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Eight Tips That Can Help You Land a Job

By SANDRA J. SPINKS

It’s 6 a.m., the sun has just broken through thick, gray clouds and I wish I were still in bed. Instead, I’m driving to a job-search group meeting in Milford, N.H. We gather weekly in a health club located between two open fields where free-ranging cattle leisurely graze. When the cows raise their heads to look at me, I feel guilty for eating hamburgers. In a way, I’m like them, free-ranging, hungry and unaware of what lies ahead.

The smell of freshly brewed coffee, laced with cinnamon, greets me as I enter. Our meeting room contrasts starkly to the tennis courts, sauna and swimming pools outside the door. But we of the “Unemployment Mentoring Group” are here to tone and restructure our resumes and careers, not our bodies.

There are eight of us, led by soft-spoken Alex. Today, we briefly discuss whether to add the word “support” to the groupֻs name. The men are against it, since they believe the meetings are for learning and networking, not support. Since I’m still new, I listen and observe.

I’ve noticed that job hunters speak a distinct language that has an other-worldly tone, like a complex mystical game. Phrases and terms such as “gatekeeper,” “storming the castle” and “headhunter” pepper our conversations. There’s even the phrase, “throw spaghetti against the wall.” In my family, this means dinner’s ready. In job-hunting, it means mailing hundreds of resumes, hoping one sticks.

Alex explains another term, “elevator speech.” “You should be able to summarize your job experience in the time it takes for an elevator to get from the first to the second floor,” he says. Of course, he’s not referring to the creaking vehicle that lurched upward at my last workplace. I make a note to myself: Time how long a new elevator takes.

Because of this language, I begin to see fellow job seekers as combatants dueling with dragon-like interviewers while trying to answer riddles conjured by sorcerers. All of us have been battling these forces for a year or longer, suffering wounds that include every type of interview insult, unreturned telephone calls and the despair of being passed over. We gather weekly to recount these skirmishes and rework strategies. Like a warped record, our stories skip and repeat in the same places. New warriors arrive and we train them, too. It’s serious fighting and only the smartest and bravest emerge victorious.

Still, group members remain upbeat. For instance, an airline pilot who’s had more than his share of bad luck exudes warmth and confidence. It’s hard to believe that he hasn’t been hired yet. Now he’s on his third interview for a job, and while his skills aren’t ideal, the interviewers like him. We all nod. It’s important to be liked. “Hiring is made on an emotional level then justified on a logical level,” the pilot says. The room falls silent.

These sessions have helped me hone my resume into a fine fighting instrument and learn to parry and dodge interviewers’ questions. I feel I've been given the keys to the job-hunting kingdom. Hear them jingle and heed the lessons each unlocks:

Key 1: A resume that survives the sieve

A human-resources director at a large medical center says she spends six seconds reviewing a resume. Six seconds! Granted, the directors says she receives up to 1,000 resumes for each advertised opening, but I have a chilling vision of her sitting glassy-eyed at her desk, highlighter poised as she stabs resume after resume. Soon, though, even this minor human element will be eliminated as companies optically scan resumes into computer databases, then search for candidates using “key words.”

To survive the resume sieve, I learned to salt my document with buzzwords that highlight my skills. I replaced soft phrases such as “I headed up a team,” with the crisper, more descriptive “managed a national program.” I did the same thing with my budget and operational strengths. A single phrase such as, “managed an $8 million budget, supervised a five-year construction project,” is more impressive than the two paragraphs I used before. I use active verbs – supervised, managed, planned, controlled – and personalize my resume to match each position.

Key 2: Membership in a helpful job club

Don’t hesitate, as I did, to join one. You’d be surprised by how many competent, well-educated professional people participate. Don’t worry if you aren’t comfortable at your first meeting. I located groups through my local library and unemployment office, but found some to be too large and chaotic for my needs. It took some exploring to find one I liked. (Check the calendar of events in this issue for groups in your area.)

After joining, become involved. Shy members were the first to drop out of our group. It also took them longer to find jobs. By participating, you’ll boost your confidence. My group would analyze members’p practice interviews and recommend improvements. During one of these “review sessions,” I told a group member that he looked up instead of directly at an interviewer. He explained that he looked away to gather his thoughts, but after my observation, his eye contact and interview performance improved.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. My newly redesigned resume helped me land more interviews but not more offers, so I rehearsed with the group. During these role-playing sessions, I always mentioned a prestigious Harvard Medical School job I’d held 25 years earlier. One group member thought I was bragging since the position was no longer in my field. He was right, and I stopped mentioning this detail, thanks to his observation.

Key 3: A willingness to network – a lot!

Group members insist that networking pays off, and scolded me for not bringing resumes and business cards to my first meeting. Indeed, Alex says he would have found a new position sooner if he’d networked more from the outset. He carries a three-ring binder that includes names and telephone numbers of people in his industry. I, too, soon carried stacks of resumes and cards in my briefcase and wallet.

Of course, I should have learned this lesson earlier, since the best networker I know lives with me. In the 25 years that I’ve known him, my husband has always carried a small black notebook of telephone numbers of everyone he’s ever met. This makes it easy for him to stay in touch with his network. In fact, when he was unemployed several years ago, he called them all to say he was looking, and within a month he found a job.

Key 4: Friendships with other candidates; they know what you're going through

Become friendly with other unemployed people, while staying in contact with working colleagues. It’s good to have people besides personal friends to talk to about your job search. No matter how funny or compelling your interview stories seem, friends may grow tired of hearing them.

You can add your new friends to your network, but don’t share everything with your unemployed buddies, especially not potential jobs they’re qualified for. Even Alex stopped me from naming a company I interviewed with. “There are sharks and bottom-feeders everywhere,” he says.

Key 5: Books and the information highway

Local public libraries are gold mines of information for job seekers. My library is connected to an online database designed to aid job hunters in my region. It also carries listings of jobs in other cities on microfiche. I spent hours each week reviewing these sources and publications that carry job openings (including this one) for possible leads.

Before each interview, I searched the library’s CD-ROM business publication database for articles or information about the company. I reviewed library books for tips on resume preparation and interviewing. I also had access to word-processing equipment for writing my resumes and cover letters.

Unemployment offices are other good resources. Those in my area offer online databases, job-hunting publications and information about state and federal job openings.

Key 6: Tricks for avoiding gatekeepers

Gatekeepers are employees who block job hunters from speaking or meeting with hiring managers. Unfortunately, they’re often HR personnel, who prefer to “hire the same personality types from the same schools or job areas,” as they are, says a friendly HR director.

His assessment rang true, especially after one HR director told me he preferred to hire managers from fast-food restaurants. This HR director works for an HMO, and I have yet to figure out the connection between hamburgers and health care, except that they both begin with the letter “H.”

Other gatekeepers I’ve encountered have been equally obnoxious:

Quirk the Forgetful kept asking me, “Why are you here?” during my interview. At first, I reminded him that he’d invited me to interview. Finally, I told him it was because it was physically impossible for me to be anywhere else. I then asked Quirk for the name of the hiring manager and contacted this person to express my interest in the position. During our conversation, the hiring manager described his frustration with the HR department, and specifically with Quirk.

Slumbering Silas actually fell asleep while I was answering the question, “Tell me about yourself.” (It was after hearing this story that Alex urged me to prepare an elevator speech.) I woke Silas by tapping him with my resume and asking where I should go for my next interview. He was so embarrassed he immediately located the hiring official and asked him to see me.

With a smile on her gnarled face, Salina the Serpent, a half-human, half-dragon receptionist, insisted her company didn’t interview people “off the streets.” I felt like a piece of gum stuck to a shoe but showed her a letter from the company president inviting me to interview then asked to use the telephone to call the president directly. She slithered into the HR director’s office and solicited an interview for me within seconds.

A group member who’d worked as a consultant to the president of a midsize computer firm tells a similar story. The president called to invite him to interview for a permanent job, but when he arrived, the HR director said the president would never place such a call and asked him to leave.

The next day, the HR director called to apologize and ask him to return to meet with the president. When he arrived, the president’s secretary also insisted her boss didn’t call candidates. This time, the candidate waited. When the president was leaving for lunch he saw the consultant, asked him to interview and offered him a job.

The advice from my HR friend? If you have to go through HR channels, learn in advance what types of candidates they prefer. “Talk to employees in the same position and find out where they went to school, or what jobs they held prior being hired,” he says. “Find the pattern.”

HR personnel will try to keep you from meeting hiring officials, he says. Try to learn the person’s name and arrange a meeting anyway. “If you can’t find someone who knows that individual, who can recommend you for an interview,” he says. “The key is meeting face to face; a resume won’t get you a job.”

The friendly HR director, a former member of the job-search group, thought he would find a position quickly after losing his job. But even he was frustrated by HR gatekeepers. When he started networking with everyone except HR people, he landed a job within a few months. Now he’s accessible, friendly and helpful to job seekers. For example, when I identified myself as a member to his former job-search group, he immediately took my call and asked how he could help.

Key 7: A realistic view of headhunters

No members of any group I attended found a new position through an executive recruiter. Some were bitter about their experiences with headhunters. One unemployed executive says a recruiter told him about an opening for an MIS director at an Austin, Texas, bank. If the executive wanted the job, he’d have to fly there for an interview next week, the recruiter said. Thinking he had an interview, the candidate spent $1,500 on airline tickets and a new suit, then flew to Austin.

“When I got there it was a different story,” he says. “The person I was supposed to meet with asked me to come back the next day. When he couldn’t meet with me [then], I called the headhunter, who confessed he had learned about the opening from the guy who’d quit. The following day, the HR director told me the bank was considering major reorganization and trying to hold on to people they had.” The executive had no choice but to leave his resume and return home.

Group members advise contacting recruiters selectively. Only work with reputable firms that specialize in your field, and don’t count on an out-of-town interview until the prepaid airline tickets are in your hand.

Key 8: Know when to storm the castle

A month after my third interview for a position, I didn’t know whether I was still a candidate. At our last meeting, the director said he’d get back me in two weeks. Meanwhile, he said not to call since several personnel changes were needed before he could make a final decision.

Alex had no patience with this. “Sandra, it’s time to storm the castle,” he said. This meant calling the manager and emphasizing how much I wanted the job. “Ask for another interview,” Alex suggested. “Aren’t there more things you’d like to say?”

It was the nudge I needed. This was the final duel, and I wasn’t giving up without a fight. I called the director, not realizing how important this move would be.

The director told me he hadn’t realized a month had passed. Two managers had left the organization, and he’d been waiting for a new supervisor to be hired to approve his selection. That very day, the director decided not to wait any longer. He offered me the job over the telephone. If I’d waited longer, though, a new supervisor might not have approved his choice.

My war is over, so I’m passing the keys to you. Practice your elevator speech, cook plenty of spaghetti and don’t get thwarted by the gatekeeper when you try to storm the castle.

-- Ms. Spinks is a team leader for state and local assistance at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Nashua, N.H.

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