Archive for September, 2009

Intern for Experience: Will Working for Free Get You a Job?

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

It’s the catch-22 of employment: no one will hire you unless you have experience, but you can’t get experience unless someone will hire you.

That’s not entirely true, though. As I’ve mentioned before, you can always volunteer to do some work, which will add some experience to your resume and accomplishments to your portfolio. You can also intern. An Internship from Your Couch, in today’s Wall Street Journal, focuses on internships you can take on any time, anywhere, because they are Internet-based. You can even keep your current job, if you have one, while putting in 10-15 hours a week on the side.

Of course, how much training and experience will you get by interning from a remote location? You may just be doing work for free. Check out 10 Rules for Hiring Unpaid Interns to see if someone is offering you a legitimate internship, or is just trying to use you as free labor. A paid internship may be a way for a company to protect itself from labor & employment laws, so don’t think that a meager paycheck will provide a better experience.

The WSJ references Urban Interns, which has listings in New York and Boston and features both paid and unpaid internships. A perusal of current users looking for internships show that while many are in their 20s, there are older users as well (35, 49, and even a 57-year-old with an MD and PhD!). Of course, the number of candidates dramatically outnumbered the number of internship opportunities when I looked, so even finding an unpaid internship may be highly competitive.

When should you consider an internship?

If you are still in school or have recently graduated, an internship would be a great way to get experience. If you are trying to break into a new field, an internship might also be a good way to get some experience.

How should you select an internship?

Many people select internships in the hope that their contributions to the team will be enough to secure a permanent job offer (although nothing of the kind is guaranteed). If this is your goal, be sure to look for a company that is stable and has growth potential. If you are just looking for some experience to bolster your resume, look for a company with some name recognition, or at least a good web presence that you can show off to potential employers — IBM trumps Unknown Computer.

If neither is available, at least find an internship that offers a project where you can shine–and learn something while doing it. If you can get a marketing internship with a budding company and take them from zero-to-hero during your internship, that is a great accomplishment that you can cite, even if a potential employer has never heard of the company. I saw one listing on Urban Interns for business-to-business (B2B) sales cold-calling. Admittedly, it was a paid internship with a Fortune 500 company, so it could at least provide name recognition, but your ability to call strangers on the phone and pitch a product may or may not impress potential employers. And it sounds like work, not training, to me–which may be why they are offering it as a paid internship.

What if you don’t live in New York or Boston? You can also try, which has listings from around the country. Most are in urban areas, so you may have a hard time finding an internship outside of a major metropolitan area. You can always create your own internship by contacting a company you like and suggesting an internship. Just make sure you have a few good ideas in mind as to what you would like to learn from the experience.

Job seekers dramatically outnumber openings

Monday, September 28th, 2009

In U.S. Job Seekers Exceed Openings by Record Ratio in today’s New York Times, they reveal that there are 6 times as many job seekers as there are available job openings. As many of you know, there are some areas where that ratio is even more unbalanced: I’ve talked to people who say they are regularly up against over 100 qualified candidates for the same position. Ouch. Even industries like health care, where constant growth was anticipated (drawing people to training and certification programs) have seen declines.

One of the personal stories covered in the article illuminates a point I’ve made recently: college-educated Vicki Redican lost a lucrative job as a sales and marketing manager, and has since failed to pick up work even as a cashier or selling coffee. Although Ms. Redican’s situation may be different, in my recent article, Lost Job? Don’t Panic, I explain why no one wants to hire a person who is aiming too low.

How do you make yourself stand out against 100 other applicants? How do you make sure you are in the 99th percentile?

How hiring managers look at resumes

When I am sorting through a pile of resumes, I am not looking for the ideal candidate. I am looking for reasons to eliminate candidates. Right off the bat, I reject resumes that have atrocious misspellings. Additionally, I reject anything that appears to be applying for a job rather than the job — you need to tailor your resume and cover letter to suit the position you are vying for. For some positions, the posting called for sending a resume and portfolio — it was simple to reject any applicant who did not supply the latter.

Those steps often eliminate 80-90% of the resumes. Now I’ll start to look for the requisite skills — the same skills I requested in the job posting. As I mentioned in When Resumes are Read by Robots, the person reviewing your resume is not always the same person that posted the job opening, or even a person at all, so make sure your resume uses the same terminology you found in the job posting. Emphasize the requested skills, even if it means you have to downplay other prized skills that may not be relevant to the job. That usually winnows the pool down to the last 4-5%.

I’ll tell you something else: there is never a perfect candidate. No one ever has every single skill and qualification I’m looking for. When comparing last few people who have made it past all the hurdles, I am going to compare accomplishments, so make sure you list only your most impressive. This last item can be tricky, particularly if you are just out of school and don’t have a lot of job experience–this is where some volunteering or freelance work can bolster your resume.

In short:

  1. Don’t make easy mistakes: proofread your resume.
  2. Make sure your application is tailored to the job opening.
  3. Put your best foot forward and cross your fingers.

Call to inquire if you don’t hear back within a week or two (and the job is still posted). Your call will underscore your interest, and it’s possible that you can supply a missing piece of information that will make your application look more attractive. Of course, if the job goes to someone else, don’t feel too bad: it’s a tough job hunt out there these days.

The Extended Unemployment Feedback Loop

Friday, September 25th, 2009

The Long Slog: Out of Work, Out of Hope, from today’s Wall Street Journal, discusses the growing percentage of the unemployed who have been out of work for more than 26 weeks. Obviously it is stressful to be out of work for 6 months, but as the article points out, it can make it even more difficult to find employment: employers comparing candidates with similar qualifications will most likely prefer the candidate who has been out of work the shortest time.

I suppose that makes sense: if you see a house that has been on a market a long time, you assume it is either overpriced, or there is something wrong with it.

The article focuses primarily on blue collar workers: a cable-maker, an electrician, a boatyard worker. Manufacturing jobs have moved or been eliminated completely, leaving unemployment in the vacuum. Presumably, white collar workers are feeling the same strain, although many of their skills may be more easily applied across white collar jobs. Many manufacturing sector jobs are not coming back, leaving a growing number of workers to vie for a smaller pool of jobs.

Macroeconomics defines 3 types of unemployment: cyclical, frictional, and structural. Cyclical unemployment is attributed to the ups-and-downs of the business cycle, and we’re obviously experiencing a lot of that right now. Frictional unemployment is attributed to mismatches between what job hunters want and what employers want. This may have to do with skills, wages/salaries, or even location. (Structural unemployment is similar to frictional unemployment, but is more endemic.)

As one person in the article, the boatyard worker, said, “You look for work and it all has to do with medical.” Although his initial unemployment was cyclical, his continued unemployment is frictional: he is not qualified for the jobs available in his region, and he has not broadened his job hunt beyond his region. He says he can’t see himself going back to school for 4 years at 59 [although I am taking a class on statistical analysis right now, and one of my classmates has him beat by 3 years]. He may not realize that there are, depending on his qualifications, accelerated nursing programs that can be completed in a single year.

Relocation can be hard, particularly if you own a home or want to stay close to your family and friends (and who wouldn’t?). Training and education, on the other hand, is far easier by comparison. Sure, it may not be easy to step into a classroom after a 40 year hiatus, but spending some time to get a certification or degree is a better way to explain a gap in your resume than, “I was waiting for my old job to come back.”

Other ideas to fill the employment gap in a resume:

  • Volunteer (preferably in a position that uses your job skills)
  • Take consulting/freelance jobs

If nothing else, it will show potential employers that you are keeping your skills honed and that you have no lack of work ethic.

The Strategic Job Hunt

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

In the article If You Need to Work Better, Maybe Try Working Less, Sue Shellenbarger argues that scheduling yourself some time off forces you to improve your work habits. If you know you have only until 5 o’clock to get something done, you’ll work more efficiently–either by spending less time on inconsequential tasks, or perhaps by finding clever and time-saving solutions.

This applies to the job hunt too. How many times have you heard the expression “unemployment is wasted on the unemployed”? Everyone else is stuck at the office, and you could be out hiking the AT. But that’s not your mindset–you’re worried about how long it may be before you see another paycheck. When you are out-of-work, you can spend entire days fretting, perusing job sites, and revising cover letters. To stay sane, you need some balance. Get out of the house, go for a walk, pursue some hobbies. There is plenty of time in a day for job hunting.

I would say spending more than 4-6 hours a day job hunting would drive a reasonable person insane. Stick to a sane schedule. Spend some extra time at the gym in the morning and go job hunting from 9 to 3, with a lunch somewhere in between.

Most of the tips in “Try Working Less” can be adapted for the job hunt. Setting the goal is easy: finding a dream job. (Maybe not so easy–do you have a clear idea what your ideal job would be?) Then you need to set some weekly priorities and plan how you are going to meet them.

Weekly priorities might be:

  • Identify 20 job openings (or, if there are no posted openings, places where you would like to work)
  • Send out 10 resumes
  • Follow up on 10 contacts from the previous week
  • Attend a networking event

Find a way to meet those goals in 20-30 hours a week, and you should leave yourself plenty of time to, if not completely relax, at least live a balanced life.

Finding the Wrong Job

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

If the job fits, take it. Unfortunately, there isn’t a Brannock Device for jobs. How do you determine if a job is a good fit for you before you accept the position? That’s the topic of Get Creative to Find Out Whether You’d Fit, from The Washington Post which I found via This Job is Fun? For Whom?

Sometimes you just know. I interviewed at the Kmart HQ in Troy, Mich., approximately 12 years ago. Although the salary offer was a dramatic improvement over what I was making at the time, the massive brick compound reminded me more of Kafka’s Castle than the excitement of a blue-light special, and the windowless basement work area inside, were both clear indications that I should look elsewhere.

Failing an obvious signal, the general consensus is: ask a lot of questions. If you are out of a job right now, you may not feel like you are in a position to ask questions about a job offer, but it is better to hunt for the right job than to bag the wrong one. Plus, asking a lot of well-researched questions at an interview shows interest on your part and is much preferred to the candidate who responds with a blank stare in response to, “Do you have any questions?” Just don’t ask if they have free bagels every morning.

One warning sign mentioned in the former article is lack of participation in great employee programs. I have two examples of this that illustrate both negative and positive cases.

Compare: 20% Time Gone Wrong

One company I worked for offered something akin to Google’s 20% Time (in which engineers spend 20% of their time, or one day a week, working on a pet project). They told new employees that they would have 1 hour out of every 8 to expand their skills through training and study. This was supposed to be more-or-less self-guided. Of course, in practice, managers wanted to see results, and asked anyone who appeared to be sitting around reading a book to get to work. People probably got about an hour of organized training per month, instead of the 15 or so hours promised to new employees. The much-touted career-pathing was also largely ignored, and as a result many talented people, frustrated by a lack of advancement, took to studying on their own time and quickly found better jobs with other employers.

Contrast: Tuition Benefits

The University of Pennsylvania offers tuition benefits to most employees. Who wouldn’t want to add a little Ivy League to their resume? I hesitated, though. Did I really want to give up my free time to sit in class? After 10 years out of school, could I really step back into a classroom? However, the culture at Penn encouraged taking advantage of this benefit. In fact, I would say there was almost peer pressure to take advantage of it. My colleagues took sculpture classes for fun, or entered masters programs  in their fields. I knew one woman who earned 2 masters degrees while working at Penn. In addition to Penn classes, we were also encouraged, and often subsidized, to pursue other job-related training and certifications.

The latter article advises us to “Be cautious about any company that makes too big of a deal about how ‘fun’ it is.” This reminds me of an anecdote shared with me by one of my friends who worked at Google, which I call…

Compare: The Lava Lamp Incident

Apparently, every Google employee is given a lava lamp on their first day of work. It’s quirky and fun, just like Google. And you’d better love it: if you have a certain disdain for the 70s and decide to stuff your lava lamp in the bottom drawer of your desk, your manager might forever have you down on the “not-a-team-player” list.

What does your love of lava lamps have to do with your work ethic? It’s an echo of the movie Office Space — if you aren’t wearing more than the minimum number  goofy buttons, you aren’t doing your part. The job turned out not to be the right fit for my friend. No word on how Google really felt about it.

I happen to like Google’s fun attitude: I brought a box of Lego bricks to my office, something I heard is commonplace at Google. I don’t play with them often, but it’s a reminder to take a break once in a while, which can help if you are stuck in a rut. But don’t let Lego bricks and lava lamps blind you to the real possibility that fun is just a veneer.

Contrast: The Hoppy Cup

I worked for another company that did not offer Google’s massages, laundry service, or daily gourmet lunches (although sometimes we ordered pizza). However, in a back office that was unused at the time, there was a plastic table hockey game. This room was dubbed Piker Arena. A couple of the guys would wander back to play an enthusiastic game of table hockey now and then, chat about work, and blow off a little steam.  At irregular intervals, someone would organize a tournament bracket for the Hoppy Cup (named after the CEO, who participated even if he did not wholly endorse the event) in which every member of the company was scheduled to play. Although I was typically knocked out in the first round of the tournament, any onlooker could have told you that this was a company that knew how to both work and have fun.

In short:

  • Just because a company offers great programs doesn’t mean they will let you participate.
  • Just because a company has toys doesn’t mean they will let you play.

If your prospective employer doesn’t have participation rates handy, at least check to see if the table hockey game–or pertinent equivalent–is well-used.

Get Creative to Find Out Whether You’d Fit InGet Creative to Find Out Whether You’d Fit In

No Job? Create Some.

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Ben Bernanke says that the recession is very likely over, but since employment is a trailing economic indicator, it may take some time before the unemployment rate goes down.

In the meantime, it’s an excellent environment in which to start a new business.

Owning your own business has some advantages, too. According to Plumbing for Joy? Be Your Own Boss, the September 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index showed that business owners have a higher average overall well-being than any other group of professions. That’s in spite of the long hours (For the Self-Employed, It’s an Endless Workweek) and risks of failure that business owners contend with.

There are two main reasons why I believe business owners score high for well-being:

  1. Autonomy – you make your own decisions
  2. Your results are tied to your efforts, and your efforts are tied to your results

Those are great reasons to start a business any time, but why now? High vacancy rates mean you should be able to get a deal on office space or a storefront. High unemployment means you should be able to build a top-notch staff. The Philadelphia Retail Marketing Alliance created, which includes listings of available space in Center City and helpful information on starting a business, including issues like permits, licenses, taxes, and financing (one of the more intimidating aspects of starting a business).

Starting a new business doesn’t necessarily involve renting a storefront or hiring employees. It could be as simple as doing freelance work via a site like, or starting a falafel cart (my falafel tip, borrowed from Jerusalem Garden: use more parsley!).

Running a business does require taking some risk, and the autonomy that some business owners savor could be a bitter pill for other people. You need to be irrepressibly optimistic and confident: remember that Henry Ford’s first two attempts to start an automobile manufacturing company failed. For the right personality, though, it could be an incredibly rewarding alternative to the traditional job hunt.

What are you business ideas?

Keep Your Resume Polished

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Careerealism’s 9 Reasons You Need a Résumé (Even If You Have a Job) points out that it is good to have your resume up-to-date even if you love your current job and plan on staying there.

Many of the tips are geared towards people who are self-employed (e.g. “Attract New Clients”), but the majority apply to anyone. It’s good advice and worth heading. (I know my own resume could use a little polish–the design is probably 10 years old, so it isn’t exactly showing my web skills in the best light.)

The best time to update your resume is every time you complete a major project or hit a new milestone. Tack on the new impressive accomplishment, think about what specific skills it demonstrates, and take time to weed out any old items, if they seem redundant. This way, your resume will probably get a little TLC at least a few times a year and will be ready when you need it.

Of course, for this updated resume to help you, someone has to see it. What’s the best way to share your resume? I have mine posted on a regular web page, which recruiters seem to find when they search for certain keyword combinations, but I doubt anyone else finds it.

Lost Job? Don’t Panic!

Friday, September 18th, 2009

When faced with unemployment–or continued unemployment–it’s easy to panic. Panic can lead you to apply for jobs that really aren’t right for you. Two anecdotes:

Aiming Low (and Missing)

I have only interviewed for one job that I was not offered. In 1998, after a month of unemployment and faced with dwindling savings, I applied to work at Espresso Royale, a coffee shop in Ann Arbor, Mich. I had been previously employed as a team leader (e.g. a line manager) for a technical support company that is listed on NASDAQ.

The manager who interviewed me rightly identified that I was not going to be happy working at a coffee shop for very long, and that my application there was an act of desperation. They don’t want to train someone who is only going to stick around for a month until a better offer comes along.

Indeed, a month later I got an offer from a rising dot-com (and one that is still going strong).

Holding Out Against the Odds

About 5 years ago, one of my friends had been unemployed for at least 6 months. It was a frustrating time for him. One day he revealed that he had an offer for a contract job. The pay was more than I was making at the time, but as he pointed out, the job was only for a year or two, and did not include a benefits package. “I think I’m going to hold out,” he told me, “for a job with a base salary at least $10,000 higher than that, with a decent benefits package.”

At the time, I thought he was crazy. 6 months out of work, he gets an offer with decent pay, and he’s rejecting it?!

A couple months later, though, he did get an offer with higher pay and a benefits package. Although it required relocating, he accepted.

The lesson? Aim high, don’t settle, and most of all–don’t panic.

When Resumes are Read by Robots

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

An article in yesterday’s eFinancialCareers (Where to Place Resume Keywords) points out that many resumes are analyzed electronically before a person ever sees them.

This reminds me of a job application I sent out that emphasized my knowledge of ActionScript 3. I thought that was a good choice, because the job description asked for Flash experience, and as eveyone knows, modern Flash developers rely on ActionScript 3.

Of course, it was actually a terrible choice. If the resume and cover letter were being analyzed electronically, the system was probably looking for the keyword Flash, not ActionScript. Even if a real person reviewed it, there’s no telling if someone in HR, or even the hiring manager, is going to equate Flash with ActionScript. It would have been best to include both.

The eFinancialCareers article also mentions industry acronyms. I’m going to borrow again from web lingo: which would be better to use, Search Engine Optimization or SEO? Since there is no guessing what the guardian at the gate is looking for, I would use both. There may be cases where that is unwise–in this example, if you are applying for a position in search engine marketing, a hiring manager might raise an eyebrow that you thought an industry-standard acronym deserved spelling out. But really, if you cut some of the irrelevant clutter from your resume–I think we all have a bit of that–you should be able to squeeze it in.

The best advice, of course, is to analyze the job description and requirements carefully. Chances are, the way a keyword appears there is what a computer program–or a person–is looking for.

Ever had trouble getting past a machine (or HR) because you couldn’t convince them your skills fit the bill? Let me know in the comments.

Tips for Older Workers

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

You may still feel young inside, but older workers can face additional challenges on the job hunt. You could be perceived as a short-timer with an eye on the door before you’ve even got your foot in it. People might not believe you’ve got the go-getter attitude of a younger worker, while demanding a higher salary than a 20-something. And you know what they say about old dogs: they haven’t heard of Sarbanes-Oxley, they think Twitter is something birds do, and they think a Prius is a subatomic particle.

(You might like to know some interesting facts about the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. For example, did you know that it only protects people over 40?)

Sue Shellenbarger’s recent Work & Family Mailbox column in the Wall Street Journal gave the following suggestions to allay those concerns for an applicant over 50:

  1. Let them know you plan to stay with the company at least 5 years.
  2. Present yourself as active and fit. (This is easier if you are actually active and fit. Go to the gym!)
  3. Be prepared to negotiate your salary. (Let them know your experience really is worth more.)
  4. Provide examples of new things you’ve learned or worked on. (Starting an industry blog, as mentioned in our last post, might help with this.)

She also points to a couple helpful web sites for older workers:

(The latter site is a mess to look at. Do they really understand their audience? I think that workers over 50 might appreciate a cleaner site that’s easier to navigate.)