Steer clear of false starts and launch a winning job search

The days when a decent résumé could get you into the right position are gone.

Now more than ever, career experts say, you have to take a strategic approach to your job search and application process. And you have to pursue that strategy all the time, not just when you’re in the market for new opportunities. The best candidates are always taking steps to manage their careers, assess the market and build relationships to keep them employed during good times and bad.

“You have to do everything you can to get the right job. You’ve got to maximize your opportunities. You’ve got to use all the tools at your disposal,” says Allison Nawoj, a career adviser at CareerBuilder LLC in Chicago.

That’s particularly true in this economy. Of the 2,090 manager-level respondents to Computerworld‘s 2010 Salary Survey, 47 per cent said their companies will hire new IT staffers in the coming year. However, cutbacks and layoffs have made competition for those positions fierce.

This new reality might push job seekers (particularly unemployed ones) to take whatever comes along. But that approach is short-sighted — and old-fashioned, says Thuy Sindell, vice president of client services and a leadership development coach at Mariposa Leadership Inc., a San Francisco-based career consultancy for managers.

Companies in this modern global economy will create or tailor jobs for top-notch workers, if you know how to look for such opportunities, says Sindell, co-author of The End of Work As You Know It. “Sometimes jobs are created for certain people, so that means talking to a former colleague about current initiatives and then saying, ‘That sounds very exciting, and here’s how I can help,’ ” she says.

But because most people don’t get hired that way, Sindell says savvy job seekers pursue all channels to find positions that could be good matches for them. They check in with current and former colleagues, recruiters and search firms, visit job sites and attend career fairs.

Time to Pack Your Bags?

Job prospects for techies aren’t evenly dispersed. Some sectors are doing better than others — such as defense/aerospace, where bonuses increased by 19 per cent and salaries by 2.2 per cent. Some regions are doing better than others too. For example, in the West and South Central U.S., IT workers saw slight increases in their total compensation.

Such statistics might entice people to enter a new industry or move to another part of the country.

Adam Alexander, vice president at career consultancy MasteryWorks, says IT professionals are generally open to switching industries, but many are reluctant to move to new regions.

“Geography can be an impediment to career growth. Even with promotions, people will often turn them down if it means moving,” he says. “I think it does hurt their careers.”

While Alexander says staying put can be detrimental to career growth, he and others acknowledge that the decision to relocate is a personal matter.

“It’s really around values and what’s important to you,” says Thuy Sindell, a leadership development coach at Mariposa Leadership. Some want to be close to their families or certain cities and are willing to forgo opportunities. Others put their careers ahead of other considerations and will move anywhere for a better position. Still others simply like the adventure of moving and seek jobs that let them experience new places.

Dave Willmer, executive director of Robert Half Technology, says the key is to be flexible. “Today’s economy demands flexibility to a certain extent,” he says. If you’re not willing to move, you might have to be more flexible on, say, the industry you work in or your salary.

However, while flexibility is still important, Willmer says it’s not as crucial as it was just several months ago, particularly for those who have in-demand skills, such as business intelligence expertise.

– Mary K. Pratt

The successful ones then tailor their résumés and pitches to fit each situation, she says. So you need to understand what you bring to the table and what you want your employer to offer, too.

Ever-Essential Résumé

Résumés still matter, says Ryan Erving, a director of business development who puts his company’s IT consultants in front of hiring managers all the time. He points to one quality assurance tester who was perfect for two recent job openings but didn’t initially attract the attention of potential employers.

Erving says the tester’s résumé was too generic, so he pushed him to write up a few points on his deep experience in performance- and load-balancing Web servers. The hiring managers took a closer look, and one quickly extended an offer.

“This is a worker who thought his résumé was good enough and didn’t spend time to articulate what set him apart,” Erving says.

To make sure you don’t get lost in a pile of résumés, it’s important to translate your tech skills into top- and bottom-line business values, says Dave Willmer, executive director of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology in Menlo Park, Calif.

“You have to be able to speak to what the business impact was in terms of your responsibilities,” says Willmer, a Computerworld columnist. Hiring managers want to know that your skills can deliver business results, whether it’s reducing downtime because you resolve help desk calls quickly or because you can deliver a Web product that will help generate more sales.

But getting the right job means more than knowing what you offer. You should also know what to expect when you get there. You need to make sure your next employer isn’t going bankrupt or planning to offshore its IT services. You want to ask about managers’ styles and company culture, so you don’t end up in an unsuitable environment.

You can get much of this information in advance, Sindell says. Financial statements, industry reports and news stories provide insight into the stability and structure of the company.

Your network can help, too, Sindell notes. Chances are you know someone who can connect you with a current or past employee who can get you the inside scoop. From there, be sure to ask pointed questions during your interviews so you can get information on the things that matter most to you.

“Obviously, the temptation is to try to figure out how to get a job as quickly as possible,” Erving says. “But you need to have a place where you can work well with the organization.”

Getting That Good Fit

Erving himself took that approach when he moved into his current job at Systems Integration Solutions Inc. in Walnut Creek, Calif., about two years ago. He used LinkedIn to make contacts at the company and learn about the culture there. He prepared thoughtful questions that would help him understand the company’s history and future, and he asked for an extra round of interviews so he could get to know more people.

“At the end of the day, there’s only so much you can figure out from the interview process. It’s a leap of faith. But if you can minimize the distance of that leap, the odds of you landing are better,” he says.

Continually managing your career will give you a better shot of securing the right job when you need or want it, says Adam Alexander, vice president at MasteryWorks Inc., a career consultancy in Falls Church, Va.

“A career plan should be an ongoing process so you’re always in a good situation or trying to improve your situation,” he explains. That means thinking about what positions you want next, determining whether you can find them at your current company, getting the skills you need to move into those positions, and building relationships with people who can get you there.

“Everyone has to take an active role in their careers, whether they’re looking or not,” Alexander says.

That approach paid off for Luis Illanas, a 20-year IT veteran who was unexpectedly laid off in November from his job as a systems administrator. He quickly contacted more than two-dozen former colleagues to let them know he was in the job market. As a result of his solid network, he landed a position as a senior IT consultant at KDSA Consulting LLC in North Andover, Mass., within two weeks.

“I can’t say enough about having someone who knows how you work and how much that helped,” he says. “That’s why, when you’re working with anyone, you have to make a good impression. You never know when you might call that person for a job.”

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at [email protected].


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