By Rebecca Bennett
Changing careers is like driving down a dirt road in the Amazon rainforest in your sedan at full speed, then realizing that you’re lost, pulling off a 180 (degree turn), and then getting stuck in the mud with no cellphone signal.
At this point you realize you should have rented the 4-wheel drive Jeep Cherokee, paid for that paper map or at least taken pictures of the one of your phone, and stopped to talk to that native that speaks English 50 miles back. But you didn’t and here you are.
If you are a career changer, applying for jobs via the traditional career website submission process is like trying to get found via your Wi-Fi signal in the middle of the Amazon. As of July 2017 the labor force is 161 million people.
Note: Recessions shown in gray blocks
As of 2015 Millennials surpassed Gen Xers as the largest labor market in the history of the US and naturally Millennials are the largest category of unemployed individuals as they are the freshest in the job market.
There is no denying it – competition is fierce! Society is realizing is that standing out is more important than ever. Universities are even teaching classes on this. The sad reality is you only have a 1.2% chance of getting a job through an online application, according to Gerry Crispin of Career Xroads (an author of the annual Source of Hire report) at the Career Thought Leaders conference. Given this statistic, your time is better spent searching for jobs via a more effective method.
I recommend to spend your time conducting informational interviews. They are one of the most effective methods for two reasons. They are a great way to get in front of people to expand and nurture your network. And they also help you to actively fill the knowledge gap career changers often come across, especially the kinds of gaps that a formal education won’t fill but experience does. Here are some steps to get you started.
Set a goal.
First decide what kind of switch you want to achieve. Try to be as specific as you can, but know that most of us don’t know exactly what we want, so plan on filling those details in as you go. Try to narrow it down to industry, function, role, company(s), and even location(s). Other things to take into consideration are company size, do you thrive in a small startup or a large corporation? How about company culture? Figure out what you value most: flexibility, autonomy, community, learning, compensation, etc.
Next, add up how many hours a week during you have to commit to your interviews and prep in order to achieve your said goal. In order to be successful you have to create an awareness of your own expectations and time commitment. There are 5 steps to any informational interview and listed are approximate durations for each. As you can see, expect to spend approximately up to 4 hours a week per interview.
- Identify the contact (up to 1 hour)
- Contact & Set Up (up to 30 minutes)
- Prepare for Interview (up to 1 hour)
- Interview (up to 1 hour)
- Follow-up (up to 30 minutes)
Decide how many people you want to interview in a given time frame and what you want to get out of them. For example, perform 1 interview a week in order to 1) gain visibility, 2) get to know someone in the area you want to work, 3) procure information that will make you more knowledgeable about the department and function so when a job pops up you can demonstrate your knowledge, 4) ask for an opportunity, 5) learn something new that can lead you to your next step, 6) offer value to your contact through sharing information.
Identify the decision makers in your intra-company network
Start with your current company. Your intra-company network is more likely to sit down with you and share goodies than someone from outside your company. Look up people in your directory that work in the departments that interest you and make a hit list. Although assistants can sometimes have influence, why not go for the big fish right off the bat if you can, they have more influence. After all, they are probably the ones making the hiring decisions and have the most experience to share with you.
If you need to build up confidence and practice first, then connect with someone at your level in another department, as they can often bring a perspective you can relate to which makes it easier.
Research on LinkedIn
Do some LinkedIn research on their backgrounds and connections outside of the company before picking a select list of people to interview.
Set Up the Interview
I recommend to set up most your informational interviews via email and to do it a week out. The same week is generally too soon and any further out than that and people forget. Pitch it as a “meet and greet” or “lunch and learn” opportunity to discuss what they do and explain that you are trying to learn more about how their functional area works from an expert to help navigate your career shift. Sometimes I take it a step further and attach an industry article on a current topic I know they might be facing that we could discuss. I am also sure to not leave the timeline open ended and suggest specific days and times for them to choose. In my experience, my response rate has been about 50%. Anyone I have to follow-up with several times, I find we don’t end up meeting, so I focus most of my efforts on my first responders.
Interview Prep Questions
Here are some of the questions I ask that I end up getting a lot of valuable information from and why I ask them.
- What kinds of new changes are you seeing internally, and beyond the company?
(To see what’s on their radar so it can be on mine too)
- How has this place grown in the past year?
(To see what is driving growth. Company’s invest where the money is at. If you become an expert in that direction you are a more appealing candidate.)
- What are the most prominent issues on a micro land macro level facing the company and industry from your viewpoint?
(Discover what their issues are so you can help to solve them.)
- What are the current plans for growth? Where are things headed?
(This question is a good look into how and where they are going to expand. This is the area you want to become an expert in to sell yourself.)
- What are the new ideas or products out there that are getting the attention right now?
(Where is their attention focused? This will help align your focus with theirs.)
- What tools or programs do you use that are important to your job?
(This is an easy way to find out how to become more qualified for a position. Find out the programs and tools they use and then do research on them. Some programs offer free trials, so get one and play around so you can become familiar with it. Then add it to your resume!)
- What are the most notable best practices or insights you have learned working on your most recent project? What’s worked really well, what hasn’t?
(Best practices are always key to being successful at something. Use this as an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.)
- What is the atmosphere like and culture of the team? Collaborative vs independent? Carefree and casual vs serious and formal?
(See if this is the kind of environment you thrive in?)
- What does a typical day look like for you?
(See if this is a day you want to step into?)
- What’s your agenda/mission?
(If so, you can cater to their mission in a job submission.)
- What are your busy times of the year, month, day? What are the typical work hours? Are they strict or flexible?
(Check to see what the time commitment is and if it meshes with your work-life schedule of balance?)
- What are the most important skills you feel for working in this area? What has helped you succeed? What skills do you think the department needs more of?
(Finding this out will help you sell yourself on your job submission)
- What other ways do you recommend I could further expand my knowledge in this area? What publications, groups, organizations, other contacts can you recommend?
(I would say this is probably the most important question you could ask and most people don’t ask it. Just like you are tapping into them as a resource, go ahead and tap into their resources because they are certainly going to be better than yours. I generally find the answers to these questions to be my immediate next steps after our interview. They are sharing with you what you can do now before you get the job.)
Vary the interview format
Although questions are a great way to get information, don’t make the whole interview a Q&A. This can become very dry and repetitive leaving a shallow emotional connection. Note some relevant personal stories that you can share that make you vulnerable that you think they might relate to. By opening yourself up, you invite them to open up as well and share even more information with you.
Once you have all this new information you are armed to submit the best possible version of yourself for a position, tailored to their needs. Additionally, you can now speak knowledgably to anyone in their group and can become source of information for them since you now know what they are seeking. This makes you not only memorable, but a worthy connection.
A Thank you, Call to action, & Follow-up
Make it clear that you are interested in any current or future opportunities and ask what are the next steps you could take. Thank them for their time and leave the conversation open. Follow-up with a thank you email recapping your interest, thanks, and one thing you learned that really stood out.
Continue the Conversation
Stay in touch by periodically sending over an industry article of interest, briefly sharing your opinion, and soliciting their opinion on the topic. This not only keeps the conversation going, but also shows your alignment with their area. They will be sure to think of you upon their next job opening.
Reach out to your industry network
Apply the same process as above, but with your external network.
Although informational interviews are great for finding and positioning yourself for your next career opportunity, they are also great for continued networking and learning. Some people have turned this into a weekly habit even after they have made the full switch as it helps them to continue to grow and not get lost in the Amazon again.
“Labor Market Information.” RI Department of Labor and Training. August 2017. http://www.dlt.ri.gov/lmi/laus/us/usadj.htm
“Unemployment demographics.” Department of Numbers. 2017. http://www.deptofnumbers.com/unemployment/demographics/
Charlotte Weeks. “You Have a 1.2% Chance of Getting a Job Through an Online Application – How to Increase Your Odds.” LinkedIn. September 25, 2014. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140925150631-6561910-you-have-a-1-2-chance-of-getting-a-job-through-an-online-application-how-to-increase-your-odds
Fry, Richard. “Millennials surpass Gen Xers as the largest generation in U.S. labor force.” Pew Research Center. May 11, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/11/millennials-surpass-gen-xers-as-the-largest-generation-in-u-s-labor-force/