how can I find out what skills an employer is really looking for?

A reader writes:

I am incredibly frustrated as I prepare to enter the eighth year of my job search.

I have a deep and abiding love of, let’s say, teapot design but am stuck working in gravyboat sales. (These are examples for anonymity’s sake.) During my time at my current job, however, I have coordinated with my supervisor to incorporate teapot design into my work (often on my own personal time) in a way that benefits my current company. I have done extensive (hundreds of hours) of volunteer work with an outside nonprofit on my own time to hone both my teapot design and manufacturing skills. On top of all of that, I have earned a master’s degree in Teapot Design & Manufacturing with a 4.0. I completed a project with my nonprofit that focused primarily on design and a little on manufacturing; that project has earned statewide recognition. Teapot design is one of my biggest strengths and my skills in teapot manufacturing are unremarkable but sufficient and I am working to improve them.

I recently applied for a manufacturing job at another company. It wasn’t in my true area of proficiency, but it was a way of getting my foot in the door. My application emphasized experience and coursework in manufacturing. The interviewers focused exclusively on manufacturing. I asked them if they had any misgivings about my skills or experience (phrased more elegantly than that) and they only asked about teapot sales. Not a word was said about design. Several of my professional contacts there heard from my interviewers that I did very well, but I got nothing but radio silence from the company. When I finally shored up my courage and called them after almost two months of waiting, they told me they had eliminated me because the job was primarily in design and my only experience was in manufacturing.

Alison, I was speechless. I wanted to cry. I wanted to throw up. I am, at my core, a teapot designer and they would have known it had they put one word about design in the job posting, mentioned it at the interview, or finished calling my references. They skipped over two of my references who weren’t at their desks the one (and only time) they called them, and these were the people who could have spoken extensively about my design work. I have 10 years of design work with three companies, and volunteer experience as a designer with another organization, but they implied that they went with someone who had literally a few months of design experience, all as a student, because something was better than nothing.

How can I politely cut through the crap in future interviews and find out what an employer is really looking for? I mean, this interview was not with an HR rep who was out of the loop; I was speaking to the people with whom and for whom I would be directly working. Is there a non-confrontational way of saying, “Please don’t make assumptions about what I can and can’t do, especially things that are in no way mentioned in the job posting. Give me a chance to address any deficiencies you think I might have before you throw me out of the pile.” I know it’s super bratty and makes me sound like an entitled shrew, but it seems like a terrible hiring practice to vet candidates for skills that aren’t very important for the job and yet make no attempt to evaluate them for the job’s central competencies.

Well, you can’t say quite that, but you can ask questions designed to help you get a better understanding of what they’re really looking for.. For example, you can ask things like “Can you tell me about the most important things you’re looking for in this role?” and “Is there anything I should know about the work that isn’t reflected in the job description?”

(If you do this and it turns out they’re looking for skills you haven’t had a chance to talk about yet, it takes some finesse to respond well. A lot of candidates do this thing where they ask questions just to create an opening to pitch themselves some more — like I talk about here — and you want to be careful not to come across as if you’re doing that. But if you ask about the most important things for the role and they mention an area that you haven’t discussed yet at all, you can say something like, “Oh! I didn’t realize that — that’s actually an area that I have extensive experience with, and which you might not realize from my resume. Can I give you a quick rundown of it so that you can figure out if it’s matched up with what you’re looking for?”)

But the thing is, no matter what you do, there’s always the chance of what happened to you with the teapot manufacturing/design thing. Sometimes an interviewer doesn’t realize until later that they want someone with more skills in X for the job, and they usually won’t go back to you and ask if you have those, if they haven’t already seen evidence of it. That doesn’t mean that they’re horribly disorganized; it can happen for good reason. For example, when they were interviewing you Y truly might have been the most important thing, but after that a key person left or their department got reconfigured or they took on a major new client with a need for X, and now all of a sudden, X is a key thing they have to hire for. Or they interviewed someone with really stellar X skills and they’ve realized how useful it would be to have that. And yes, when those things happen, it would be nice if they went back and checked with candidates still in the mix, but in reality if they have a strong candidate right in front of them who already brings everything they want, sometimes they’re just going to go with that person. (And sometimes that person is strong enough that there’s no point in checking back with other candidates anyway, unless that person turns down the offer.)

Also, sometimes “you didn’t have enough experience in X” isn’t the whole story. Sometimes it’s just an easy way of explaining a rejection, when the real reasons are harder to explain (like “we just didn’t click with you” or “you seemed hostile” or “we just didn’t think your work was that great”).

So by all means, yes, ask questions about what an employer looking for in the role you’re interviewing for. But you’re also just not going to have as much control in this process as you’d probably like. Things will happen that seem unfair or inscrutable or ridiculous. Sometimes they will be! And sometimes they’ll just appear that way. You can’t really know from the outside, so the more you can detach and let it go, the better your quality of life.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t draw lessons from experiences like this and adapt accordingly. You should. But only a certain amount of this is in your control.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 99 comments… read them below }

  1. atexit8*

    With all that design experience was there no mention of it on your resume thus leading the employer to think you had none?

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      I imagine the OP minimised it because they weren’t applying for a design job or whatever the equivalent is and didn’t want to look like they misunderstood the role.

    2. Mike C.*

      At the same time, I can image someone looking for manufacturing experience and completely disregarding any resume with design experience.

      1. atexit8*

        Yes, but the OP got in the door with the resume.
        Snce the employer hired someone with a few months of manufacturing experience, it leads me to believe the OP had *none* on the resume.

  2. Hello patriarchy*

    I suspect they didn’t want you for other reasons (wrong school, drinking culture, wrong gender, wrong race, you don’t remind them of themselves) so consider it a dodged bullet. Try not to waste time thinking about it, you asked the right question during the interview. Good luck!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Certainly possible, but there’s nothing here that indicates that. It’s more likely that she just doesn’t match up with the skills they’re looking for.

  3. limenotapple*

    This might be OT, so Alison, please use your discretion-as a hiring manager, when I get a question from the candidate at the time of the interview about any concerns I might have about their candidacy, I wince a little. At that point, I haven’t quite digested the day we’ve spent together, and I would probably need a little time to consider my answer. So, I feel a little on the spot with that question. Maybe others feel differently, and perhaps my situation was a little different from what was described here.

    1. Jesmlet*

      I actually agree, especially if I’m not the only interviewer. Like… let me have some time to process and discuss with the other decision makers. Unless it’s something glaring like having no experience in X when X is essential to the job, I’m not likely to provide a useful answer to that question.

    2. Lil Fidget*

      I do think job-seekers put *so much emphasis* on the exact wording of communications – either in phone, email, or in person – that they forget that hiring managers are just people who flub wording or feel awkward or make mistakes all the time.

      1. limenotapple*

        Thanks, that is a great distinction. It happened to me once at the end of a whole day of interviewing (higher ed) and I couldn’t give them an answer.

        1. Anonymoose*

          After interviewing all day, I barely know my own name. Psh. (also in higher ed, med student interviews: ouch)

    3. AvonLady Barksdale*

      I usually ask that near the end of the second or third interview. I figure they haven’t thought about me enough during the first interview, and if they have concerns based on my resume, the first interview is their opportunity to ask about them.

    4. Student*

      When I ask it, I try to phrase it differently: “Are there any other substantive job duties we haven’t covered yet?”

      I’m hoping it comes off as less of a “give me in-the-moment feedback please!” and more of “are there any other important bits of this job we haven’t talked about because the conversation hasn’t gone that direction yet?”

    5. Ramona Flowers*

      I prefer to soften it and ask: is there anything I haven’t mentioned that you’d like to ask me about?

      In my interview for my current job this prompted a question about something they hadn’t quite understood on my resume, as it turned out – it made it look like I’d been really interested in coffee pots when I hadn’t been. It was a really useful conversation.

  4. designbot*

    Also if this actually is design in any way, it’s incredibly subjective. I hear designers say “oh but he’s not really a designer, he’s more of a (detailer, client hand-holder, whatever)” about people who would call themselves designers, and whose job titles are often ‘Designer’ All. The. Time. Sometimes saying that you don’t have the design experience is about how you presented yourself, and sometimes it’s a judgement that the experience you have is too pragmatic and not conceptual enough.

  5. Jimbo*

    I am wondering if the OP can set up a portfolio website that highlights design skills and gives downloadable examples of their best work? Use a customized URL and place that on the resume prominently so it is hard to miss. There are also plenty of free, portfolio sites out there (such as Behance). I have a self-hosted WordPress site that uses a template specifically designed for portfolios.

    1. Persephone Mulberry*

      The problem is, the company advertised a manufacturing job, so she tailored her resume to highlight her manufacturing experience and downplay her design experience. Prominently featuring her design portfolio for a job that doesn’t appear to involve designing is just going to make her look out of touch or like she’s not paying attention to what the job actually requires.

      1. Jimbo*

        Oh I was talking a web-based portfolio in general, not necessarily specifically for the job that rejected the OP. A tool to more effectively market the OP’s skills for future jobs and networking

        1. Princess Cimorene*

          and it would be a link you would display on your resume, so that even if she was tailoring her resume towards manufacturing Spacely Sprockets, if the interviewer looks at her digital/visual portfolio they would also see her significant skill in the designing of the Sprockets as well. It could only help in the future, even if the job posting is unclear.

          1. OverboilingTeapot*

            I like this idea! A company that doesn’t bother to try calling your references more than once isn’t likely to do any extra legwork though, sadly.

        2. Anonymoose*

          Amen to that. Also, getting design work on the UpWork site where OP can start gaining her own design clients that could eventually turn into a FT gig. I’ve heard numerous design entrepreneurs have started careers through UpWork so they can claim a client base on their design site.

    2. Princess Cimorene*

      If LW is in digital or graphic design of some kind, this is what I was thinking too.
      Or even if it was design for furniture or automobiles or clay pots, or Spacely Sprockets 2.0 you could still put together a visual portfolio of your work.

  6. Lil Fidget*

    I feel for you, OP, job searching is *so frustrating.* But I also remind myself of how much it’s just like online dating, and there’s a similar dynamic here. If you ask someone why don’t want to continue seeing you (which I don’t recommend!) there’s actually a very small likelihood that they’re going to give you the real exact reason. Often they don’t know the reason themselves … they’re just not that into you – so they have to say something, and whatever comes out is probably a platitude or a side issue that makes more sense than reality. Or they know the reason, but it’s not helpful to say that you’re too x or y so you get the platitude again. There’s really no point in litigating it with them, or dwelling on it – all you can say is, this wasn’t the right fit, and keep looking.

  7. AnotherAlison*

    As part of the sales training at my job, we’re instructed to verify the purpose of each client meeting before we launch into any prepared pitch or presentation. (Even if you and a client agreed to “X”, her grandboss could have unexpectedly hijacked the meeting & now wants to hear about our capabilities in “Y.”)

    I think you could do the same thing in an interview setting for positions where diverse skills are needed, or where you, as the candidate, have diverse skills. Maybe they ask for the elevator speech of your experience, and then you can say, “That’s a little about me, but I would really like to hear what you’re specifically looking for in this role,” or ask for clarification of how the role is split percent-wise for its various functions.

    I’ve interviewed people for my job role before who kept focusing on the wrong experience, and when I would try to redirect them to tell me about “X” they kept circling back to “Y”, so make sure you are following the leads, too, and really hearing what they’re asking.

  8. Tod Brody*

    It does seem like something (i.e. design skills) the resume could have had enough indication of that the employer would know she had that skill set, even if the resume was tailored to a different situation.

  9. AnotherAlison*

    Also, I’m a little confused why OP’s resume doesn’t say anything about design. Assuming I’m interpreting that right, based on:

    “I am, at my core, a teapot designer and they would have known it had they put one word about design in the job posting, mentioned it at the interview, or finished calling my references.”

    I understand tailoring your resume, but if you’ve got 10 yrs experience in design, I think it deserves at least a line on your resume. Even if it is a manufacturing job, my personal opinion is that your design experience informs your capabilities in manufacturing, and it would differentiate you from someone who was all manufacturing. I’m not trying to criticize a past decision that can’t be changed, but I keep a little of all my industry experience on my resume for jobs in that industry.

    1. Interviewer*

      I agree. If you don’t have it in your application materials, you might not get past the front door, or past the interview stage.

      I wonder if you are applying for the right jobs? Is there a career path for designers that you’re skipping in some way? Could you freelance?

    2. YuliaC*

      I also feel that the OP’s resume might be tailored too restrictively. I once applied to a medical technologist job that was described as having zero patient contact. I had enough stuff to put on my resume, so I though that my several years of retail experience would only distract from the technological achievements in this case. The retail experience came up during interview when I was asked about handling the most stressful situation I ever encountered at work. And it turned out they actually valued that experience very highly but forgot to mention it in the description. I got that job, and have been including all my work experience on the resume since then, only tailoring for length of a mention. And I make sure to mention the less disclosed skills in my answers in some way.

  10. beanie beans*

    OP I just want to express my sympathy with your situation. Job searching is exhausting and can make you feel so hopeless sometimes. You want to get out of the path that you’re on now, but if you apply for jobs that are in the path that you actually want, you don’t have the right experience or you’re overqualified for a more entry-level position. It’s exhausting. Just want to give you encouragement to keep trying!

    Maybe use your cover letter and (usually) the first question of the interview to be really clear and open on why you are interested in the position. I know that’s tricky when the job description sounded like it wasn’t in design, so maybe emphasizing that your end-goal is design might help for future ones. “My experience so far has been in sales, but since my degree and passion is design, I’m hoping this position will be a good next step towards my true goal of design.”

    1. OverboilingTeapot*

      I would temper this, at the risk of sounding uninterested in the position you’re applying for. Maybe something closer to “is there any possibility that there could be design involved in this position? It’s a skill and passion I’d love to utilize.” I do that at most interviews, but with “writing/editing,” because there are few jobs where that isn’t a plus. But you want to make sure you sound like you’re interested in what they’re hiring for, or you won’t get hired. I don’t think most places care much about your end-goal if it’s unrelated to the job they want to fill.

  11. MuseumChick*

    OP, I understand how frustrating this is. A close friend of mine has worked for 6 years at a small teapot museum, gotten a masters in museum management, and taken on roles in professional organizations in the field. When a position opened at in my city at a large, well known museum the job description specifically mentioned that only wanted people who had worked with teapot artifacts. The even flew her out for the interview and paid for a hotel room. She still didn’t get the job.

    You say that you have job hunting for 8 years. My guess is something else is going on outside of your qualifications that is stalling you from moving forward.

    1. Lil Fidget*

      I agree, without knowing anything more about OP’s circumstances, I would say looking unsuccessfully for 8 years seems out of line with the normal expectation. Perhaps it’s a very small or obscure field (or something creative like novelist, actress etc), but I wonder if there’s someone who’s successful that OP could have an informational interview and ask more questions about what it might take to get ahead.

    2. NW Mossy*

      I think your last point is really important here, and one to think on. Sometimes that “other” is something you can control and sometimes it’s not, but worth contemplating. A lengthy job search can point to a lack of good opportunities to apply to, so that could be part of the story.

      I was reading an interesting article in The Economist recently about how much geography matters in a job search. The focus of the article was how wages for manufacturing jobs in the US have rebounded dramatically in the last couple of years, but that almost all of those gains have been concentrated in a handful of industries and locations. This lack of dispersion means that if you’re based in an area that’s not one of the favored few, it can be as hard or even harder to find work than it was 10-15 years ago. This combined with looming factors that make it hard to relocate (family, a house that’s underwater financially) can end up creating a downward spiral in a local area.

      1. Lil Fidget*

        I’d also say that, in any job search, there’s a certain number of “missed chances” like this one that are out of OP’s control. However, over eight years I would have expected these to even out with some “lucky breaks” if all other things are equal. For what it’s worth I’d suggest it’s probably time for OP to consider what other factors – beyond bad luck – might be holding them back?

        1. Amy*

          It probably depends on how narrowly OP is looking. If someone in a large field with lots of opportunities had been hunting for eight years with no luck, I’d be seriously wondering if something was going on. If someone with a narrow specialty (teapot design) within a small field (dishes designed to hold specific liquid food products) was working in their field but still keeping a lookout for a position in their specialty, I could see how that could take a very, very long time, especially if they have additional factors such as wanting to stay in their current area. There might just not be very many opportunities!

      2. Jimbo*

        Yup I completely agree geography is a HUGE factor! I spent over three years post-college underemployed and working service economy jobs while applying for white collar, professional jobs. I wasn’t able to break into that sector until I moved to the Washington DC area. Once I had gotten my first entry level white collar gig, it was relatively easy to move upwards in pay and quality of job.

        1. copy run start*

          Yes, I think the first break is usually the hardest to get. I struggled for about a year trying to land an office job, even though the economy was pretty good where I landed, and I had experience from an internship and college job. It’s been easy to move around and up since then.

    3. Hmmmmm*

      Being unemployed but looking for 8 years and continuing in the career you have while trying to break in to your ideal industry are very different things. Particularly if you are following the pre-recession advice of only applying to jobs that sound “perfect” or only for companies on your wish list.

    4. Jennifer*

      Eh, I’ve been looking for years and frankly, I think the issue is that people want someone who has already done the job before, in every aspect of it. I’ve been told “we don’t want to train anyone” and usually the person who’s already doing the job or has already or is temping there gets it. But yeah, I’ve also run into similar issues to the OP along the lines of “I wouldn’t have applied for this job had you mentioned teapot manufacture in the ad, and now that you’ve called me for an interview and you sent me the *real* job description, it’s all about teapot manufacture, which I’ve never done in my job of teapot design.” And sure ’nuff, when they ask me, “Tell me about how you manufacture teapots,” I might as well just get up and leave.

      There’s hundreds of people applying for any job and people can afford to be super picky, unfortunately.

      1. Irene Adler*

        This exactly sums up my two year job search. And you are absolutely correct, employers only want candidates who have done the job before, will not train and have the luxury of being ultra selective in who they hire.
        Certainly puts the lie to the “low unemployment rate” statistic.

  12. Cheddarcheese*

    I lost out on an assistant manager position at a retail job I’d had for four years because the other candidate had told them he had third key experience at a past job.

    I also had third key experience at a past job. I just hadn’t thought to bring it up when I expressed interest in the promotion. If they’d asked, I would have mentioned it for sure. I didn’t even realize it was a factor. I felt awful, but at that point, it was over and decided, so bringing it up wouldn’t have been good.

    Sometimes you just lose out on stuff. It’s not fair. It’s a dice roll.

  13. Matilda Jefferies*

    This is the part that twigged to me:

    they implied that they went with someone who had literally a few months of design experience, all as a student, because something was better than nothing.

    I’m not sure how much of that was actually said (or implied), and how much is your own interpretation of what they said. I mean this kindly, because it was obviously a really frustrating situation for you, and it’s not uncommon for people to misinterpret communications when they’re stressed or upset.

    In any case, if we assume that they did hire someone with only a few months of design experience, it’s pretty likely that that was the level of experience they were looking for. So even if you had been able to tell them about your own design experience, it sounds to me like that would have been significantly more than what they wanted. If it’s an entry-level position, they’re not likely to hire someone with 10+ years of experience, or at least not without a lot of questioning and considering if the candidate was right for the role.

    I do agree that they’re giving mixed messages, if they’re first telling you the job is about manufacturing, then telling you it’s primarily a design role, then hiring someone with little to no experience in design. It must be incredibly frustrating for you. But honestly, it doesn’t sound like they considered you a fit for this role, no matter how they ultimately decided it should look. And that’s just the reality of job searching, unfortunately – both the employer and the candidate have to agree on “fit,” and all you can do is keep searching until you find it.

    1. Jen S. 2.0*

      This, this, this. The fact that you could have done the job doesn’t make you the best fit for it. Plus, if they had absolutely loved you except for the lack of design experience, they probably would have asked about it. “We see you’ve done a lot on the manufacturing side. Have you had a chance to get any design experience at all? There may be some of that in this role.”

      Also, reiterating advice here and in other AAM letters…this sucks and is really frustrating, but job hunting is not always going to be equal and fair. They don’t have to interview everyone perfectly, or interview all available candidates, or interview you the way you would like to be interviewed, to find an excellent candidate that works or them. OP seemed pretty grounded in that she was asking how to go about this in future situations and was not figuring out how to demand that the company reconsider her for this job, which, yay, but for others who will come after: it sucks so hard, but you’re not entitled never to have a bad break, even if you do everything right.

  14. LaLaLayla*

    Time to get creative.

    Look up people who work there and have your job title. Hang out where they hang out. Make friends. Network. Find out about job openings from people who knew the person you could potentially be replacing.

    My line of work: Computers. Engineering, cyber security, networking, encryption, management… you name it, I’ve done it. I have 10+ certs to do what I do. When I want to dabble in something I’m good at, certified to do but have never worked in, I find people who do. Look for them at meetups, reddit, linkedin, find out about their happy hour, meet the janitor from that company and find out where the nerds hang out, ask my friends or neighbors if they know someone there to introduce me at the next holiday party. Take it from there.

    1. GG Two shoes*

      Can I just mention, I work in a small niche field. It’s not easy to see or know folks who do what I do except for once or twice a year at conferences. My husband, on the other hand, is a UX developer and if he went to every event billed for developers in our area he would NEVER be home! I’m not trying to be snotty, but I have seen lots of advice from folks in the tech industry that make it seem like it’s SO easy to get jobs and interviews and it is… for them. Not every field is like tech.

      1. bridget*

        Sure, but it’s also possible that OP is in tech or something that operates in a similar way. OPs (understandably) anonymize themselves, so if people only commented when they were 100% sure their contribution would be directly applicable to the OP, then nobody would ever say anything (see also “not everyone can eat sandwiches”).
        Not to mention lots of other people who might find this advice useful hang out and read the comments.

      2. Properlike*

        My husband works in a field where his particular specialized tech-related job title (and accompanying duties) has only opened up about five times in ten years. In the United States. Occasionally, these jobs also open overseas. The specific field he works in has oodles of opportunities and jobs opening in other geographic areas, but none of them with his skill set. So, as other posters here have indicated… really depends on the job itself to know if eight years of looking is indicative of something other than bad luck.

    2. Courageous cat*

      Yikes. Good advice, don’t get me wrong, but really hard for a lot of people. I’m pretty much done with most of my shyness and I still don’t think I could pull that kind of networking off.

  15. Naomi*

    If this was primarily a design job and the interviewers didn’t say anything at all about design in the interview, then either the job has changed a lot since they posted it or they may just not be very good at hiring. OP, it seems like your frustration with job searching has led you into approaching this as a broader pattern (“I can’t get hired because interviewers won’t tell me what they REALLY want!”) but unless this has happened to you more than once, it probably says more about this one company than about employers in general.

  16. Engineer Girl*

    I see several issues

    • Applying for jobs that aren’t teapot design too get your foot in the door. Nope. If you want teapot design jobs then only apply toward those
    • Having minimal teapot design discussion on your resume
    • I see no discussion of a cover letter. This is the place to make your arguement. Tell them of your love of teapot design – so much so you got your masters in it. Tell them how you incorporated it into your job (and benefited your current employer). Tell them how you like design so much you volunteer to do it. Etc.

    The important part is to ask in the phone interview if this is a teapot design job. If not then decline as a mutually bad match. This is the professional way to hanfle it.
    If your interviewers keep asking about other skill sets then ask questions. It’s also fair to explicitly bring up what you would like about the job and why you’d be a good fit for those skills.

    Don’t hope that they will notice your teapot design skills. Emphasize that design is what you want so there is no guessing.

    If they don’t want you then the job wasn’t what you wanted.

    Again, stop trying to get other jobs to get your foot in the door. That doesn’t work.

    1. JulieBulie*

      All of this is very good advice for OP.

      If you think it’s too limiting to ask if it’s a teapot design job, at least ask if any design is involved. That gives you the chance to a) find out if there’s any design involved and b) express an interest an interest in teapot design in addition to whatever the actual job entails (if you still want to pursue it).

    2. Karo*

      • Having minimal teapot design discussion on your resume
      • I see no discussion of a cover letter. This is the place to make your arguement. Tell them of your love of teapot design – so much so you got your masters in it. Tell them how you incorporated it into your job (and benefited your current employer). Tell them how you like design so much you volunteer to do it. Etc.

      But she thought it was for a manufacturing job. Talking that much about design in a cover letter for an actual manufacturing job is going to get you thrown out of the running. I’m sure she’d include that information if she were applying for an actual design job.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        To me, this may be where the teapot analogy breaks down or confuses the issue. My personal educational background is in mechanical engineering, so when the OP says she has design experience and manufacturing experience, I picture someone who designed a physical product and also worked on the manufacturing side of a similar product. (This may not be the real case.) A mechanical design engineer looks at an industrial manufacturing process differently than an industrial engineer looks at it, and someone with training in both would have a 3rd perspective. So, in that case, I would definitely include my design experience because I would see it as relevant to a manufacturing position. But, again, it’s an analogy, so the real positions may not have the synergy I am imagining.

        1. Engineer Girl*

          Actually, that’s my experience too. Moreover, manufacturing experience means you’ll design the teapot in such a way that you can manufacture it at less cost.

        1. Jen S. 2.0*

          And if you love design that much, you leave at least a spoonful of it on your resume. I do not blame the OP for tailoring her application package toward the job, but if design was her goal and yet she scrubbed it all out that completely, I can see why the interviewing team assumed she wasn’t a designer. They had no reason to think so. She scrubbed her resume a little too well. In related news and in addition, it was a tiny bit disingenuous of OP to apply for this job with an eye toward moving into design, but while scrubbing her resume of design completely. No, you shouldn’t announce in the interview that you’ll drop this job like a sack of hot garbage as soon as a design opportunity comes along, but if you love design so much and it’s at least a cousin to the job as listed, it’s not unreasonable to leave a mention or two.

  17. JulieBulie*

    I sympathize, OP. once went to a job interview for a technical writing job. As requested, I brought technical writing samples. When I was rejected, I was told, “we were looking for someone with more of a narrative writing style.”

    OK. Thanks for not telling me till it was too late.

    I mean, sure, I could have brought additional types of writing samples to the interview too. But since they barely glanced at the ones I did bring, I’m not sure it would have helped.

    Job hunting sucks, as you well know. I hope your luck changes soon.

  18. Jessica*

    I have to wonder if the LW has a LinkedIn profile and is using it to emphasize their work and enthusiasm for teapot design, and if they are also connecting with other teapot designers on social media. Actual resume experience is obviously very important, but as evidenced by an 8-year(!) unsuccessful job search, I can’t help but wonder if the LW is broadcasting their expertise more widely than just in the resume and application.

    And yes, a portfolio wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

    1. DesignerWannaBe*

      I do like this idea to use my LinkedIn more proactively and also just to network more in general (in person). I’m not a shy person, but I’m an introvert (there’s a difference) and I despise small talk. In school, I could always rely on the quality of my work to speak for itself and haven’t learned how to network. I collaborate with people in the field to which I aspire, but I don’t go out and grab drinks or get lunch together, etc. because I just haven’t developed that habit. I need to work on it.

  19. DesignerWannaBe*

    Hey, guys. OP here. Thank you for the feedback and suggestions. I want to clarify that I wasn’t literally talking about “design” or “manufacturing”–these are analogies because if I put the two actual job skills here, it would be immediately recognizable should anyone involved in this search happen to read it. I don’t want to go public with how upset I am about this so as to not endanger future job opps with this company. I have a great relationship with many people there.

    I found out since I wrote in that this was one of those situations in which the decision had already been made–and the job already promised–before the job was even posted, hence the incomplete reference check, the extremely truncated (45 min) interview, and the bizarre rejection reason. This is a government agency that is required to post every job and go through the motions of an actual search, even if it isn’t real.

    “Design” is on my resume, but I played up the “manufacturing” because that’s what the job posting asked for. Now that I’m finding out how frequently search committees and hiring managers change their mind during a search or poorly articulate what they’re looking for (even though that wasn’t what happened in this case), the more I feel like tailoring a resume to a particular job is not a good strategy. I plan to apply to future jobs after crafting a resume that presents my skills, experience, and approach in the best way possible, without regard to the context of a specific job. That way, they can see what I have to offer on the whole and can evaluate whether I’m a good fit for what they want, not for what they wrote at that one specific moment in time when they originally decided they wanted to hire someone.

    1. Princess Cimorene*

      Ah thanks for the clarification. Now I am insanely curious was Design and Manufacturing was stand-in for haha. That’s probably the only thing that frustrates me about AAM aside from never getting updates from some of my most favorite letters! lol. I’m always curious about what people actually do!!! But I also really enjoy the silliness of the types of jobs that are filled in (teapot spout designer, rice counter, llama gown tailor, chocolate teapot marketing coordinator. etc lol)

    2. GumptionIndeed*

      Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so frustrating! They “had” to post, they “had” to interview and they already had someone lined up. So unfair!

      What a waste of time, except it was also a bit of a learning experience for you.

      Good luck!

    3. Anon for This*

      I tend to leave my resume very general so it highlights the variety of skills sets that i have, and then I tailor my cover letter to discuss the points in the job ad. Generally it’s worked out relatively well (although I haven’t tried to change industries before so that may change how I approach things).

      1. k.k*

        That’s my general approach as well. I know that often job listings are just a brief summary of the position, and there might be many aspects of it not included. I like my resume to show a pretty full picture of my skills and experience in case they end up being relevant to the job. I do tailor my resume to a point, but make sure I don’t leave off any important skills even if they don’t immediately seem related.

      2. CR*

        Agreed. The main site I use to apply for jobs in my industry doesn’t even let you upload individual resumes per job application, only cover letters. The resume is general, the cover letter is specific.

    4. ambivalent*

      Wait, OP, I think this isn’t the right message to take home from this. Most hiring managers do have a fair idea of what they are looking for. As you said, this was a special case – they already had a internal candidate and weren’t seriously looking. The excuse they gave you was just that, and excuse.
      You really should craft your resume and cover letter to match the specific job. You should add the important experiences / interests you have to your resume, but still, if they are looking for skill X, you should highlight skill X. When I hire, I absolutely look for a tailored resume, otherwise I believe the applicant is just sending their application to every job out there.

    5. MuseumChick*

      Thank you for the additional information. Still tailor your resume, in this case they probably spent no time coming up with the actually job descriptions. As you say, they were just going through the motions. You may want to try asking something like “How involved will the person in this role be with teapot design?”

      Good luck in your job hunt.

    6. AnotherAlison*

      Just my 2 cents, but I think you tailor your resume to what YOU want, nevermind if it is what they are looking for or not. If this is what you mean by presenting your skills and experience in the best way possible, then I agree. I would play up the experience that supports the type of role you want and keep the rest listed, but downplayed.

      1. Overeducated*

        I think this is the mind blowing sleeper comment of the day. Don’t usually want a like/upvote type system here but if we had one I think it should be at the top.

    7. NeverGoingToFindAHome*

      Hi OP, are you me?

      Just kidding, because I haven’t even managed to make it to the interview stage, but I’m also applying to government agencies where I know for a fact some of the jobs that are being posted are written for someone in particular. Or it is someone’s actual contract job and the agency plans to re-hire them, but they *have* to post it anyways. In fact, one of these jobs was actually held by someone I know and they informed me after I mentioned that I had applied to it that it was actually their job…it was a little frustrating to think of all the time I spent on the application. Now I try to ask them which jobs are real postings and which ones aren’t…

      Good luck with your search!

      1. OverboilingTeapot*

        Are you looking for federal jobs? You probably know this, but just in case: check how long the position is open for. If it’s a really short window, it means they have somebody in mind and applying isn’t worth the effort.

        1. NeverGoingToFindAHome*

          When I started I wasn’t exactly aware of the practice but after several months of seeing jobs posted for anywhere between two weeks and 5 days, I figured out that the shorter ones were probably long shots. That being said, I’d say the vast majority of the jobs are being posted for maximum 10 days. This seems pretty short to me, but I know for a fact some of them have been legitimate openings and some of them haven’t. So it can still be hard to judge, but it definitely has become my rule of thumb not to try too hard on the shorter ones (<7 days).

          Thanks for the head's up though! And it's worth mentioning in case anyone else is in a similar position and isn't aware.

        2. Manuel*

          I agree, the process for government jobs is usually quite long and applications are accepted for a month or more. I have applied for multiple government agencies (hired by four) and the shortest hiring processes lasted between three and 6 months. Even the agencies that had a vacancy they desperately needed to fill had the job posted for a month.

          1. Anita*

            There is absolutely no correlation between short postings and preselection situations. There is also no “typical” length for a vacancy. Certainly there can be practices at individual agencies but you would only know if you had a source on the inside. You just can’t generalize: some postings that are truly open have high applicant volumes and so are open for a short period.

    8. Amy*

      That’s too bad! It’s frustrating when places post these things when the decision is already 100% made. I get that it’s policy, but what’s the point of the policy if they’re not going to even consider other applicants in practice?

      That said, I don’t think the takeaway here is to stop tailoring your resume at all. It might be to reduce the amount of tailoring you do, but that’s a different beast than eliminating it entirely. For example, in a teapot manufacturing position, maybe you give the most detail to your experience related to teapot manufacturing, also give a quick summary of your other experience that’s either teapot-related or manufacturing-related, and leave off waitressing through college since it’s not remotely relevant to any aspect of the job. That way the majority of the focus is on what’s most relevant, but they still see all the tangential stuff that they might be interested in but not think to say so.

      1. Talia*

        I think the point of the policy is that the people making the policy really *want* them to consider other applicants.

    9. Freezing Librarian*

      That has to be so frustrating – but the positive thing is, they met you! You never know, it might help in the future. I have my current awesome job because an interviewer who didn’t hire me passed on my resume to a colleague who did – and I hadn’t even applied for this job, thinking I wasn’t qualified.

      Some very smart people can’t write job descriptions, and just because you didn’t get hired doesn’t mean the interviewer wasn’t impressed by you. Good luck!

  20. Princess Cimorene*

    Dear LW,
    This sounds very frustrating, but I am trying hard to promote Good Vibes and positive thinking going into this new year, so I want to try to offer some cliche encouragement: you didn’t get this role because a role looking for a designer in your field is going to come along and it is going to be clear, and you are going to have a great interview that highlights those skills and it will be a good fit and you will move into the new role seamlessly!!! It might just take a bit longer. Think, do you really want to work for an employer who isn’t able to be clear about what they are looking for? Imagine if every day on the job was like that?!

    Try to find the silver lining. Also, as suggested up-thread, perhaps putting together on online visual portfolio of your design work (be it graphic design or photos of whatever products you design, or samples from sketch, to digital concept, to finished piece, whatever it is) and keeping that link on your resume will help your skills be seen regardless of how the job description looks

    1. DesignerWannaBe*

      “Think, do you really want to work for an employer who isn’t able to be clear about what they are looking for? Imagine if every day on the job was like that?!”

      Oh, yes. You are absolutely right and I have had that thought many times over the past couple of weeks. In some ways, I do feel like I dodged a bullet because that’s one of my primary frustrations with my current job–my boss frequently forgets what she hired me for. My title and my written responsibilities indicate that I’m in “sales” (also not literally “sales”), but I’m frequently assigned “research” projects that take up most of my day and severely limit my performance in “sales.” In a way, it works out because she’s flexible enough with me that I can flex my “design” muscles somewhat, but I’m also not doing what I was hired to do and what my job title indicates that I should be doing. That also may be contributing to my lack of success finding work because even though my supervisor knows that she’s reassigned me unofficially and that I am successful at my primary job given the amount of time I’m allowed to devote to it, from an outside perspective I look like I’ve failed miserably at “sales” and probably couldn’t be successful at anything else. I have tried in vain to get my job title and description changed to reflect the change in my responsibilities, but I can’t get either my supervisor or HR to agree to that.

      1. Princess Cimorene*

        That sounds demoralizing and frustrating too! If you can’t get them to change your job title, you just have to highlight those accomplishments that are quantifiable and write some kick-ass cover letters. I don’t think Alison or anyone else would frown on you explaining the discrepancy with your title versus your day to day / experience in the interview (I’d need Alison to chime in on whether or not that should be spoken to in the cover letter??)

        It sounds like you’ve been trying to move on for quite a while, so really look over your materials, go through every single bit of advice Alison gives here (I’m sure you have, since you knew enough to write in, haha) and maybe try changing the “voice” of your cover letter for the next one, or try highlighting your volunteer work in another way, etc etc. Try something a little different than you’ve been doing and see what you get. You’ll get the job you want (and try not to apply for roles you really don’t want, just to get “in the door” because that may never turn into the role you actually want, and you’ll be back in this same boat sooner than later) it just hasn’t opened up yet, but maybe it will after the holidays?!

        I hope you find something!! and when you do, send us an update here (haha)!! Rooting for 2018 to be the year of change for you!!

      2. TCO*

        Would adding a “working title” to your resume help clarify what your current job really is in a way that would strengthen your candidacy? Alison has some great archived pieces on how to use working titles.

      3. k.k*

        If you can’t get you’re title changed, perhaps add a bullet to you resume that says something like, “Took over duties of Teapot Researcher” or “Expanded role to include research and design”… The exact wording heavily depends on what you’re actually doing and how that came about, but something to express that your title doesn’t fully cover what you’re doing.

  21. Close Bracket*

    > they told me they had eliminated me because the job was primarily in design and my only experience was in manufacturing.

    I am having similar experiences. You have my deepest sympathies.

  22. JGRAY*

    This really sucks. Sometimes there is nothing that you can do. I was just rejected for a job in another department where I work for a reason that was completely made up. The manager of the department hired the exact person they said they didn’t want. All I can do is say well I hope the person they hired works out because if you have to replace the person I’m not going to apply again even though in many ways I am more qualified than the person you hired just with my education alone. Don’t get me wrong education isn’t everything but in government jobs it does count for a lot.

  23. Thlayli*

    That sounds like such a horribly demoralising experience. Poor you.
    Like Alison says – maybe that was just an excuse. Maybe they didn’t want you for other reasons and just said it was because of design. I once went for an interview and I had to do two exams – one in maths and one in German. I aced the maths one (I finished it, double and triple checked it and still had time left) and the German one was really difficult. My German skills were not as good as they had been and I suspect I failed it rather badly. I didn’t get the job obviously and when they called to tell me that I half heartedly asked if they could tell me why, fully expecting them to say the German exam. The woman who called me said it was because of the maths. Which was total BS. She clearly didn’t know why and just guessed. Possibly the same thing happened to you.
    Which is probably cold comfort. Better luck next time

  24. SheLooksFamiliar*

    Argh. I’m so sorry for your experience, OP, and share your frustration – for different reasons. I’m in corporate staffing and can’t remember all the times I or my then-boss battled with HR over the issue of a hiring manager promising a job to an internal candidate. HR would insist on an external search to adhere to internal interviewing policy (loosely interpreted or already ignored by the hiring manager), or to try and avoid the appearance of impropriety. If a hiring manager knows who s/he wants on their team, and it can be considered an internal move for purpose of promotion, I say do it and leave staffing out of it. If the hiring manager is in the habit of picking an internal for the sake of a quick hire, then HR needs to counsel that manager in good team building and staffing practices. It’s not fair to build a candidate slate when you have no intention of hiring them. It’s a bad candidate experience, it’s bad PR, and it’s just a lousy thing to do.

  25. jl*

    To me it seems like they weren’t really looking for someone of your caliber since they hired someone brand new. They were looking for cheap and malleable (i.e. young and just getting started). It happens to me all the time unfortunately. Ageism at work without even realizing it.

  26. Anon anon anon*

    Eh. They’re the ones acting odd, not you. They advertised one type of position and then told you something different after you had gone through their interview process. Bullet dodged. There is some kind of dysfunction there and they weeded themselves out.

    (Ok, to be fair, it could be a fairly harmless kind of dysfunction like one person being poorly organized or not communicating well. But whatever it is, it points to a problem of theirs, not yours.)

    It sounds like you’re in a specialized, competitive field. Or at least competitive to get into. I think your best bet is to do a really targeted job search and network. Really look into all the potential employers out there, pick a few that look like good places to work, and find an excuse to talk to them. Find a way to show them your resume and/or portfolio. And keep working to improve your skills, no matter how good you are now.

    Also, don’t take this stuff personally. As I’m sure you know, there is a lot of chaos in organizations. Set long term goals and look at this stuff as part of the path to what it is that you’re trying to achieve.

  27. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

    I wonder if this kind of situation is the downside of the popular advice to tailor your resume. Of course if you have lots of work experience you can’t put every single thing there, but I wonder if people sometimes narrow it down too much. There’s always the possibility that the recruiter will value something unexpected, and job duties can also change. I think I learned this lesson when I was a teen and my mom got a really good job by adding to her resume some stuff that she had originally thought to be irrelevant for the job she applied to. At the interview the interviewer had brought those things up and asked my mom if they could add some of that stuff to her job. She still works doing the same uncommon combination of things that nobody had originally thought to look for. As I know this I really wouldn’t dare to leave stuff completely out from my resume!

    Another thing that caught my eye in this text is the explanation of hiring someone with more experience. I’ve heard it a lot and I presume it’s usually true, at least superficially – the company indeed hired someone with more experience. But is it the whole truth? Maybe not. I’d prefer they would tell the real reason, because it may be something I can easily change. It’s harder to acquire more experience if employers don’t want to hire me without it, but if the real reason is something I said or did at the interview, I may be able to easily change that, if I know about it.

  28. Snark*

    For some reason, Bono is in my head, singing “I have include-e-d/alllll the keywords/ I have filled out the KSAs/ but I stiiiiiiillllll haven’t fo-ound…what you’re looking for….

  29. Bookworm*

    Been there, OP. Have had two separate instances years ago where the job description made absolutely no mention of a people-facing component of the teapot designing (not just the occasional interaction with clients or being able to work in groups or whatever, but genuine, on-going relationship-building/public speaking projects and duties that were apparently important/key components of the job but *only* came up in the interviews).

    Won’t lie, it was frustrating and even enraging because while that’s not my preference at all I had been led to believe these jobs were non-people facing from the descriptions that I could find. I was furious after the first instance but with the second one I was more accepting because I didn’t get the job (thank goodness) and I wouldn’t have wanted it anyway because this people-facing part was not what I had been interested when applying. It would have been nice to have known, though.

    This also even happened with a temp job that I had where I genuinely still believe this aspect of my duties never came up until I was a few weeks into the position. Nothing in the description, truly believe it was never mentioned in the interview, not in the offer letter. I grew to hate the job because it was thankless and not particularly interesting/managers had no interest investing/developing my skill set/talents/experiences, etc. So I’d take it as a hint that this could very well be a sign of a problem with the organization: if they leave something about the description out/it’s not made clear to you then they don’t know what they want/they don’t know how to reject you and aren’t interested in at least sounding out if you are willing/able to learn/adapt a new skill or whatever.

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