I’m not getting interviews because employers think they can’t afford me

A reader writes:

Like many people, I am now unemployed due to the economic impact COVID-19 had on my previous sector. I have been working in this industry for almost eight years in project management/engineering-related positions, and the industry tends to be very well-paying. I live in a part of the U.S. where the industry is well-known, and most people work in or adjacent to it.

Throughout these last eight years, due to changes in my personal life, I interviewed for positions with companies in other industries where my skillset would align. Often, prior to receiving an offer, the salary range would be discussed. I’m very conscious this industry pays above average for project manager positions compared to other industries, so I try to keep an eye out in my region so I can actively participate in the salary discussions as they arise. I’ve never declined an offer due to salary alone.

Several years ago, in one of these cases, I believe I was not made an offer because the organization thought I would expect a higher salary than they were willing to pay. We never got to the salary discussion, but there were words and phrases used during the phone interviews and later in the rejection email that led me to believe this.

Now that I’m more actively looking for a full-time position, I’m afraid I will be rejected before even getting to an interview because my most recent work experience may lead hiring managers to believe I expect more pay than their industry provides. In fact, I know that in changing industries, I’m going to take a 25% or more pay cut.

I know the minimum amount of salary I am willing to accept and am maintaining focus on companies that could theoretically afford that. I know the small, family-owned business is most likely not going to be someplace that I can afford to work right now.

What’s the best way to go about applying for an opening in this situation, or will they just look for the best available candidate during this massive time of unemployment?

Normally I don’t suggest bringing up pay before you’ve even had a conversation with an employer, but this is a situation where I would.

If you think you’re getting rejected right off the bat because employers assume they can’t afford you, it’s worth addressing up-front in your cover letter. Otherwise it’s too likely that some employers won’t bother contacting you when they otherwise would have. That’s especially true in this job market; when employers have a sea of good candidates and can’t realistically talk to all of them, something that seems like a likely deal-breaker can quickly move you into the “don’t call” pile.

So I’d experiment with being direct about it in your cover letter. One way to do it is include it when you discuss why you’re interested in changing fields; say something like, “I’m prepared for the pay cut that I expect changing fields will entail.”

Another option — which is not a great one — is to be up-front about what salary you’re seeking. Normally I don’t recommend doing that. It can feel premature and under-cut your ability to negotiate later, and you often won’t know what the job should pay until you learn more about it (so it can come across as “here’s what I need to earn” rather than “here’s what I think this work is worth”). But in your case, if you’re not getting interviews because people assume you’re too expensive for them, one way to show you’re not is to talk numbers from the start. You could say something like, “While I wouldn’t normally address salary at this early stage, in changing fields I believe it’s easier to say up-front that I’m aware this change will likely involve a pay cut and I’m prepared for that. I’m seeking a salary in the $X-Y range, which I hope is in line with what you’re envisioning.”

But ugh — I really don’t like suggesting that! It can box you into a range that might be different than the one you’d name after learning more, or it might be lower than what they’d been planning on. So it’s not ideal! But if you’re not getting responses at the application stage, it could be worth experimenting and seeing if it changes anything. But again, not my first choice.

One other thing: You mentioned that a while back, an employer that eventually rejected you said things that made you think they were worried they couldn’t afford you. If you ever get the sense that’s happening again, address it head-on. If you’re hearing hints of worry about your salary expectations, you can say, “I might be misinterpreting, but that sounds like you might be concerned we’re on different pages about salary. I want to be clear that I know the field I’m coming from pays differently than this one does, and I’m prepared for that.” You could add, “If you’re able to give me a sense of your range, I can tell you whether it makes sense for us to continuing talking.”

Money! It would be so much easier if all job postings contained salary ranges (here are some of the reasons they don’t, but they should) and everyone could be on the same page from the start.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 42 comments… read them below }

  1. learnedthehardway*

    Perhaps you can state that you are looking for “compensation appropriate to this role in the X industry” where X = the industry of the company to which you are applying. That will signal to recruiters that you understand there is a difference between your industry and the one you want to go into. It will also imply that you are aware of the comp ranges for the sector, which further implies that you’ve done your homework/research.

    It’s bit subtle, but if a recruiter or hiring manager does worry that you’re going to be above their salary range, they’ll notice that you’re aware of the industry rates.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think it might be too vague, unfortunately — too easy to assume she doesn’t know what “appropriate compensation” means in their field (and too similar to candidates who say that as a way to avoid the salary question and then it turns out their expectations are unrealistic). She could certainly give it a try and see, but if she’s worried her applications are getting tossed, I’m not sure it’s strong enough.

  2. Bostonian*

    Hmmm I’m going to take half of Alison’s advice and say it may be enough to really emphasize in the cover letter why you want to switch industries without mentioning the salary cut at all. If I had concerns about whether a candidate might want more than we can give them, just knowing that they’re *really* interested in the role and industry would be enough for me to think, “well, this is at least worth a phone call”.

    That being said, I do work in a role where it’s extra important to find candidates that are interested in the actual work (because it’s not glamorous, there’s a steep learning curve, and a lot of people think of it as a foot in the door at our company), so my analysis is a bit biased.

    1. Ooh La La*

      I think Alison’s line is useful to include, but agree that it definitely needs to be within a compelling cover letter that explains why LW is seeking to move to the new industry. This is a slightly different scenario, but I’ve worked with people who moved from for-profit to non-profit, which often involves a significant pay cut, and there can be a bit of suspicion about the motives and intentions of these applicants. Do they truly want to be in the non-profit field? Do they see this as an easy job to land or a place they can coast for a while before going back to for-profit? Will they be dissatisfied with the pay and move on quickly? A good cover letter can address concerns about fit, interest, longevity in the position, in addition to salary expectations.

  3. Pigeon*

    I strongly suspect I am in the same role and industry as the LW, and I really appreciate Alison publishing this letter because while I am fortunate to still have my job, I don’t know how much longer that will last, and this question has kept me up at night. At least if the worst should happen, I’ll have another tool in my box for transferring industries.

  4. AndersonDarling*

    I wonder if the OP is thinking that they are above the salary range, but the employer is actually thinking the OP is too experienced for the available role? I may be looking for a project manager to handle projects on a department level, but during the interview I learn that the candidate launched SAP throughout a multi-international organization. Expressing this mismatch could sound like it’s about money, but it’s really that I’m looking for an individual to work on a smaller scale.

    1. The PM Letter Writer*

      I appreciate that but no this would be like going from being a Project Manager of several multi-year multimillion projects for General Motors to being a project manager for a company that makes one specialty part for GM.

      1. Not A Girl Boss*

        I suspect I just went through a very similar swap to you when my industry exploded thanks to COVID. I was lucky enough to get a few interviews, where I was able to explain in detail why I was actually looking forward to looking for a smaller company (closer to product, small-company culture, more ability to make a difference). Then at the end I said “of course I know that the salary will be quite different, but to me the other benefits will be worth it.”

  5. The PM Letter Writer*

    Alison – First off thank you so much for answering my letter. I really appreciate it and will keep it in mind going forward. I wasn’t able to reply to your notification that my letter would be published because I was busy…with my new job.

    So yes, I did find a job! (yay no more unemployment) It was a 50% pay cut from my last two jobs but it’s more than unemployment, and in an industry I enjoy working in. It also has some great benefits. I was even able to use language I learned from your other posts to negotiate for more vacation time since I am, in fact, an experienced professional. If I had wanted to I could have had a slightly higher salary but that would have moved me out of a performance bracket where I would earn more bonus.

    I want to say that in this part of the US, most of the companies I was applying to did NOT have ability to provide cover letters, but where they did, I did acknowledge that I knew what I was getting into changing industries. In fact, in interviews I did get, it was brought up about why I was changing industries and I was straightforward and honest.

    The company that was the focus of my letter never actually contacted me for an interview or let me know I was out of the running at all. I think a lot of companies here were waiting to see about the economy, the election and the end of the fiscal/calendar year.

    I hope my letter can provide some good advice for others and I’m here to answer any questions that people may have if they want it.

    Thank you so much!

    1. Diahann Carroll*

      Congrats on your new job! I winced at the 50% pay cut, but the fact that you get good benefits and a bonus structure that works for you (and you enjoy the field) kind of takes the sting out of it – and kudos for negotiating the additional time off as well! That really does make a difference long-term in job satisfaction IMO.

      1. The PM Letter Writer*

        Thank you! To be sure I’m definitely using this position to network and learn things. Its a strong company/organization in the community that values women in positions of decision making as well. And I’m gaining a lot of experience in a specific area of this industry that I lacked before. Long term this is good. Just having to do new budgets and continue to not have vacations for a year. Much easier to do right now.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          This sounds really good, and now I’m excited as if this happened to me! Lol.

          And yes, it’s much easier to save now (when you’re still employed that is) when almost everything is shut down. I am amazed by how much extra money I have in my budget each month (and really embarrassed by how much I was spending on nonsense).

          You got this.

  6. Sal*

    I’ve been in an analogous position (relocating from one of the most expensive cities in the US to a significantly less expensive city) and I actually found using the “I’m prepared for a pay cut” language incredibly easy and stress-reducing.

    The thing is, the only reason not to use that language is if there’s a reasonable possibility that you won’t be getting a pay cut (then you’d be undercutting yourself). But if there’s a possibility of that, A, you’d know, and B, you wouldn’t have to worry about seeming too expensive (unless, I guess, you’re currently underpaid at salary x, but your industry would normally pay 2x for your job, so people might assume you make 2x, and they can’t afford more than 1.1x).

    If you know for sure it’s gonna be a pay cut, you can just go ahead and say that. I’d put it in the cover letter, just that way, as Alison suggested, if you think it’s keeping you from getting interviews. Otherwise, you can just use that as your opening line in salary discussions.

    In practice, I also found it provided a nice high anchor for salary discussions without making me look greedy or unrealistic (ah, stuff women have to worry about more than men…). I could just lay it out when they asked about salary: “Well, in city Z, I made X, but I’m anticipating a pay cut with the move.” And then they could just tell me what their salary range was! It was great! In fact, there was one job I didn’t take because of pay and it all felt very bloodless and collegial because it was a 40-50% pay cut and they knew that.

    1. TechWorker*

      This is interesting! I’m not planning to quit my job any time soon but would consider changing industries in a few years time… moving to basically anything else (esp without experience) would be a pay cut so great to know you actually found it helped in salary negotiation.

  7. JohannaCabal*

    Congrats, OP!

    In 2009, I started running into the same problem but on a smaller scale. My previous salary had been inflated (quirk of my industry) and I also had just received a master’s degree. I found that I had to “dumb down” my resume by removing accomplishments and also my master’s (I was fortunate to get my master’s while working so I did not have a gap).

    Eventually, I found a job but with a 35% paycut.

    Throwing this out there.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      I don’t generally think it a good idea to dumb down your resume or accomplishments.
      But I also understand when you’re unemployed and you gotta do what you gotta do to survive. Been there.

  8. Mel_05*

    I’ve been in that situation. The interviewers kept harping on how much lower the salary would be than what I was making (but wouldn’t say how much it was!) and bringing up the other benefits they had (which did sound good).

    It was probably for the best that they didn’t offer me the job.

  9. Chris*

    I’m in somewhat of the same boat. I was recently laid off from a job where I was (arguably) overpaid; most of the jobs I’m applying for would constitute a pay cut. I’m still early in the process, so the only job where this has come up so far is one where they asked for a salary history up front. Despite Alison’s advice on not disclosing salary history I decided I needed to address this head-on and include my salary history, on the grounds that if I didn’t disclose it now it would probably be more likely to derail my canadicy when it emerged later on. I included this note at the top of my salary history:

    “While the hiring range for this position is lower than my salary at (former job), I am more than willing to be flexible. I have spent most of my vacation time the past six years visiting (region where job opening is located); the quality of life benefits of living in there would be worth a great deal to me.”

    I got invited to do a preliminary interview (did it today, seemed to go well), so the salary thing hasn’t been a dealbreaker in the process so far.

    1. TimeTravlR*

      That’s a great approach! Some regions are particularly proud of their QOL and that you mentioned it as a perk speaks volumes to them. Good luck!

  10. Ali G*

    I was in this situation when I left my previous job and was trying to change industries. I did as Alison suggested and was upfront in my cover letter about my situation. If someone was interested enough to call me, they did, but typically the first thing we talked about was salary, which I appreciated so no one wasted time.

  11. The PM Letter Writer*

    Oh I should also mention that the job I did accept was one where salary discussion was upfront and the HR rep did disclose it to me early in the screening process.

    I had interviews with other companies where everything seemed to go well, but nothing panned out. I was in the middle of negotiations with a different company with a higher salary, worse benefits and a company culture that didn’t mesh well with me. Thankfully, they decided to hire someone else.

  12. anonymous PM*

    I’m a project manager in an area heavy with pharma companies, and pharma PMs are paid wildly different than other PMs, so I hear you. I started out in pharma and now work with a lot of higher ed and non-profits so I really related to this question. I do think if you address it outright (“I’m looking for work outside of [industry] and know that the landscape can be very different” might even do the trick without being overt) that will definitely help. I don’t think it can really hurt.

  13. TimeTravlR*

    When I retire (soon) I will likely take another job. I know there is no way in the world I can expect anywhere near what I am making now. I am hopeful that employers won’t see me as either too expensive or not invested enough since it’s a “retirement job.” Trust me, I probably invest way too much effort into my job sometimes! A retirement job would be no different.

  14. Green*

    This is really common in law (you almost always take a pay cut to go to a company from a firm and certainly to a non-profit), so in the interview I just was sure to reflect the understanding proactively. Same with geographic areas (like Bay Area vs. others). But I haven’t ever addressed it prior to the screening call.

    1. miss chevious*

      IME, it’s so well-known in the law, at least as regards going in-house, that the fact of it doesn’t come up, just the size. It did take some education of my in-house recruiters, though, to let them know that they needed to get the pay range in the initial discussions with the firm lawyers to make sure the candidates were okay with it. They were sending me candidates who would have been looking at a 50-60% pay cut and sure, these lawyers expected some cut (when I initially moved in-house I lost about 10%), but that’s 50-60% is a little much to spring on them in an interview!

  15. Doctor is In*

    I was hiring for an admin in my office this year, and almost eliminated a candidate who had worked at a higher level job, so I did not think would be at all interested in what I paid. I emailed her with the starting pay and she was interested. She has turned out to be a great employee.

  16. Barbara Eyiuche*

    At the only job interview I’ve had in months, the head interviewer started apologizing for the low pay and explaining how they couldn’t go higher because it was a government job. This was at the end of an interview that had seemed to be going well. I certainly got the impression they thought I wouldn’t want the job because it didn’t pay enough. Actually, the pay was fine, and certainly better than no job at all. I guess I should have said something right then.

  17. AnotherAlison*

    Yeah, another PM here. . .I have learned that I am basically stuck at my job forever, or someone is looking for something very specific that I can offer, if I want to keep my salary. I am exaggerating a little, but I had a recruiter tell me their range was 30k under my salary a few months ago and recently had an offer 15k below. Same industry, smaller companies.

  18. employment lawyah*

    You don’t need to do the same thing for every firm!

    You have a double whammy against you. First, you are offering “pay me less than I’m used to,” which sometimes turns out to be “actually, I really liked the income, see ya.” Second, you’re simultaneously switching careers, which–again–sometimes turns out as “nope, liked the old one better, see ya.” This is a HUGE worry for many firms, because the cost of replacing a high level person, onboarding, training, etc. can approach or exceed a full year’s salary.

    Your goal is to get around that.

    I see a couple of options.

    First and foremost, I would try to indicate your interest in a specific field through volunteering, classes, etc. It’s all well and good that you think/say you can translate your Teapot-FORGING skills to Teapot DISTRIBUTION (how different can they be, amirite?) but, in a country full of people with distribution experience, that may be asking a lot. Especially since they sometimes are different, and you won’t know that till you try. IOW–and I say this as someone who has worked in a lot of different fields, some of which I turned out to hate–you may not be right about skills transferring. Proving that is big. Ask “why would they hire me over someone w/ distribution skills?” and do what it takes to be able to say “because _____.”

    Second, you can adjust your resume to make you sound less experienced. You can’t and shouldn’t *lie* on your resume–but you can tone it down, perhaps, in terms of how you describe things. There is a lot of flexibility.

    This can have an interestingly good effect because average folks tend NOT to evaluate skills alone–rather they evaluate skills in the context of expectations. You can be more attractive w/ the same skillset as a “top of class C level” than a “mid class B level,” and you may be able to present as the former.

    Third, you can run a test and try stating a few salary ranges (you don’t need to use the same ones for every firm.) If you find that a lot of companies are then undervaluing you, you can always tweak things a bit. But if you’re doing a focused job search you may need to try different things and see what sticks.

    Best of luck.

    1. The PM Letter Writer*

      I don’t think part of my letter went through very well here and is being misunderstood. I also realize that while you’re speaking to me, the OP, this is good information for many people who read AAM. So let me add some information that may change your view on some of your suggestions.

      First, as I stated in my original letter I work in an industry that was hit hard by COVID related functions. My city, state, and region has seen massive layoffs from all of the companies. If was going to find a job in my now-former industry I would be competing in my market with people who are/were far more experienced in that line of work than myself and ALSO willing to probably take a pay cut to not be unemployed. The competition was fierce for very, very limited job openings.

      Second, I was looking in industries which I already have a background in as well as multiple years of experience, just that my experience wasn’t recent. And let me be specific when I say that “volunteering or classes” would normally be a great help in these industries if: a) there wasn’t an unemployment crisis in my region directly effecting multiple industries and b) if you have little to no experience. Volunteering for Habitat for Humanity is a great way to learn how to do residential construction and can get your foot in the door places, but it is not going to make you a PM after one project with them at a large commercial construction company.

      Third, to be quite honest, yes, I did like the money I was making and taking a 50% pay cut like I mentioned in my follow up comment is a huge blow to the working finances of my personal life. But as I have said, I’m also aware of the job market and my region that your suggestions cannot take into account because you were not presented with that information.

  19. Emma*

    Jobhunting in the US sounds stressful! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a job posting that doesn’t include at least a salary/hourly rate range. Usually I do a quick calculation to figure out what a job would pay after tax and transport to work before I even apply.

    1. Elle by the sea*

      Well, I don’t know where you live and which industry you work in, but even here in the UK, I have barely come across a job ad with a salary/hourly rate range.

        1. londonedit*

          UK here, and in publishing it’s really uncommon for job adverts to include a salary range. You just get the ‘salary commensurate with experience’ or ‘competitive salary’ line. It’s something people in the industry are trying to change, especially for entry-level positions – mainly because it stems from a really ugly ‘you shouldn’t need to ask about money, you should be in it for the LOVE and the PASSION’ attitude (which is just an excuse to pay people a pittance and which is why publishing has historically been jammed with white middle-class people whose families can afford to support them while they try to live on £14k a year in London…)

    2. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      I’m neither in the UK or the US, and I’ve never found a job ad that states salary up front. And if the job portal makes the field mandatory, they will write $1.00 to bypass it. Both sides are expected to disclose their intended salary range in the first interview, though.

    3. Attack Cat*

      Over here (USA), you also have to prompt the company to send you the basic benefits package information, so you can figure out the cost of health insurance/amount of sick leave/amount of vacation, to see if the salary you are negotiating is worth it. Also you have to watch out for those full time salary exempt positions where you’re expected to work way over 40 hours a week. That salary being discussed might not be worth it if the expectation at this new company is 60+ hours a week. Salary exempt means exempt from extra pay for extra hours if: you perform one of the exempt categories (non manual labor), you make a certain income per year, and you don’t get docked pay for ending the day early. That you simply work until the work is done no matter how short or long the days are (some employers are more reasonable and let their salaried workers go home at a reasonable time each day).

  20. TeapotNinja*

    This is weird. It’s generally understood by everyone in markets where one industry pays significantly more than others that a switch in industry will come with a significant pay adjustment. I’ve done that in both directions multiple times and not once has it been a problem, because everyone is aware of it.

  21. mgguy*

    I was job hunting with an eye toward relocation for a while, and had one interview for a job that was a great match for me but I knew applying would likely be a pay cut. It was for a staff position at a small private college doing similar work to what I was doing at a large public university.

    I went in for an interview that I feel went extremely well, and they commented in the interview on the fact that I had a lot of skills/knowledge that weren’t in the job description but they could see having someone with those skills being a huge asset to them.

    After the conclusion of the formal interview, I had a stairwell/walking out the door conversation with the lead person on the search committee. I was told a couple of times in different ways “We’re a small school and don’t have a lot of money to pay.” I made a few comments like “A great atmosphere like I see on this campus as compared to where I am now is worth a lot to me” and since I’d been really honest and upfront about why I wanted to relocate, I also said something to the effect of “You might be surprised at what I’d be willing to accept even if it does mean a pay cut.” Ultimately, I didn’t get the job, and I’ve always wondered if that was why.

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