Some of my more challenging clients are the people who’ve been denied jobs because they don’t fit the profile of a perfect job candidate. Extended employment gaps, a negative background check or credit report, physical limitations, and being considered too old, too overqualified, or too expensive are all very real challenges to securing gainful employment.
I’m a firm believer in the school of hard knocks, that difficult times make you stronger. In working with clients who’ve faced difficulties in landing a job, I’ve seen that resilience is a muscle you must learn to develop; that letting go of your ego and being willing to take a step back is sometimes called for; and that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone can open doors.
I recently prepared the resume of a woman named Sherice who’d been out of the full-time workforce for 15 years. She is now 70 years old, does not have up-to-date computer skills, or even good typing skills, does not want to work full-time, and she has a disability since birth that left one arm unable to lift moderately heavy objects.
On the flip side, though, Sherice is a woman who has a lot to offer to a potential employer. As she will be competing against much younger workers for the types of jobs she’s targeting, her stability, maturity, and, quite honestly, her very real financial need make her a more reliable, long-term employee. This is someone who isn’t going to leave for college in a couple of years, or get pregnant, or spend time texting on her phone instead of working.
We targeted retail jobs that didn’t involve much lifting, as well as reception jobs that were not computer-heavy. Sherice would be great in either of these roles since she likes interacting with people, answering questions, being helpful, and providing information.
During a brainstorming session, we also identified that Sherice would be open to assisting and running errands for housebound seniors who need help with day-to-day tasks. She ran ads promoting these services on Nextdoor, Craigslist, and Facebook.
Sherice also reached out to her personal network to ask about inside connections at her target companies and to find out about non-traditional job openings in her community. She also printed copies of her resume and walked into local businesses to hand-deliver her resume and inquire about job openings.
Sherice is a great example of someone who is creative, resourceful, and tireless in her efforts. While the jobs she can perform are few, they are out there. She’s confident that if she keeps pushing forward, the right job will eventually present itself.
Earlier this year, I wrote a resume for a gentleman who was looking to get back to his IT career after an extended break. Life had dealt Ron some very hard blows: first, the illness and death of his wife; then, a five-year gap in unemployment, which he described to me as “my time at the bottom of a bottle;” and finally, after recovery, a few years providing childcare to two grandsons. Ron was panic-stricken at the prospect of addressing, in an interview setting, the loss, depression, and addiction that had stolen 10 years of his life and cost him his career.
As part of Ron’s re-entry to the workforce, he brushed up his technical skills by enrolling in a couple of bootcamps and he renewed certifications that had long since lapsed. He also started seeing a therapist who not only helped him identify the positives that had come from his addiction and recovery, but also renewed Ron’s confidence in his worth, skills, and abilities.
Ron practiced interviewing for jobs with his therapist, and got very comfortable with talking about his experiences in a way that instilled confidence in his ability to do the job and admiration for his journey to wholeness.
I know of one employer—and would venture to guess there are others—who says he deliberately hires people who’ve been through hard times, like addiction, bankruptcy, divorce, a life-threatening illness, and even a criminal record.
People who’ve been given a “second chance,” so to speak, are often so appreciative that they become the most devoted employees. Since turnover and training new people are so expensive, selecting an employee who will be loyal and stay with the company for years can make a lot of sense.
Tyler entered the web development industry when it was in its infancy, when there were no degree programs in web design and development. Even without a bachelor’s degree, Tyler was able to advance in his industry through talent and ambition alone. Eventually, he became a creative director and, for many years, was very good at leading teams and managing projects.
At age 56, Tyler was downsized. At first, he felt confident he would be able to quickly find another director-level job in his industry. He focused on management roles because, over the years, his programming skills and technical expertise had gotten rusty, and he was no longer qualified to work as an individual contributor.
Tyler endured the grind of applying and interviewing for jobs, but just couldn’t seem to land an offer. After 12 months and without any solid leads on a job in his industry, he came face to face with the realization that he was no longer competitive in an industry filled with plenty of younger, more educated, and less expensive jobs seekers—job seekers who also happened to be more up to date on technology. It was time to reinvent himself.
The first, and most significant, challenge Tyler faced was swallowing his pride. Accustomed to holding a high-level position within a desirable industry for a good salary, Tyler wasn’t necessarily ready to take a job that was “beneath him.” But once he addressed that mindset, Tyler began viewing lower-level jobs as interim opportunities, or stepping stones.
Tyler considered three different career paths: (1) a team leader and project manager with nonprofit organizations, where he could feel good about using his skills to make an impact, (2) a digital media teacher for private schools, where his industry experience eclipsed his lack of an undergraduate degree, or (3) a consultant to start-up businesses in creative industries, where his background and experience could be a valuable resource.
What Can We Learn?
The resumes we prepare for people like Sherice, Ron, and Tyler always downplay their limitations and highlight their skills and the value they stand to bring to an employer.
But the resume is just the beginning. Remember how Sherice had to hustle? How Ron had to rehearse interviewing? How Tyler had to get over his ego?
If you’re facing bias in hiring practices—perhaps for reasons that are different than Sherice, Ron, or Tyler—the suggestions, encouragement, and ideas below may help move your job search forward.
Identify your most relevant, transferable skills. There are companies that hire people who fall outside the “ideal candidate” stereotype. Stop telling yourself you’re unemployable. Everyone has skills that are valuable to someone. Consider working with a career coach if you need help identifying your most marketable skills.
Turn your circumstances into your niche. You could be hired for a job that calls for dealing with customers or co-workers who can appreciate or be helped by your unique situation—whether it’s your age, a disability, or some other differentiator you suspect is holding you back.
Network with people who know you well. If you don’t fit the usual profile of what’s considered a safe hire, open networking events, online applications, and job fairs may not be the best method of job hunting. You’ll have better results if you network starting with the many people who already know you. These people don’t have to jump over the hurdles common to prejudices like ageism, sexism, racism, intolerance, or plain old small-mindedness.
Remember that one contact leads to another. It could be your niece, your dentist, or that person you chatted with at Starbucks this morning who introduces you to your next boss. Always carry with you a few copies of your resume and your contact cards.
Connect with organizations that help people like you. For instance, here’s a site that helps people with disabilities get jobs. Here’s a resource that helps felons find jobs. And here’s a good start for help finding work if you are older than 50.
If you have a varied background, spin it as an asset. Even if your timeline contains career gaps and some personal struggles, you can still frame yourself in interviews as a motivated go-getter, someone with an assortment of interests, a history of varied experiences, a positive attitude, and an open mind. A good employer will appreciate flexibility.
Help a company embrace D&I. Most companies today are focused on diversity and inclusion (D&I). A diverse workforce has been shown to increase customer service, lead to significant growth, and result in financial gain. Perhaps you are the person who can help a company demonstrate it’s an equal opportunity employer.
The First Step: A New Resume & Interview Preparation
No matter what your circumstances, I am convinced there are desirable opportunities for which you are qualified. Companies where you can be a valued team member. Positions that challenge you to grow and develop new skills. Jobs that you enjoy, and are good at doing.
A refreshed resume is always the first, most important step you must take as you begin your job search. Get the resume piece right, and most of the other pieces will begin to fall into place.
Because it’s crucial to understand your target jobs before we begin writing your resume, we’ll gain clarity about your goals as we go through our standard resume-writing process. This knowledge will serve you well throughout your search and, especially, during your interviews.
If any part of the interview process makes you squeamish, or you worry about providing solid answers to tough questions with confidence, seek out a professional interview coach with whom you can work.
If you’re facing difficult challenges in your job search, remember there are plenty of people who didn’t necessarily look like the ideal candidate at first, but who went on to find meaningful work. Tell your story with confidence. Regarding your limitation, disability, or shortcoming, answer questions head-on, with honesty, and with an unwavering focus on the positives, any lessons-learned, your desire to add value, and your readiness for the future.