Jumping back into the job market

SSON News and Analysis
Posted: 07/09/2012

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It’s fair to say the last 12 months haven’t been the best of times, economically speaking: the worst financial crisis in recent memory has kicked off a genuinely global downturn - pushing some of the biggest names in business into bankruptcy - and while some parts of the world appear to have moved into a recovery phase, others remain well and truly depressed with little sign of improvement in the short term at least. But behind such macro-facing phrases as "global downturn" and "recovery phase" lies the human element, the millions of personal tales of struggle and toil which are the true face of the recession. In every sector, in every geography, men and women - some of whom have been in steady jobs for decades - have been driven out into the cold and, for many, unfamiliar environment of unemployment. Even in a growth field such as shared services many swingeing cuts have had to be made by firms desperately trying to keep above water - and, of course, for many organizations the advantages posed by outsourcing, already tempting in terms of their long-term bottom-line benefits, are proving too alluring to resist, resulting in yet more layoffs and role reallocations.

So for those unfortunate enough to have suffered the worst impact of company downsizing or liquidation, and facing - perhaps for the first time in many years - the pressing need to get back out into the job market and secure another position, what steps can be taken to help ensure that their stay in the employment wilderness is as short as possible? (article continued below)


The first challenge for many is the biggest: finding a suitable vacancy to apply for. Of course, the problem with a generalized, globalized downturn such as this is that just at the time when large numbers of individuals are entering the market, the number of available positions is shrinking in inverse proportion. Whereas during the recent boom- times one could be fairly confident of finding another shared services or outsourcing role relatively quickly, as companies moved in greater and greater numbers towards these centralized models, now even within those fields the number of available roles has declined - so finding jobs for which to apply in the first place has become a significant challenge.

The first stop is the obvious one, says Christina Langley, MD of Langley Search & Selection: make sure you’re paying attention to the press."Keeping a close eye on the media and understanding recruitment trends is an important way of staying informed about possible opportunities in the market. You should endeavour to get to know which periodicals, newspapers, job-boards and websites are useful for your job-search."

Rodney Crouch of recruiters Xchange Team agrees, urging new job-seekers to do as much research as possible even if they think they already know everything there is to know about their trade.  "Know your market and level/role: decide what you want to do and focus on that sector. Learn about it: trends, projects, competitors, skills, roles, salaries, internal structures, hiring processes, routes to hire (direct, HR, online, agency). Even if you think you know it, check it out. You may have worked in the sector but still not know how everybody else does things. [Carry out] online research on job boards, trade sites, job blogs, specialist print media - and network network network: family, friends, ex-work colleagues."

The importance of the networking element can’t be overstated. Without exception, every recruitment specialist contacted for this article highlighted leveraging one’s personal network as one of the single most crucial things a new entrant to the job market can do.

"Keep all the business cards and contact lists you have created over your career," advises Greg Sterett, CEO, Sterett Enterprises. "Start refreshing those contacts.  Let them know you are looking for new opportunities and ask if you can send them a copy of your resume to get their feedback or advice on how it looks to them or if they have any suggestions for changes.  This gets it in their hands without feeling like you are expecting them to find you a job." 

"The mantra for any job seeker during these times is ‘networking’," agrees Steve Wojack, Director of Recruiting, University of Washington Medical Centers HR. "Use the people in your industry or specialty that you have worked with in the past as a sounding board for openings.  There are very few actual openings and even fewer that are posted… Realize that finding your next job is a job in itself."

Finding an appropriate vacancy, of course, depends in no small part on the job-seeker’s definition of "appropriate". Many people new to the job-market are overly confident that they will automatically be entitled to a job at the same level as the one they’ve just left (and in many cases due to financial commitments feel compelled to seek remuneration at or above that which they have been receiving prior to unemployment). This can be a costly mistake, as Wojakc explains: "The one thing that most people are either not prepared for or unwilling to realize is that you will have to take a pay cut.  I know that's a hard pill to swallow but organizations are cutting back on positions and overall expenses. They hold the best hand in this poker game and we have to understand that.  For every position there will be five times the candidates as before - so you have to be prepared better than all of them."

Greg Sterett concurs:  "Don't expect to quickly find a dream job or even replace the one you had with the same income, prestige, etc. If you are a really good employee you should have no trouble excelling on the job once you get there. You may have to take two steps back to take three steps forward later." 

Taking steps back may be, in Wojack’s words, a "hard pill to swallow" but increasingly job-seekers are coming to realize that the flexibility and choice they might previously have enjoyed has gone, at least for a while. Applicants now must be prepared to consider positions which pay less; entail fewer responsibilities; offer more restrictive working conditions in terms of vacation, travel and other perks; and are less convenient geographically (ie, lie further in commuting terms from the prospective applicant’s home, or even necessitate a move). However, if the alternative is no job at all, it’s a no-brainer for all but the independently wealthy: if you need a job, period, you’ll almost certainly have to consider a ‘worse’ job than your last, at least in order to be able to take Street’s "three steps forward later".

(Having said that, it’s also important that if you’ve decided you’re willing to "take two steps back" you don’t come across as someone in freefall, as Wojack explains: "It’s amazing how many great candidates we are getting for positions that they are overqualified and overcompensated for.  When we do interview them they have a tendency to come across as desperate saying they'll do anything for any compensation package.  The few that come across as confident, and are prepared, have fared much better… The market has been hit across the board as far as job-types.  What most employers are looking for are mid level experienced people that they can get at a reasonable wage: someone who exudes high energy - don't put that on your resume - and confidence that they can do the job and explain the how and why.")

Having found a vacancy, it’s crucial that your application is sufficiently interesting and exciting for the employer to consider you for the next step - and that means, of course optimizing your resume/CV before you apply.

"There are many different opinions on how to maximize the impact of your CV in the marketplace," says Christina Langley. "Most of these opinions focus around the format and content of your CV. Recruitment consultancies, HR professionals, hiring managers, colleagues and friends and family may all have a view on how bet  to present yourself on the page. A dilemma! However there are a number of ‘tried and tested’ principles. The CV should: inform the reader about what you have recently been doing; inform the reader about what you have accomplished (quantified if possible); inform the reader about what you want; inform the reader about what you have to offer. Employers want to know what they are getting, not what they might be getting at some point in the future."

Langley continues: "Your CV is an information document first and foremost. But we all know that information is received best (and remembered) when the presentation of that information is succinct and engaging. Your CV is the tool by which you ‘sell yourself’ and is often your first introduction to future employers. As such it is important to get it ‘right’. Also remember that different people read your CV – it sometimes pays to have different versions of your CV to allow for different audiences."

Langley offers some useful tips on resume format:

  • Keep to a maximum of three pages
  • Most significant achievements on Page 1
  • Succinct and easy to read
  • Present your experience before your qualifications
  • Make sure your contact details are very visible (and given!)
  • For permanent positions a chronological CV is often best; for interim roles a competency-based CV is often more successful

"Don’t try and tell your whole story in one document," add Rodney Crouch. "CVs should be short and to the point - maximum two or three pages - and focus on successes, not long descriptions of roles. They are designed to do one thing and one thing only: to get you in front of the employer so you can look them in the eye and show them how good you are." 

For applicants for shared services roles specifically it’s important to give hard details about your prior achievements in similar positions which you believe will be of interest to your prospective employer (see below). If you know the role for which you’re applying will involve putting in new software, give as much information as you can (while sticking to the aforementioned guidelines on length, of course) on, for example, the scope and scale of any systems implementation projects you might have managed; similarly if the position will include managing a headcount reduction demonstrate how and how well you’ve done this previously. No two shared services organizations are the same - so when Langley talks of having different versions of your resume for different audiences, recognize that you may have to tailor your document very specifically to the needs of the SSO you’re applying to join. And that means researching the role very carefully.

Knowing about the job for which you’re applying is absolutely crucial, and even more so after you’ve tailored your resume: asking the right questions within an interview, and being able to answer the interviewers’ own questions with specific reference to the needs of the company you’re hoping to join, could make the difference between success and failure. 

"Preparing for interviews is the one thing that can truly influence the hiring manager," says Steve Wojack. "Go to their websit,e learn what they do and find out about their industry.  The more you know about them the more you will be able to share what you can bring to them and your skill sets."

"When on a job interview, avoid trying to sell your skills and talents to fill a position until you are sure what they expect from a good job candidate," recommends Greg Sterett. "Ask questions about the job, understand what they are looking before you try to explain how your experience has given you the strengths and skills to meet or exceed their expectations.  Be interested in the job, the company, the workplace, know their goals, issues and strategies. If you can't find much info, ask an employee when they are leaving or run into one at lunch or ask a competitor or vendor, or ask your interviewer if you can ask some initial questions so you have a better understanding of the job and what skills they are looking for in a good candidate."

It’s no surprise that the interview itself will be, for most applicants, the decisive element in the process. Invariably, recruiters advise spending a significant period pre-interview on preparation - which will help not only for that given interview, but generally with future interviews should this one prove unsuccessful.

Rodney Crouch suggests practicing a "story" which will convey immediately and impressively your major attributes as a prospective employee.

"Develop and practice your five-to-ten-minute story – this is a ‘quick’ summary, highlighting major successes and reasons for job moves. [You] should focus on introducing examples of making a difference; if interviewers want to hear more they will ask. This allows you to bring the interview to the important part quickly. Spending 30 minutes talking about what you did ten years ago is not productive and will send interviewers to sleep. In the first five or ten minutes you make or break the interview. Learn it off by heart so it doesn’t sound rehearsed, but make sure all the points sell you. Know yourself - why are you different and better?"

"The best preparation for interviews begins with taking interview questions and writing out your answers," says independent HR consultant Marie Raines. "Once you are comfortable with each of your answers request a mock interview with someone in your network who is at the level you will be interviewing."

"Job interviews are much debated and there are many suggestions in the public domain of how to successfully navigate through them," says Christina Langley, who offers the following useful tips for optimal performance during the interview itself: 

  • Be honest
  • Be ‘present’ and engaged with the interviewer
  • Be informed about the job and company
  • Talk about what you have done and not what you might do
  • Strike a healthy balance between asking questions and listening
  • Build rapport through firm handshakes, eye contact and subtly matching body language and verbal language
  • Don’t speak badly of your recent employer – loyalty is valued by most hiring managers
  • Ask relevant questions – find out about the job/company and prospects. Remember an interview is not one-sided – you need to find out if the job is right for you!
  • Express your interest in moving on to the next stage at the end of the interview

"Good recruitment consultancies will offer you interview preparation/coaching to refresh your skills," reminds Langley.

Of course, applicants shouldn’t expect to secure the first job for which they apply, even after what might feel like superhuman preparation. It’s imperative to realize that this is most likely going to be a process that takes a great deal of energy and perhaps a good deal of time - after all, you’ve got to remember that this is the toughest job market in many years for a reason: there are a lot of folk out there in a very similar position. Job-seekers simply can’t afford to let themselves get beaten down by initial failures.

Wojack emphasizes the need for dedication and persistence in the face of tough competition for precious vacancies: "Realize that you will be rejected more than accepted and understand that the rejection is of your skill set, not you personally.  If you are rejected find out what was the reason for the rejection and work on that."

"The major obstacle to secure a job quickly is a person's willingness to do the hard work required to focus and pursue their job search," advises Marie Raines. "For many of the unemployed contacting people they don't know is uncomfortable. Many steps in the job search process are new and take practice. Also, evaluating your experience and skill-set against the current job market can be challenging. Once an individual can clearly articulate who they are and the value they bring to a job then they can find the company that wants to hire them."

"Lack of organization is a big obstacle," cautions Christina Langley, "and being over-optimistic in terms of the time it takes to find the right next role. Job seekers should treat the job search as a full time job in itself – get organized, get your spreadsheets set up and brought forward system in place. Spend the time meeting people and building relationships. Network and get your office space organized. Take some time off – but plan for this in what should be a busy schedule – do not let taking time out take over. Get down to it!

"In today’s more difficult market," Langley continues, "it will pay to have a parallel strategy of looking for permanent and interim roles from the start. About one in twenty of interim roles turn permanent and many candidates complete an interim role which securing their next permanent job. Always try to get detailed feedback on interviews and on your CV. ‘All feedback is good feedback!’ It is tempting not to do this when you are unsuccessful but in these cases it is important to understand where you did not ‘hit the mark’ and adjust things for next time."

"Use your time wisely," concludes Greg Sterett. "It could be a good time to also do those things you always wanted to do but never did when you had a full-time job, like write a book, play in a band, learn photography, etc. This could be your chance. People that succeed make success out of their situation, they don't wait for success to come to them. Anyway, life is a journey not a destination, so enjoy the trip."

Finally, although it’s clear that the tough times are far from over, there are at last indications that the market may be starting to get a little easier for applicants (although that’s certainly no reason not to put the hard hours in, as advised above).

"Most of our clients are telling us that they will need to recruit in Q3/Q4 this year – many have slashed their teams and cannot deliver what they need to deliver now and their teams are exhausted and being asked to carry a heavy workload," Christina Langley explains. "Some confidence is returning. We believe that we are seeing ‘green shoots’ in the interim area first and that permanent requirements will follow although this is a fragile recovery that could be hit by any future market shocks."

"Clients are now hiring for definite roles and going through with it," believes Rodney Crouch. "Three to six months ago many roles were pulled after interview as budgets disappeared or the job was not really there in the first place. Interviews were used as information gathering about competitors as much as anything else."

Visit the SSON job board 
SSON News and Analysis
Posted: 07/09/2012


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