A Five-Week Guide to Getting a Job – Harvard Business Review

There’s no other way to put it: Finding a job during Covid-19 is hard. If you are looking to land a new role, your success depends largely on hiring trends and the economy, both of which are working against you right now. Hiring fell to a seven-year low last fall.

While the economic downturn has tilted the market in favor of employers, many companies are financially strained and lack the resources to survive another lockdown. Nearly 100,000 small businesses have permanently closed since the pandemic began. Together, these factors amount to increased competition for scarce positions and extreme stress for job candidates.

As a job seeker, you may feel powerless right now, but rest assured — this is not entirely true. Yes, your competition has increased, but so have your opportunities. Remote work has expanded talent pools and fostered more diversity in hiring. Before the pandemic, the majority of recruiters were limited to candidates located in their cities. Today, virtual work environments have freed up companies to search for talent regardless of location.

Now is the time to embrace these opportunities and form a strategic approach to your application process. Even though you can’t control the ebb and flow of the market, there are still ways that you can make yourself a marketable candidate.

Through my work as the CEO and founder of Cheeky Scientist, a job search training platform for people with PhDs, I have developed a five-week strategy to fast-track the job search — and anyone, at any stage of their career, can use it.

Before you even begin to look, you need to know your odds.

Companies hiring top talent often spend the first few months of every year focused on corporate strategy instead of recruitment, which will typically hinder your job search between January and March. After this initial rough patch, the market hits peaks and valleys based on the state of the economy, which explains the increase in unemployment during the pandemic.

Hiring trends, however, tend to surge upward again at the end of the year, between October and December, because companies want to devote any leftover budget to new talent.

The traditional “dead zone” of January through March will likely be exaggerated in 2021 as large companies recover from the effects of Covid-19, so don’t be disheartened if you fail to land a job before April. This summer may be the best time to actively search for and interact with potential employers before the September through December hiring surge.

Now, let’s begin.

Week 1: Update your résumé to highlight transferable job skills.

People talk about the importance of having “transferable skills” on your résumé all the time, but what do they really mean?

Transferable skills are all of the things you’re good at that can be applied to various roles in various industries. For example, strong writing, time management, and problem-solving are all examples of what would be considered “transferable skills.” The fancier definition of this term is “an ability that isn’t highly specialized.” Non-transferable skills, often called “hard skills,” are specific to certain industries, like coding, animation, or graphic design.

You might have been told to tailor your résumé for each role you apply for, but from what I’ve seen, that strategy won’t work in 2021. Many companies are nervous about hiring more specialized candidates because they’re unsure what the business landscape will look like after the pandemic. To show you are adaptable, generalize the skills on your résumé into three main areas: systems-oriented, people-oriented, and self-oriented.

Systems-oriented skills are associated with your areas of expertise. Under each role listed on your résumé, try to phrase these skills in a practical way to show how they can apply to a variety of positions and industries, not just your specified field. For example, suppose you worked as a content creator at a software company. In that case, highlight “business writing” on your résumé and specify what you mean by including more distinct tasks — like creating blog posts or writing marketing emails — under your role. Doing so will help prove that you can apply this skill to any job rather than just at a software company.

People-oriented skills highlight your ability to communicate with colleagues. Right now, companies value candidates who can collaborate remotely and have the potential to lead virtual teams. On your résumé, be sure to include keywords like performance management, virtual training, and task delegation, either under a particular role or a separate “skills” section at the bottom of your résumé to demonstrate your ability to collaborate and lead.

Self-oriented skills tell your potential employer that you can work diligently, learn quickly, and apply new solutions to existing problems, like the ones caused by the shift to remote work (decreasing productivity, burnout, etc.). You might think of these as “soft” skills, but they are in demand and will help you stand out as companies continue to decentralize their workforces. Words like “autonomy,” “time management,” and “self-starter” show employers you can stay on task, remotely or otherwise.

If you have been using a chronological résumé but are struggling to get responses from employers, or if you are trying to enter an industry you have no previous experience in, try mixing things up by showcasing your transferable skills first — even before your job titles. Use them as headers under the experience section on your résumé. For instance, sticking with the content creator example, you might put:

Business Writing

Content Creator at [Company]

  • Bullet point about your specific responsibilities.
  • Bullet point about your successes, including metrics.

According to our data, listing transferable skills before your experiences can lead to better callback outcomes. When candidates failed to get a response with a chronological résumé, we found that this more functional format was effective 21% of the time. Meanwhile, combination résumé formats (combining a functional skills list with chronological work experience) and sidebar résumé formats (focusing on scannability) were only effective 3% and 2% of the time, respectively.

Many employers will read only the bolded portions of your work experience section before contacting you, so highlight your transferable skills accordingly.

Week 2: Improve your personal brand on LinkedIn and make your profile visible.

The narrative behind your career path is critical when you’re trying to stand out in an employer’s market. Companies want to know where you’ve been, what you’ve learned, and how it has shaped you as a professional. This will help them understand your value even before you land an interview.

Make sure hiring managers see your LinkedIn profile by using keywords to land more search results. Just like you use Google to find specific information, hiring managers use LinkedIn to search for candidates. To start, copy the descriptions of 10 similar jobs that interest you and paste them into a word cloud. The most common words are the ones you should incorporate into the various sections on your profile.

You’ll also want to include your desired job location (even if you’re targeting remote positions) to catch the attention of recruiters who are searching for candidates using location-based keywords.

Additionally, you should upload a professional — but friendly — picture and consider personalizing your banner photo. Profiles with a photo receive 21 times more profile views and nine times more connection requests than those without them. Banners should follow a cohesive color scheme and shouldn’t be too complex or busy. If you want to make your banner really pop, try listing three to five keywords or transferable skills at the top of your image.

You can also grab an employer’s attention by engaging with your network. Think of LinkedIn as a way to show off your expertise. Attract more people to your page by liking and commenting on posts related to trends in your industry, publishing text-only posts (which receive 42 times more views), sharing original articles, and regularly searching for connections. Increasing your activity on LinkedIn is a fast way to elevate your Social Selling Index (LinkedIn’s metric for success in terms of your personal brand), which helps increase your visibility to employers.

Week 3: Conduct informational interviews with potential co-workers.

An informational interview is a conversation you can have with another professional to learn more about their career, company, or industry. Unlike a job interview, the goal isn’t to get hired; you’re trying to educate yourself. In your job search, this type of interview serves two purposes:

  1. It allows you to gather intel on companies that are hiring.
  2. It helps you form connections with employees at those companies.

Through those connections, you can learn about open positions before they’re advertised. You might even gain referrals to roles you’re interested in pursuing.

A great way to start is by reaching out to your existing network. Talk to school alumni, LinkedIn contacts, family members, and friends who might work at or know someone employed by an organization you’re interested in. These conversations might land you an informational interview, or they might guide you toward other potential opportunities (like a company or position you hadn’t considered before).

If you have your heart set on a certain organization, another option is to use LinkedIn to connect with someone who works there. It’s best to choose someone who holds a position similar to or cross-functional to the one you’re seeking. The goal is to find someone who can credibly answer the questions you have.

When you reach out, show them that you are a valuable contact by first offering to connect them with someone who could benefit them, professionally or personally (if you can). Keep your request concise and be specific about the topic you would like to discuss and the time commitment you’re seeking:

“Hello! I noticed your team is looking to learn more about [topic or service]. I deeply admire your organization’s work around [mission], so I wanted to reach out and let you know I have a connection to [person], who may be a valuable contact. I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I’d love to jump on a 10-minute phone call to provide you with their information and talk about your company. I’m a big fan of [cite their work] and would love to learn more about [their role]. Are you by chance available to chat in the next couple of weeks?”

If you don’t have a contact to offer up, then it’s best to be upfront about your intentions. Begin your message by saying something specific about their organization — or even better, their personal work — and then go in with your request:

“Hello! I saw the recent post you shared on [topic], and I really appreciated your commentary about [cite their work]. I noticed you work in [industry or company], which is an area I’m really passionate about. I was wondering whether you might have time for an informational interview in the next couple of weeks. I’d love to learn more about the work you do and how you got to where you are.”

Once the call is scheduled, come prepared with a few questions, and try to keep the tone of the conversation casual. The nice thing about informational interviews is that they are low stakes for both parties. So, while you should be professional, don’t treat the process too formally.

Whoever you end up speaking with, be sure to end the call by sincerely thanking them for the meeting:

“I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate the time you spent talking to me about [company]. I learned a lot about [topic]. Please let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to talk about that I may be familiar with or if I can connect you to someone professionally.”

Depending on how things go, you might also ask whether there is anyone else who they might suggest you contact to learn more. Taking the time to have this conversation will show that you care enough about a position enough to reach out before the application process, which already places you ahead of more passive candidates.

Week 4: Ask for job search referrals from your connections.

If you made any good connections during your informational interviews in week three, ask your contact for a referral before you apply to the role at their organization. This is important because getting a job search referral shows potential employers that another person is confident in your skills, and it’s usually a guarantee that your application will be seriously considered — which increases your odds of getting called in for an interview. It’s best to follow up with your contact no sooner than one week after your informational interview to avoid bombarding them.

Glassdoor recommends being honest from the start about your goals while providing your contact with ideas for how they can assist you in your professional job search:

“Thank you again for talking with me about [company]. Learning about [topic] during our conversation made me realize how much I’d like to work for your company. I’m interested in applying for the position of [title and link to job description], and I wanted to ask whether you could refer me or if you’d be willing to pass my résumé on to the hiring manager.”

As The New York Times notes, the pandemic has become the great equalizer in today’s economy. Job candidates are no longer selected based on location or attendance at live networking events. If you have references who can speak to your experience and abilities, you’ll go further than candidates who don’t.

Week 5: Prepare for your virtual job interview.

Prior to your interview, conduct plenty of research so that you are up to date on recent news surrounding the company you’re applying to as well as trends happening in your industry. You can usually find these updates on their website and social media channels, or by setting Google alerts for the company’s name and key players. This step is especially important if time has elapsed since you originally applied.

I’d also recommend looking into the person who will be interviewing you, provided you’re able to gather that information from your recruiter beforehand. Check out their LinkedIn and Twitter profiles to learn more about their career path and interests.

With the information you gather, craft a few questions catered to the company, the work they do, or projects they’ve launched that catch your interest. You should also come up with a few questions specifically about your interviewer and their work. This will immediately set you apart from other candidates by showing your genuine passion and curiosity for them and their organization.

In terms of what you will be asked, know that many employers are concerned about work-life balance in the remote work era. That said, I can almost guarantee queries like “How do you stay productive?” and “What’s your daily routine?” will come up. Prepare your answer beforehand to showcase your ability to prioritize tasks and manage time.

Lastly, when it comes to your physical presence, know that you will likely be interviewing remotely as well. The most common virtual interview tips include downloading the right technology (Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams), having an appropriate environment (go with a plain background), lighting yourself from the front to avoid appearing like a shadow figure (use a ring light), and making eye contact to appear confident (look into the webcam). To this list, I’d add two things:

  1. Dress in neutral colors on top and go with a business casual outfit, even if the company culture seems casual. Your effort will show the interviewer that you’re serious about the hiring process.
  2. Make it a point to show that you are engaged in the conversation by nodding, raising your brow, saying “yes” in agreement when the other person is talking, and using hand gestures to emphasize important points. Enthusiasm is difficult to communicate on video, so you’ll need to make an extra effort.

While Covid-19 vaccines are on the horizon, your job application process begins now. The sooner you can follow these steps and get started on your search, the better off you’ll be in the long run. It’s time to take your career to the next level by following this five-week job application timeline.

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