Frustrated. Isolated. Panicked. Discouraged. These are just some of the emotions experienced by job hunters, especially those who have been on the hunt for a while. In my work with Veterans seeking new or better jobs, I have come to recognize some common elements among those who feel lost and disheartened in pursuit of meaningful work, or in some cases, just a job to cover their financial obligations. First, many do not understand that transition, be it from the military to civilian life, or from one job to another, is a process. The process is both universal in nature and unique in experience.
Secondly, many long-term job hunters are only going through the motions. They are falling prey to the insanity described by Einstein as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. A job search strategy that fails to deliver a job, needs a serious relook. Yes, in June 2015 the job market is challenging as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- 8.7 million (5.5%) Americans are unemployed
- 2.4 million <5 weeks; 2.5 million>27 weeks or more
- 6.7 Involuntary part-time workers
- 1.9 million “marginally attached” to the workforce
However, in the June 2015 Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) reports:
- Job Openings: 5.4 million on the last business day of April, the highest point since the series began in December 2000
- Separations: 4.9 million in April (of which 1.8 were layoffs or discharges)
This means that while unemployment remains relatively high, there is a lot of movement and opportunity. There is work to be had. The real question is, how do you become one of those filling one of these job openings? Well, it starts with a little new learning and serious re-look and re-commitment at the job seeking strategy.
Transition as a Process
The number one writer in the area of Transition is William Bridges. Bridges is unique in that he is frequently cited in both academic and popular press. He describes transition as a three-phased psychological reorientation process.
Phase I of Bridge's model is the "ending, losing, and letting go" phase. This is often an emotional roller coaster – a surprise to many. Anger, denial, bargaining, depression, isolation, and disillusionment are all common emotions. There is no particular order to these emotions and unfortunately, it is not one time and done. Bridges' and my own experience suggest you can’t move ahead without letting go of past. However, one should not abandon all of the past, but rather selectively let go of those things that are not appropriate for this point and time, while retaining what is best, relevant, and useful. This selective letting go requires brutal honesty, a realistic perspective, and self-reflection.
In the second Phase of the model, what Bridges calls "the neutral zone." However, I call "the wilderness" because I don't think there is anything neutral about the experience. In this phase, the old structures are loosening their hold, but the new ones are still hazy. This is a time of challenge, but also one of great opportunity. It is also critical path to the future, impacting every aspect of our lives - physical, mental, emotional, relational, financial, and spiritual. Integrity, planning, and execution are key to successfully traversing this phase.
Finally, there is a new beginning and new work. Maybe not the work that was envisioned or preferred, but there is potential. Successfully navigating the transition process will bring confidence and learning. We will have learned that the transition process is not linear and tidy. It is messy. It is full of ups and downs. We will have learned that each journey is unique and that we are often confronted with multiple transitions at the same time. As Sonita Loyd says in Your Place in the World: Creating a Life of Vision, Purpose, and Service, "we are not required to heal all of our wounds before we begin, so feel the fear and walk forward anyway. This is a journey the world needs us to take, and if you have come this far, you are already on the path."
From Theory to Practice: Advice for the Serious Job Seeker
The advice that follows is designed specifically for those who have been looking work for several months. The underlying assumption is that the current strategy is not working and change is required. I am also moving from the third-person academic to the first-person "you." This is my personal advice, the same advice I would give you if you were sitting my office.
The recommendations that follow assume a sense of seriousness, urgency, and lack of ego. Coming from a military background, I believe in the value of stating a set of guiding principles or "rules of engagement (ROE)" at the beginning of any major effort where the results matter. Here are the ROE for this career search restart:
- Be brutally honest with yourself – tell others what you want, but don’t kid yourself
- Do not share this analysis or notes with anyone – protect your ideas and protect your privacy; create safety
- Get everything out of your head and down on paper or electrons. Keep a journal, notebook, or electronic file handy
- Be specific, don’t generalize – no hand waving
- Don’t commit to a course of action you are not really going to do – respect yourself
Four Steps for Job Search Restart
What follows is a four step process to assist you in organizing your efforts. To summarize:
- Step 1: Clarify
- the work you seek
- the target employer(s)
- Step 2: Identify
- strengths and liabilities
- what are the things standing in the way of employment – really
- actions necessary to address key obstacles
- Step 3: Plan
- detail your job search to incorporate new insights
- craft the key stories you must be able to tell
- Refresh resume, profiles, virtual presence, dress and appearance
- Step 4: Act – Assess – Adjust
- work on the job hunt everyday – not just talk about
- have faith
Step 1: Clarify
Many of those who have been looking for work for a while, long enough that the first burst of confidence and energy has faded, simply can't answer the questions… what kind of work do you want to do, what kind of work will you do, and for whom? I believe that this lack of clarity and a "oh, I don't know" or "oh, anything" is a major detriment to the effective job search. It is far more efficient to pick a couple of types of work which are reasonable targets and focus the job search on them.
These are the questions you should ask yourself. Capture your responses on paper or in electrons:
- What are your top five skills?
- What are three things you do not want to do?
- What can you not do (disability, family situation)
- Are you willing to move? If so, what would be the enticement?
- How much money do you realistically need? What is the least for which you are willing to work?
- Will you work part-time, for commission, independent contractor (1099 employee)?
- Will you work for a staffing agency?
- What kind of employer do you prefer? Public, private, non-profit, small business, large business, local or multisite?
- What industry, what career field?
Step 2: Identify
In the Rules of Engagement outlined above, the Number One injunction is to be brutally honest with yourself. This is where that rules becomes critical. In this step you are challenged to identify your strengths and liabilities, not just from your personal perspective, but from the perspective of a potential employer. As a longtime consultant I know that most of the time we know why something doesn't work, but we pretend otherwise. We don't want to face a reality that may be unjust, unfair, hurtful or challenging to change. Be of courage!
In terms of the job hunt, here are some specific items you should consider (and write down):
- Identify your strengths and liabilities
- What are the strengths you bring to the employer (really!)?
- What are the things standing in the way of employment – really? Age, gender, appearance, education (too much, too little, too long ago), lack of technology skills, handicap (real or perceived), sexual orientation, religion or lack thereof, marital status…
- What can you and what are you willing to do to address key obstacles?
As you answer these questions, I would like to add two cautions. First, there is virtually nothing that an employer might want to know about you that is not available online. Accept that fact and be prepared to address it. Secondly, if your technology skills are weak and your disciplinary knowledge dated - you can fix that (and must) for very little money. This is particularly germane for older job seekers, especially those seeking good paying "white collar" jobs in the "information age."
Step 3: Plan
When I ask job seekers what is their job search strategy, I often get a blank stare. Finding work demands a deliberate and thoughtful plan. Yes, occasionally someone will just fall into a position, but for the post part, the good jobs go to the person with a plan. Here are some key actions:
- Layout your job search, incorporating new insights from Steps 1 and 2 above
- Lay plans out on a calendar – what and when (no “happy talk”)
- Refresh your resume, social media profiles, virtual presence, dress and appearance
- Craft the key stories you must be able to tell, starting with the "big four":
- Tell me a little about yourself
- What kind of work do you want to do?
- How does your experience fit with the job you want?
- Why did you leave your last job?
- If you are looking for a sophisticated position, then be prepared to answer the more complex questions. Spend some time online exploring various websites which provide sample questions.
- Be prepared to respond in case the prospective employer is using a Performance Based Interview (PBI) format. A good place to get a feel for this type of interview and typical questions is on the Veterans Administration website at: http://www.va.gov/pbi/
Step 4: Act-Assess-Adjust
The final step on the professional and effective job hunt is the cycle of action-assessment-fine-tuning. There are two common postures I've seen among long-term job hunters. First, is the person who complains bitterly about having "sent out 200 resumes and no one cared enough to respond back." In one case, the individual had a seven page generic resume with every excruciating detail of their career but didn't include contact information!
At the other extreme, are individuals who are so panicked about finding a job and are listening to every person with an opinion on resumes (and we are legion), that they have so many versions of their resume that they are confused and drowning. Neither extreme is useful in the serious job hunt. The key is to put together the most thoughtful plan, pursue it diligently, and then give it time to work. As you gain new insights and better understand employer needs and wants, make judicious changes.
- work on the job hunt every day – not just talk about it
- get out of the house – network
- stay positive, healthy, and pay attention to your relationships - this is hard work
It is my sincere hope that by rethinking and recommitting to your job hunt that you will find meaningful work - quickly.