Know what you can and can’t do

Mom always told me, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” Dad said, “Learn some real skills, so you can support yourself.” Turns out they were both right.

When it comes to careers, you can shoot for the stars. But when it comes to applying for jobs — those pesky little steps that will get you to the heights you seek — you need to be realistic. Know what you can and can’t do.

In other words, if the job calls for Spanish fluency and your only experience with the language was a year of high school study, don’t apply. You aren’t qualified.

“Today’s hiring practices are mission-specific,” said Brian Cork, founder and managing partner of Brian Cork Human Capital, an Alpharetta, GA  recruiting, coaching and consulting firm.

The company isn’t looking for someone who could learn a skill, given time and training. “They want someone who can do the job and contribute to the company right now,” he said.

Yet many applicants don’t seem to be listening.

“Because of technology and the Internet, many job-seekers are taking a shotgun approach to applications,” said Andy Decker, regional vice president of Robert Half International, a specialized staffing corporation with offices in Atlanta. “They figure they’ll cast the widest net and see what happens. It only leads to frustration.”

Hiring managers report being flooded with applications from unqualified candidates, to whom they don’t respond. When companies post jobs, they get hundreds of applications, but they’re lucky if 20 percent are even remotely qualified, Decker said.

Overwhelmed by online applications that don’t meet the requirements, many companies turn to staffing agencies or recruiting firms to help them fill positions.

“They come to us, because they don’t want to go through the screening of 300 to 400 applications for one vacancy, especially when most résumés won’t show the exact skills needed,” said Phyllis Finley, vice president and regional director in Georgia of Randstad USA. “They know that we’ll set the pool of talent aside that doesn’t even come close [and submit only the viable candidates].”

Staffing agencies and executive search firms help candidates improve job-search skills and also help employers define job openings to ask for the most critical skills and competencies.

“That way, when an ad says that we’re looking for someone with sales experience in the stainless-steel industry, we aren’t kidding. That’s what we really want, and, if you don’t have it, you’re wasting your time applying,” said Dave Brown, president of D.F. Brown & Associates, an Atlanta-based retained search firm.

People apply for jobs for which they don’t meet the credentials out of desperation or inexperience in the job market, he said. They think that applying to more positions will increase their odds of finding work. New graduates may not know exactly what work fits their skills.

“Applying to several hundred jobs that you really aren’t qualified to do only increases your stress and the stress of hiring managers, who have to screen all those applications,” Decker said. “You’re much better off finding and applying to eight jobs that you could do.”

Reading comprehension

The first step is to read the job posting or classified ad carefully and understand it.

“The average person doesn’t read an ad very carefully. Someone may see the words ‘project manager’ and fire off a résumé but miss the fact that the company wanted a construction project manager, not an IT project manager,” Cork said.

His advice is to read the job description twice. Then, on one side of a piece of paper, write down all the qualifications for the job.

“On the other side, write down the real skills and experiences you have that apply [to the requirements] — ones that you could defend to the death in an interview,” he said. “If you don’t have at least a 70 percent match, don’t apply.”

The first thing Decker tells job-seekers to do is to take a realistic inventory of what they know how to do and what they do well.

“Also ask yourself what are the ‘stretch’ skills or abilities that you could grow into and what you can’t do or don’t want to do,” he said.

If you understand your skills and abilities and meet five or six out of eight requirements in a job description, you have a chance. Doing a realistic self-assessment makes it easier to align yourself with the right job opportunities.

Bridge the gaps

Because there are few perfect matches between résumés and job descriptions, you have to show a hiring manager why you should be considered for an interview.

“Do this by researching the organization and tailoring your résumé and cover letter to the job and company,” Decker said.

A well-formatted, well-written résumé shows that you understand the business world and pay attention to detail. A cover letter written directly to the hiring manager shows initiative and effort, he said, adding, “A poorly done résumé and generic cover letter won’t impress anyone. It’s very important to companies that you are looking for their job, not a job.”

For example, you can explain in a cover letter that you don’t have experience in the preferred software named in the job description but that you have experience in comparable software.

“You can also relate that your last boss said that you learned new software faster than anyone else on his team,” Decker said.

You can explain how some of your skills and competencies are transferable. If part of the job is managing and you’ve developed people in previous jobs, show how that competency would apply to this position, Finley said.

“If you can show that, by doing A, you could also do B, your application may get moved to the stack of applicants who get an interview,” she said. “Candidates who can tell stories of what they’ve done — and relate it to the employer’s needs — win.”

The intangibles

“Personality and cultural fit can be nearly as important as technical fit,” Decker said. “In a survey,

49 percent of hiring managers said that they trusted their gut instincts at least some of the time. Most companies tell us that they are looking for the best overall candidate, not necessarily the one with the exact skill set.”

Honesty is always the best policy, Brown said.

“Companies do checks on applicants’ qualifications, education and references. You always lose when you try to disguise experience that you don’t have,” Brown said. “If you haven’t had leadership experience, you could talk about the types of managers you’ve had and what you’ve learned from them.

“Focus on what you want to do, but apply to those jobs where you meet most of the criteria now.”

You always can volunteer within your professional organization or take courses to keep adding to your skill set, he said.

Applying to every job on a company’s Web site raises a red flag with hiring managers.

“It says you don’t know what you can do or what you want,” Decker said. “Jobs have different skill sets. Apply to those that are closest to yours.”

Acknowledging in your cover letter that a highly desired job is a slight stretch may open other opportunities.

“One woman was a little light on skills for a controller position, but, because she had a realistic grasp of her skills and showed a willingness to learn, the company created an assistant controller position for her,” Decker said.

You also might be considered for an unadvertised position.

Brown appreciates it when a candidate writes to say that he or she isn’t qualified for a position but knows several people who are and supplies contact information.

“If he sends a résumé, I’ll probably follow up with him in the future,” Brown said. “That’s a classy and professional thing to do and a win for everyone.”

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