about non-obvious skills you can highlight).

  6. Senor Poncho

    Corollary to the “no experience” problem — what about when you have significant experience and responsibility, but it’s irrelevant to a particular job? Say, for a career changer?

    1. James M

      I think that’s covered under #4. Soft skills are always relevant (aspiring hermits notwithstanding), and I’m guessing you can frame your oodles of “irrelevant” experience in terms showing your soft skills.

    2. Leah

      I’m having a similar issue. I’ve left being a lawyer but have 4 years of lawyering under my belt plus a few years prior to that in social work-type jobs. I’m applying for things just slightly above entry-level because there are a lot of transferrable skills but not always the years of experience doing certain things that they’re looking for in the more senior jobs that I also apply to. So far, I’ve only been interviewed for the more junior jobs and the interviewer has always asked something along the lines of, “Isn’t this job a little below your experience level? Wouldn’t you get bored?”. Of course, I have a prepped answer about being able to hit the ground running and still have a lot to learn in advancing in my career. In at least one interview, I kinda felt like a fraud saying it because I probably would have gotten bored much sooner than a person capable of the job with less experience.

      1. Senor Poncho

        I suspect that the legal field is one of the most common sources of career changers, incidentally.

    3. Anonymous Educator

      Changing careers is tough. I think you have to do something to make the transition, however small.

      A while ago, I switched from teaching English to managing a database. The angle I had was a longshot (and I didn’t get a callback for over a month after I’d applied), which was that I’d done some admission work when I was an English teacher, and they needed a database manager specifically for the admission office.

      I switched later back to general admission (not a longshot, since I’d had more admission experience), but then I started doing volunteer tech support, so when the tech director at the school convinced the head we needed another tech person, he was able to lobby to get me into working in tech.

      And now I work in tech (very generalized—sys admin, light network admin, scripting, some programming, desktop support).

      If I had just quit my job as an English teacher and said “Hey, I want to be a tech director!” I assure you I wouldn’t have gotten any callbacks or interviews.

      1. Anonymous Educator

        I guess a little P.S. which you could probably tell from my previous post—I rarely ever tell a supervisor “That’s not in my job description,” and that approach has generally worked to my advantage. Instead of thinking of “not my job” stuff as extra work, I think of it as more opportunity to learn and grow… and maybe switch careers.

      2. Audiophile

        +1 to this.
        As someone who’s trying to navigate a career change (moving from customer service type roles to communications, my degree background) I knew I needed to do to increase my skills and make myself a more viable candidate. So I sought out volunteer opportunities, that wouldn’t interfere with my full time job and wouldn’t require much, if any travel. I was able to secure a remote volunteer job, handling some social media for a nonprofit. It’s helped boost my resume in the way I wanted and hopefully, at the end of it I’ll have a good reference.

        1. Sharm

          I agree with this in concept, but have found it much, much harder than everyone says in practice.

          1. Audiophile

            It wasn’t easy. I attempted to volunteer four years ago, this one wasn’t remote. I interviewed, went through training and then was given an assignment….then crickets. I eventually gave up trying to contact my supervisor, because clearly they weren’t interested in my volunteering. Just seemed strange to have me go through all that, only to ignore me later on.

            Just keep looking, I’ve found very useful. They list a lot of remote opportunities, if you’re looking to volunteer without having to worry about travel.

  7. AnotherAlison

    In the broader sense, I think the best way to make a transition is to stay in your company or industry and move to a new functional role. Like if you want to be in recruiting and you work in insurance claims, go for any HR role in the insurance business first and over time you could work your way into recruiting in another industry (if you wanted to be in another industry). If you don’t have the functional experience, at least your industry knowledge is worth something.

  8. JM in England

    This has been and always will be the hardest hurdle to jump. Current job market notwithstanding, could employers think back for a moment to when they were new to the working world and someone gave them a chance. Every highly experienced employee has to start somewhere…………..

  9. Artemesia

    I used to work with college seniors as they worked on their job search. Our focus was on how to take things they had done during college and demonstrate the experience involved. The course of study they were engaged in had a lot of complex work like project and also several community based actual work projects. e.g. they did simulated press releases, briefing memos, proposals, data analysis projects — but they also did projects for community groups like developing a marketing plan or a program evaluation or a grant proposal.

    Students were encouraged to thing of the skills they acquired and the activities they undertook on these projects and talk about that in interviews. We also helped them reflect on times they exercised leadership, problem solving and dealt with interpersonal conflict. (whether in class or community projects or in summer jobs or extracurriculars)

    While this will not meet the ‘must have two years experience as a tool and die maker’ test, it did allow them to talk about the value they had and could bring to the work. Our students had a much better record of success in placement than students in majors without this kind of preparation.

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