Customize your Cover Letter (and Resume)

October 21st, 2009

Giving a Stalled Job Search a Jump-Start in yesterday’s WSJ tells the story of Rachel Jones, who applied for 130 jobs and used the same cover letter for every prospective employer. It wasn’t until she started writing cover letters tailored to the companies and position openings that she started to get called back for interviews.

Mating Rituals

Think of it like a dating site: would you contact a prospective date with a form letter, or would you take the time to mention interests listed on a prospective date’s profile, and highlight areas where the two of you are compatible?

A form letter is a big turn-off: “This person isn’t interested in me; they are just interested in a date–any date.” In the same way, a person reading a form cover letter is going to see that the applicant isn’t interested in the position; they are just interested in a job–any job.

The same kind of details need to go into your cover letter. Show that you know something about the company. Show that you paid attention to the job description, if you are applying for a specific open position. For example, if the job description mentions budgeting, you can mention your 4-years of experience creating budgets at Widget World, Inc. If you are applying to work in marketing for a tree nursery, mention the tree identification class you took from the city Parks & Recreation department last summer. Find the things you have in common and emphasize them!

Your Resume Deck

Don’t think that a custom cover letter is the end of the story. You should customize your resume as well, particularly if you are applying for jobs that are a little outside your usual field of expertise.

People who give frequent slideshow presentations often refer to their PowerPoint decks. Like a deck of cards, the slides can be shuffled and dealt to best suit the intended audience. Giving a presentation to a technical audience? Include all the slides with the nitty-gritty technical details. Giving a presentation to the executive suite? Skip the details and give them an executive summary, along with a dose of what it means for their business strategy.

In the same way, you should have a resume deck. For each position you’ve held in the past, you demonstrated a variety of skills. However, the graphic design skills you used to create advertisements at your local newspaper 10 years ago aren’t going to impress anyone at your new accounting firm. On the other hand, your project management skills and attention to detail at that same position are far more relevant.

For your resume deck, under each position held list every skill you demonstrated and project you completed. You will never send this version to a prospective employer, but it will be your starting point for each resume that you do send out. When it comes time to send a resume, keep only the items that best fit the job description.

2 Pages – Make Them Count

You generally have just 2 pages to impress a prospective employer (sometimes more, if your work experience merits a multi-page resume). Every word should help get you to an interview. If there is something on either your resume or cover letter that is not going to convince a prospective employer that you are the right candidate for the job, get rid of it! Replace items of questionable merit with something relevant and impressive.

Business Cards

October 14th, 2009

Even if you are unemployed, you should have business cards and carry them with you. You never know when you are going to run into someone who is in your line of work, or who might be interested in hiring someone with your skills. Jotting your info down on a scrap piece of paper is awkward and time-consuming, and the promise of beaming our data via IR or wireless from one smartphone to another fails on a variety of levels. Even the trendy (and goofy) Poken don’t have a critical mass in most circles to replace a classic business card.

The subject of business cards always makes me think of the film American Psycho and the scene where Christian Bale’s character starts to burn with quiet hatred for a fellow Wall Streeter who, although a clearly inferior person, has a business card that is even more elegant and understated, yet demonstrating more confidence and refinement, than his own.

Yet, the business cards I see rarely look anything like the classic dark text on white or ivory card-stock. Real estate agents almost invariably have glossy business cards that contain a full-color headshot of themselves, along with their agency logo. Some printed on both sides with, frankly, more information than I care to read in such tiny type.

Elements of a good business card include your name, your professional position (or desired professional position, if you are between jobs) and contact info. Contact info can range from simple phone & e-mail address, to phone, address, e-mail address, portfolio and/or resume website URL, and even a twitter username, e.g. @foxsuit (assuming that social media is important to your line of work, you are a frequent twitter user, and you tweet things that are professionally relevant).

A Great Business Card

I recently came across what I think is a particularly great business card. A few weekends ago, I was at the local farmers market and overheard a woman ask one of the sellers if they had their website up yet. She mentioned she’d be happy to help them build it. Since I am in a very similar line of work, I introduced myself, and she had with her a business card.

Shirley’s business card is well-designed (particularly important for her since she does design work) and is not overly busy. It uses 4 colors: black, white, a pale orange, and a pale brown. It lists her full contact information, and on the back it lists some of her professional specialities. But the best part, in my opinion, is that it features a stylized image of a bicycle. That, combined with a bicycle-themed web address, velochicdesign.ca, gave me a pretty good clue that she is a cyclist. I asked her about cycling and we had a conversation about that as well.

That extra design element provided me an opening to ask her about something other than her professional interests, and gave me a chance to connect with her on a more personal level. You may not have the design skills to come up with such a concept, but you might be able to sneak something interesting and intriguing in a word or two: “Electrical Engineer & Pinball Wizard” might spark someone’s interest.

A Less-than-Great Business Card

I met a fellow at a recent conference who I think is a great guy, but his business card needs help! It is simply too busy to easily discern what it is he actually does. It contains 6 full-color logos, one for his company and several for software packages, and one for a professional organization. Everything about the card suggests that he is a software developer or provides software support, but underneath his name it says writer and blogger. I suppose I could find out more about him by visiting his web site, but he hasn’t provided me with a compelling reason to do so.

It also features a full-color photo of himself, which I would generally discourage. Sure, it puts a face to the name, but you want associates and potential employers or business partners to remember what you do more than what you look like. I think real estate agents put their pictures on their business cards to try to establish trust with their clients and future clients, but honestly–some of them have “faces for radio.”

Getting Business Cards

Most shops with print services, like FedEx Office (formerly Kinko’s) or OfficeMax, will print business cards. Online services like iPrint.com will also print business cards and ship them to you, generally for 6-7 cents if you order 250. (You may get a better rate, but I have yet to go through 250 business cards with my most up-to-date information).

Other Ideas

I received a business card that was hand-stamped, which is clear from the variation of the ink. This is a nice touch–it feels more personal, although it clearly requires getting a custom rubber stamp made and spending the time to cut and stamp card-stock. That extra effort isn’t going to help, for example, a mortgage loan officer, but it may give an edge to someone in a crafty line of work such as cake decorating. I’ve also seen cards in irregular shapes and sizes, which may stand out among a stack of other business cards, but may also get lost by because they can’t be filed with traditional-sized cards.

I’ve read a variety of articles lately heralding the death of the paper business card, but I think they are wrong. It’s a simple, easy, and inexpensive solution to passing on your contact information to an associate.

How not to apply for a job

October 12th, 2009

A little humor for a Monday morning:

In Phillies Fan Flees Game With World Series Rings, we discover that Matthew Mervine, the alleged crook, was caught because, in addition to being caught on tape, he stole the rings from an office after he had filled out a job application with his actual contact information.

Add that to your list of ways not to apply for a job: don’t steal from your future employer!

Networking for the Uninitiated

October 9th, 2009

Dealing with one job loss is quite enough, thank you, but a number of people (like Norm at Jobless and Less) are dealing with multiple layoffs in the past few years, the topic of Coping With a Job Loss–Again from the Wall Street Journal.

One of their tips mirrors something I’ve mentioned several times: volunteer. While I recommended volunteering as a way to fill resume gaps and get additional work experience, the article suggests finding “a volunteer activity that already involves a company you’re hoping will hire you.” Essentially, in addition to volunteering’s other benefits, it also helps you network.

The article also mentions online networking, through sites like LinkedIn and twitter. If you aren’t on LinkedIn, you should definitely join today.

Maintaining a network is good advice even if you aren’t currently job-hunting. As pointed out in Maintaining Networking Momentum After You Land the Job, you never know when you’ll need your network, so it’s best to maintain it in both good times and bad.

Networking doesn’t come naturally to most people. It often feels artificial and forced, although it doesn’t have to. For many people, it just takes a change in perspective.

Here’s a fun stick-figure slideshow that explains in detail: The Shy Connector. The most important point, to me, is that networking is not about bragging about your accomplishments and other shameless self-promotion. It is about finding out more about other people and what they do, letting them know about your skills, and suggesting areas where you can help their projects and businesses.

In another article, How to Network: For Introverts, I like the tip to invite people out for coffee, lunch, or a beer. Huge industry & networking events can be intimidating, but chatting with just one person, or a few other people, is often much easier.

I also like one of the comments on the article, from Mukul Gupta: arrive early to networking events. In addition to Mukul’s suggestion that early birds have an advantage in placing themselves by important and well-connected people, I think that it provides additional benefits. By arriving early you get to introduce yourself to a much smaller crowd, and you can introduce yourself to newcomers as they arrive. With such a tactic, it’s possible that, at any given time during the event, your will see more familiar than unfamiliar faces.

3 of my last 4 jobs came through my network, through not necessarily in typical ways: one job was through a friend’s boyfriend, whose company was hiring IT support; another was through a friend’s mother, who had a friend working for an Internet startup; the third was through a former co-worker, who knew of a position opening in web and information systems that matched my qualifications and recommended me for the job. A large part of networking is making sure that the people you know know about your skills and experience, and that you are looking for work.

Do you have networking tips for those new to networking? Share them in the comments below.

401(k) – Rollover, or Cash Out?

October 8th, 2009

If you recently lost your job, you may be wondering what to do with your 401(k) account. Even if you haven’t lost your job, you may still be wondering what to do with it, as many employers have stopped offering to match contributions or have eliminated the program entirely.

In most cases, you have 2 options:

  1. Rollover your account to an IRA
  2. Cash out your account

Cashing out may be tempting in the face of reduced income, an uncertain future, but all the usual bills. You should avoid cashing out if at all possible, though–when you cash out you will pay:

You may end up seeing only $650 for every $1000 in your account. Ouch!

Nearly all banks and credit unions offer IRA accounts. You can also get an IRA account through an investment management company like Vanguard, although their minimum investments may be substantially higher. A 401(k) rollover to a traditional IRA will incur no penalties, and you won’t pay taxes until you start taking distributions in retirement.

Other advantages of an IRA? You can take distributions without penalty (though you still have to pay taxes) for qualifying medical expenses, higher education expenses, and a first home purchase. It is also not at risk in the event that you have to declare bankruptcy (which is unlikely, since you are, without a doubt, a clever job hunter).

There are a few cases where it may make sense to cash it out. For example, if the penalty+tax is 25% and you have credit card debt with a 32% interest rate, it makes sense to cash out and pay off the debt.

(Remember that the value of your retirement account should be going up–if you expect a 7% return, then you are losing that return plus the 25% in penalties and taxes–which makes paying off that high-interest credit card seem like an even exchange. I would still lean towards an IRA rollover, though, because the IRA probably has a longer time horizon than your credit card bill.)

Also, if you don’t have a lot of savings and are not eligible for unemployment compensation, it may make sense to cash out your retirement account so that you are not immediately faced with the prospect of late payments and other financial mishaps. If you have a substantial 401(k) balance, you should be able to cash out just a portion of it, while rolling the remainder over to an IRA.

Hang on to that retirement account if you can!

Following the Jobs: Relocating for Work

October 5th, 2009

Monday’s Brazen Careerist blog had a post with 6 Tips for doing a long-distance job hunt, which is helpful if you you plan to be part of the increased number of job hunters relocating for work.

Relocating for work is a big step, even for someone who is young and relatively unattached: it can involve leaving behind a network of family-and-friends, and all the familiarity of a place you know well. For others, pulling up stakes could also mean selling a house, taking kids out of school, and possibly looking for two jobs in tandem. When does this decision make sense?

If your job skills are still in demand, but the demand has moved elsewhere, relocating might make sense. For example, if your experience is in the pharmaceutical industry and you saw Pfizer leave Kalamazoo, and later Ann Arbor, Mich., relocating to pharmaceutical hubs like Philadelphia or Boston might make sense.

On the other hand, if your job skills aren’t in high demand anywhere, like many manufacturing jobs these days, a better idea might be training and education that will prepare you for the jobs that are in demand in your area. A second career may also be more fulfilling, less disruptive, and frankly, less intimidating than moving.

You may have the misfortune of a double-whammy, where your skills are not in demand and your city is suffering widespread economic decline, such as cities like Las Vegas, Nev., or Fresno, Calif. In which case, you may want to check out 10 Cities for Job Growth in 2009 and see if any of those places sound good to you. If big cities aren’t your cup of tea, according to the August 2009 Unemployment Report, Montana and Iowa seem to be faring pretty well. Who knew?

As the Brazen Careerist article mentions, unless your skills are both rare and greatly in demand, applying for jobs in another city could be tough. No one wants to spend the money to fly you out for an interview if local talent is available, and companies that have relocation policies may not want to pay the extra up-front costs to move you. Pulling up stakes without a solid job offer, though, is an expensive and risky proposition.

Dress for Success: What to Wear to an Interview

October 5th, 2009

Kat at Smashing Pennies suggested I write about what to wear to an interview. This is an interesting topic and clearly one that is up for debate. For example, when I told my wife that open-toed shoes are definitely out for job interviews, she said I was crazy. I stand by my claim.

Of course, I read in the Wall Street Journal a year or two back about one executive who said he would never hire anyone with rubber-soled shoes. Perhaps that’s above my echelon, but I personally have never owned leather-soled dress shoes. If my Rockport wingtips are dressy enough for weddings and funerals, I hope they should suffice for a job interview.

Men: Neckties

Men, these are required in my opinion. Unless you are applying for a job as a bouncer at a dive bar or a rodeo clown, a dress shirt and a necktie is the minimum. Even if the job you are applying for doesn’t require such attire on the job, you need to show the interviewer that you are serious and not wasting his or her time. Get out your favorite silk noose and refresh your memory on the Half-Windsor knot.

On a side note, one nice thing about a necktie is that, in many scenarios, it can transform you from business casual to interview-ready in a few twists and turns. This can be helpful if you are rushing to a job interview directly from your current job, where your boss may be suspicious of your newfound interest in wool suits.

Men: Suits

This is a tough call. I would say that a suit is generally a good idea. Obviously, if you are in sales, in law, or work in the financial sector, a suit is a must. In other industries, there are some risks. If you are applying for a job in a very casual work environment, a suit might make you seem too stuffy. If you are applying for an entry-level job, the interviewer might think you are putting on airs.

On the other hand, some years ago when H. Ross Perot was running EDI, I heard that even their call center employees, who never interacted with a client face-to-face, were required to wear suit-and-tie every day. Not even blazer-and-slacks, but suit-and-tie. That’s definitely not a place to show up for an interview underdressed. Understanding the culture of the company should give you a good handle on this; I’ve often asked the receptionist at companies where I’ve interviewed what the dress code is like to get a good sense of this.

Women: Hosiery

This is a topic that, as a man, I know very little about. However, I recently ran across an etiquette survey in the October 2009 issue of Real Simple in which one of the questions was “Do you need to wear panty hose to an interview?” 23% said yes, but 67% said it depends on the workplace. I think this falls in line with men & suits — knowing a little about the company should go a long way in informing your opinion.

Women: Skin (& More)

Perhaps this goes without saying, but dress conservatively. Décolletage is out. Short skirts are out. My wife disagrees, but I say even open-toe shoes are out. Makeup? Conservative. Jewelry? Conservative. Unless you are applying for a position as a cocktail waitress, conservative is the rule.

At the same time, be yourself. If you wear something that isn’t like you at all, you may feel less comfortable–as interviews can be stressful for many people, you want to minimize that as much as possible.

Unisex: An Eye on the Time

Wear a wristwatch, if you have one (and it looks professional). I know we all keep the time on our cell phones now, but wearing a watch implies that you are a punctual person, and to punctual people are attributed a great many other traits, deserved and undeserved, such as: strong work ethic, attention to detail, highly organized.

These are just my guidelines. When in doubt, err on the side of caution, and remember: you are trying to impress people. Wear the dressiest thing you can imagine wearing on that particular job (e.g. meeting with an important client or giving a presentation to the CEO).

My wife says that most of these rules would be ridiculous in Hawai’i (neckties?!). Think I’m way off base? Or know of a case where erring on the side of caution backfired? Say so in the comments.

Community-Based Job-Hunt Help

October 2nd, 2009

Communities Band Together for Work (ABC News) describes several ways in which communities are helping their local job hunters:

  • Companies with empty desks are opening up as ad hoc coworking/collaboration spaces, facilitating new business ventures and partnerships.
  • Churches track Needs (people looking for work) and Leads (job openings) in a database to help match their congregants with open positions.
  • People are starting local job clubs to provide support to their job-hunting neighbors.

What kinds of activities have you seen in your communities to support job hunters?

The Psychological Impact of Long-Term Unemployment

October 2nd, 2009

A story on NPR this morning, Jobless Benefits Exhausted, Still No Work (audio), does not paint a pretty picture: more and more people are still jobless after 39 weeks and their unemployment benefits are ending (26 weeks of unemployment benefits + 13 weeks extended unemployment benefits).

Unemployment Duration - 53% less than 5 weeks, 39% between 5 and 26 weeks, 8% greater than 26 weeks

Unemployment Duration - 53% less than 5 weeks, 39% between 5 and 26 weeks, 8% greater than 26 weeks

Fortunately, most people do find work long before their unemployment benefits run out: according to the Congressional Budget Office, only 8% of unemployment spells exceed 26 weeks (PDF). And many states have extended unemployment benefits beyond 39 weeks.

How the Long-Term Unemployed Can Find Work, in yesterday’s US News and World Report, touches on the negative psychological effects of long-term unemployment. Work (as much as we may sometimes complain about it!) is a tremendously important part of our lives and our identities. The US News article offers some tips on how to combat those effects.

Some of the tips for combating unemployment-related depression listed in that article are the very things that Foxsuit wants to help job hunters with. Look for new features on the site in the coming weeks to help you keep you your spirits up and your job hunt on track.

Bad Job References? Crossing a Burnt Bridge

October 2nd, 2009

The Seven Deadly Myths of Job References discusses some common misconceptions about an important component of your job hunt: what your past employers will say about you.

I hope that you have had nothing but great employment experiences and that you are on good terms with all your old bosses. That’s my fortunate position–I would gladly work with any of them again, and I believe they would say the same about me.

However, I have worked with plenty of people who did not feel the same way and did not leave their jobs on good terms.

There is one point, perhaps obvious to most, that was not explicitly mentioned in “Seven Deadly Myths” and that bears repeating:

  • Ask Permission

Ask your former manager if you can use him or her as a reference. This alerts them to the fact that you are looking for work, and a reference check won’t come to them as a surprise. They may even decline, if they feel that their honest opinion won’t help you.

Use references that think highly of you and can speak well of you! An enterprising prospective employer might make a call or two off your listed references, but in many cases they will stick with the people you list.

Are you worried that someone might be passing along a negative reference? Maybe you have had dozens of good interviews that never pan out? Jobreferences.com offers a service to check your references for you

Is it worth $79 per reference? Only you can decide. But it’s safe to say that it pays not to burn your bridges.