By Kim LaMarche
When I entered the job market five years ago, my communications degree stashed confidently under my arm, I had digested two or three of the hot books on job hunting, writing cover letters and interviewing. I had enthusiasm. I had a plan. I had skills.
But I had no idea it was going to take me nine months of two, three, sometimes four interviews a week before I landed my first job as a copy editor. In the process, I was forced to rethink my job hunting approach.
Remember that game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? News flash: if Kevin Bacon can be the center of the universe, so can you. Understanding this is essential to your success. The job you want is only a few people away. It’s just a question of making the right connections.
The following advice is given with that thought in mind.
1. Interview people who work for companies you’re interested in or who are where you want to be.
I really found the “informational interview” empowering, because it allowed me to take control of my job search. The main idea is this: From every person you talk to, you are going to get three leads for the next step of your search. Don’t stop talking to people until you do. Then it’s just a question of following up, and following up, and following up until you reach your destination.
Two questions you need to answer before you start are, “Where am I interested in working?” and, “Who has the job I eventually want?”
List at least 50 companies you’d be interested in working for. (By selecting 50, you’ll minimize your chances of running into a dead end.) Some research will probably be required–most people can only name the top five or six companies in their particular field of interest. If you know little about the industry, look in trade magazines (you should be reading them anyway) and industry directories (your local library or college should be able to guide you to those). Read up on each company. Visit their Web pages. Find out about their hiring practices and salaries. Pinpoint the departments for which you could be hired. Record all information, including names, titles and mailing addresses, in a card file or database. You’ll probably also have to talk to friends, relatives and other jobseekers to compile your list.
Next, find out who has the job you eventually want within the companies you selected. This information may be available in company brochures or at your college internship office, or you may have to call the office and ask for it. If someone asks why you want to know this information, explain that you are interested in working for XYZ company and you want to interview this person about working in the field. Most likely, you’ll get what you need.
If you run across people doing the job you want at a company that’s not on your list, interview them, too. They could help you decide if you’re on the right path and if you have what it takes to succeed. Tell them about the companies on your list and ask for their input. They just might know of a job opening. Show them your portfolio and resumé–you never know what will happen.
This step could also be titled, “Asking Your Way to Success,” because that’s exactly what you’ll be doing.
2. Update your resumé and polish your cover letters.
Step two can be a major time-killer, so I’ll offer some radical advice.
Skip the library and the resumé services and borrow a friend’s resumé and cover letters. In fact, borrow them from several people until you find one you like. Stop by the career center of a local high school or college and obtain cover letter and resumé samples. The counselors will be more than willing to talk to you, even if you’re not a student. These are the fastest ways to see how to sell yourself on paper, and talking to people is a lot more fun than sitting in a room reading a book.
When you find something you like, copy the format, change the content.
If you need more help putting your best self on paper, jump down to tip number 10.
3. Perfect your 30-second sell.
Whether you are meeting new contacts or facing that all-important interview, one of the toughest questions you’ll get is, “Tell me about yourself.”
Interviewers typically throw this one at you right away–it’s an easy way to get a feel for each candidate’s qualifications. Practice presenting yourself to prospective employers or networking contacts, either alone in front of a mirror or role-playing with a friend. Introduce yourself, then give a 30-second summary of your skills, work experience, education and career objectives. (You’ll probably need to write down the points you want to make.) This is your opportunity to steer the interview toward your strengths.
Since you are your own walking (or rolling) advertisement, it’s important to think “commercial.” What do you want these people to know about you? What makes you the best candidate around? Once you can articulate that with ease, you’ll be way ahead of the game.
4. Get your “look” together.
I would argue that people with disabilities should think a little differently about this than our nondisabled counterparts. We’re all familiar with basic business attire and the need to project a professional image. My interviewing experiences have led me to believe that we with physical differences need to be more comfortable, more relaxed, more sure of our appearance than nondisabled job applicants so we can project our full confidence and assertiveness. If ABs want to dress in power blue, let ’em. Wear your bright colors if you need to. Be creative. Be bold. Be you. And if your look includes a certain attitude, don’t leave home without it.
Make sure you have at least a week’s worth of work clothes, plus one suit or blazer/skirt combo that makes you look really sharp.
5. Show ’em something snazzy.
It’s a sad fact, but a lot of people in this world just lack vision. You could explain the theory of relativity and it wouldn’t mean a thing unless people saw a demonstration. For me that meant lugging some of my best articles into interviews. For you, that might mean bringing blueprints, a computer program or annual reports–whatever shows tangible proof of your skill. And don’t just settle for “better than average,” especially if this is your dream job. Go the extra mile. Show them excellence. You deserve it, don’t you? If you can’t give them your best, maybe you shouldn’t even be there.
6. Sign up for a work-experience class.
If you’re going to sign up for any class, let this be the one. You’ll gain experience in your field and at the same time generate contacts for future employment. Internship programs are usually required for four-year degrees; what some people don’t know is that two-year colleges offer work-experience courses as well. By participating, you earn college credits while gaining access to all the professional contacts the school has established within the community. Through the California State University Fullerton Communications Department program, for example, students have access to more than 650 companies in public relations, broadcasting, publishing, radio and television.
These programs are especially useful for aspiring workers with disabilities, because once you sign up for the class, it is your educational right to be placed with one of the participating companies. In other words, if you can’t find your own internship, the internship coordinator will find one for you. This is an excellent opportunity to prove yourself and your on-the-job abilities. During my college years, I did three internships using the internship program at CSU Fullerton, though I received undergraduate credit for only one.
7. Use the alumni bank at your local university.
If you are a college graduate, don’t overlook this excellent opportunity to contact your now-successful predecessors, show them what you’ve got, and ask for job leads. I was surprised to find out that my alumni bank included two editors from one of the leading daily newspapers in the country. After a five-minute phone call, I was able to sit down with each of them, talk to them about career paths, show them pieces I had written and ask for their advice. Although this didn’t result in a job offer, it did point me in the right direction. More important, it gave me much-needed encouragement.
I have never tried this, but I’ve wanted to. It seems so much more empowering to write your own ad than to keep trying to fit into someone else’s mold. To find out more, I picked up the “Jobs Wanted” section of The Los Angeles Times and called Lisa, a free-lance writer who had paid $15 for her 10-word ad that ran once in the Sunday edition.
“You really have to try it several times to see if it works for you,” she said, adding that an ad she placed previously had generated three assignments. “Because my line of work is very specialized and pays well, if I get one assignment from each ad it’s worth it.”
My advice: Call your local newspaper and price this option out. An approach like this forces you to define what you want and what you have to offer. It puts you in the driver’s seat.
9. Join, join, join.
Old news, you say? Just make sure you’re not overlooking groups that cater to people with disabilities in your job-networking efforts. These are the people who actually want to see you get a job. Get as involved as you can in these organizations.
My job hunt involved job coaches from California Elwyn and Westview Vocational Services (both primarily concerned with mentally handicapped clients) in addition to a state Department of Rehabilitation counselor. Yes, at first I did feel funny about using these services, but I soon came to realize that every pair of eyes looking out for my best interests was a useful pair of eyes, even if it seemed like a long shot. After all, everyone knows someone.
Getting involved in my city’s committee for disabled citizens also benefited me, since it put me into close contact with people who worked where I lived, including the city manager and other city hall staff. All of them received my resumé and my 30-second sales pitch. Persistence also led me to the Governor’s Committee for Employment of People With Disabilities, where employers meet with employment organizations every other month to figure out how to employ people just like me.
When I came rolling in with my resumé and spiel, do you think they turned me away?
As a result of going to four or five meetings, I eventually got an offer for part-time work at a national bank, one I would have taken had I not received an offer the day before from the company that would be my first full-time employer.
Does your state have a commission on employment for people with disabilities? If so, that’s where you want to be. Does your city council have an advisory committee on access? If not, perhaps you need to form one. No matter what these groups accomplish, you’ll be working closely with people who are poised to help you succeed.
10. Participate in your state Department of Rehabilitation’s version of a “Job Club,” or take part in other job hunting assistance.
Each state should have two entities that might take up a great deal of your time: a vocational rehabilitation department and an employment department. One is just for us, the other one is for all “employment-challenged” people.
Your state employment department is where you’ll find all your state and federal job announcements, as well as job listings through other services. You should plan on coming here at least once every two weeks. Also, this office may host an executive networking club; if it does, take advantage of it.
The Employment Development Department near my house hosted a networking event for older executives. Though I wasn’t one of them, I still attended and encountered encouragement and support from people who remembered being in my position.
Your rehab department will give you a place to do the boring stuff–answering ads, cold-calling, rethinking your life’s mission. But at least there you don’t have to do it alone. Throw in a free newspaper, resumé and cover-letter writing tips, free envelopes, postage and coffee, and it’s not a bad deal. Your rehab department might even spring for your job-hunting threads.
11. Job-Hunt Round the Clock.
Using company “job hotlines” to screen prospective leads over the telephone or e-mailing a resumé to your company of choice may give you the edge you need to pull ahead of the competition. Most large companies (including Boeing, Xerox, Nike, Disney and Microsoft), government agencies and school districts have extensive Web pages that list job postings and allow you to submit your resumé via computer. Many newspapers, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The Chicago Tribune among them, offer the employment classifieds online, along with job-hunting tips and a resumé-posting service.
12. Don’t give up. If you’re going out on two or three interviews a week, as I did, most likely you’ll face a lot of rejection. Remember: It’s not you.
Sure, people might not like the way you look. No matter how you look. They might not like the wheelchair or the clothes or the prior job experience or the degree. They might just be interviewing you because they have to interview so many people before hiring the boss’s nephew.
Sometimes it might feel as though people are looking for a reason not to hire you. They very well might be, since screening is part of their job. Somehow, they’ve got to find the best candidate for their position, and that means screening other people out.
Don’t let that sway you. Don’t let their problems become your problems.
If any of these 12 ideas seem off-target for you, follow your heart. There are other ways to reach your career goals. However, all of these tips do share something important: They emphasize your ability rather than your disability. That’s what working is all about.
Kim LaMarche landed her first full-time position after a nine-month search. Three years later, she became a card-carrying federal employee, and is still happily working for you, the taxpayer.