Today’s Chicago Sun-Times features an interesting article by Paul Davidson (USA Today) on the problem of moving back in a career, taking a lower level position, to stay employed. Davidson cites experts who say that a person who tries to take a few steps down on the career ladder is actually less likely to get hired. Applicants who were unemployed but seeking jobs at their current level were more likely to get hired.
That doesn’t surprise me. It’s not a matter of being employed or employed. It’s a matter of being qualified. Candidates who dumb down their resume or take a lower level job often show themselves as overqualified. They are less likely to get hired for lower level jobs because employers are worried that they would be bored or constantly looking for a job at their level. Worse still, as Davidson notes, if job seekers are “lucky” enough to land a lower level job, it’s very hard to climb back up the ladder. The article features the story of a former executive who took a job as a front line employee to keep from having a gap in her resume. Now she is having trouble getting interviews for executive positions.
My advice to clients is to take a lower level job only in two cases. First, if you need immediate income, take whatever job will give you the income you need. Second, if clients are looking to downshift and work at positions with less responsibility, they should pursue those jobs. In both cases, I inform them that moving back up the ladder will be difficult. Don’t move down the career ladder without considering the consequences.
Bloomberg reports today on careers that offer significant pay increases. Most workers are looking at minimal salary increases even though the unemployment rate has fallen. Workers in technology and finance have seen wages grow between 4-10%. What can you do to earn more? For most working people, especially those with college degrees, the best way to earn more is to find a new job. In many cases, new employers tend to offer more than current employers. Another way is to try to take the next step up the career ladder. Two clients who are clients in the grocery industry have told me that they have hired department managers with little experience. Why did they do this? Turnover. As the job economy heats up, there is more opportunity to move up because the experience employees are less available. If you’re unhappy with your current income, find a way to make a move.
Most clients who are considering career change start with two bad ideas. First, they assume they will have to go back to school. Second, they believe they will have to step down the career ladder back to entry level. Neither of these assumptions is necessarily true. If you can prove to a hiring manager that you can do the job, the experience and knowledge you have developed during your career will usually be enough to make a career change.
What would-be career changers too often ignore are transferable skills, which are skills that can be used on multiple jobs. Let me give you two examples from my recent projects.
Retail Manager to Human Resources: A client had extensive experience in retail management. Rather than talk about that industry, we focused on the skills he used that were related to HR: Onboarding, training, interviewing, and hiring. He completed certification in HR law and recruiting for diversity. This background, along with a good work history, enabled him to make the career transition he was seeking.
Event Management to Purchasing: Another client wants to move from an eight year career in planning and managing corporate events to purchasing. In her case, we focused on skills that included sourcing, negotiation, vendor relations, and logistics. In several cases, this client can give examples of how she reduced costs through her ability to negotiate price and terms. These skills will let her make the jump to a new career.
If you are considering changing careers, think about how you have developed and used transferable skills. It is very possible that you can pursue a career change right now. Show how you are able to do the new job, and be confident in your ability.
When describing your work history on a resume, be sure that you show how your level of responsibility fits what prospective employers need. Review the samples below and note how it is possible to describe “scope” or “weight” depending on your career level. Demonstrate how your previous experience will let you fill the role you are applying for.
Worked as lead and assistant analyst for several projects. (Marketing, Project Management)
Prepared journal entries and government reporting as well as annual, quarterly, and monthly consolidated financial statements. (Accounting)
Contacted college instructors to promote books and materials from an academic publisher. (Sales)
Researched clients’ businesses and determined what events/awards would raise their profile and brand. (Marketing)
Mid-level and Managerial:
Oversaw facilities and service along with supervising 150 employees.
Supervised a team of 20 in delivering services to seniors, homeless, and victims of child abuse. Oversaw a $1.5 million budget for department operations and program costs.
Oversee radiology and MRI operations at an orthopedic practice that has had as many as 14 physicians.
Quickly took on increased leadership roles over 15+ years at 3 large corporations, moving from a positions as Process Engineer to Brand Manager to COO and President.
Directed operations at three casual dining American restaurants located in Wheeling, Illinois (Chicago), San Diego, California, and Naples, Florida. Managed annual revenue of $10 million and a staff of 100-120, including three Executive Chefs.
Direct finance and operations for a $500 million portfolio of student housing that generates $50 million in annual revenue. Collaborated with the CEO in establishing policies for acquisition, pricing, and sales.
Hired to turn around regional accounting operations in Russia and former territories of the U.S.S.R. ($175 million annual revenue) for a global leader that provides technical support to the energy industry. Reported to the European CFO headquartered in Zurich and a Regional Sales VP in Russia.
I recently met a prospective client who had significant managerial experience. He was frustrated because he had applied to several jobs and never received a call back. I asked to see a sample of the type of jobs he was applying to. In almost every case, they were entry level or had nothing to do with the managerial experience that was presented on his resume.
This client’s experience is typical of one of the biggest mistakes a job seeker can make. If you aim low in the kind of job you apply to, but keep your resume focused on higher level experience or skill, don’t expect a call back. Most employers will consider you to be overqualified and will expect you to jump to a new job at the higher level as soon as one becomes available. Applying in this way will become frustrating, and soon you will think no one will want to hire you.
What’s the answer? Apply at the level that fits your skills. Show employers why you can fill the role that is open. If you decide to “down shift” and attempt to get a lower position, write your resume so the employer can see how you can fill the role that is open. I would still expect most employers to see you as overqualified, but at least you will be showing them your qualifications to fill the open role. My advice in most cases is to play to your strengths. Don’t look down.
Know your worth. This statement is especially true when it comes to looking for a job. People who are worried about finding a job target positions that are is below their experience and skill level. This approach results in two problems for the worried job seeker. First, many employers will consider this type of candidate “overqualified.” Second, employers who hire candidates that are will to sell down their skills will pay them less. In the current economy, income is more of a challenge than employment. A step down will make it even harder to earn what you deserve in the future. Stepping down to get a job can be very expensive in the long run.
How can you know your worth? First, take an honest inventory of your skills. List everything that you know or can do that you think an employer needs. The next step is to test your list. Gather a good sample of ideal job posts (I’d suggest at least 8-10), and make second list of what employers are looking for. Finally, compare the two lists and align your skills with employers’ needs. Once you’ve done that, you have the profile you need to earn your maximum value. Beware of selling yourself short – the price is too high.
The job market is not as bad as it was four years ago, but it’s still not good. I’ve met several talented people – career changers, new college graduates – who assume that they have to take entry level jobs because the market is so bad. This is a bad career management strategy.
Look at the jobs you think you are qualified for and apply for the jobs that fit your ability and experience. Students often forget that the skills and knowledge they learn in school give them value that often puts them above the first rung on the ladder. Similarly, career changers bring value through transferable skills and flexibility gained in other jobs. Test your value by finding 8-10 posts for jobs you would want to do. Don’t start by looking for entry level. Try to find higher level jobs that you are qualified to fill. That will give you an opportunity to make more money know and move up faster to the kind of positions that you will find challenging and fulfilling.
If you live in an area or have a skill level that limits you to entry level positions, try to find a company where you will have an ability to move up, learn higher level skills, and make more money. Don’t trap yourself in a lower level job before you have to. Always look for ways to climb the career ladder.
One of my favorite websites, Common Dreams, has reposted an artice by Mijin Cha of Demos that analyzes the career mobility of workers in the fast food industry. As you might expect, the career ladder has only one rung for most employees. Few employees are made manager. Even fewer will ever own a franchised restaurant that requires a net worth of $500,000. Cha points out that the owner of Yum Brands is a millionaire who made $55 million last year. He pays his employees $7.25 an hour. I would add to this that many conservative politicians, following the lead of Herman Cain, are arguing to abolish the minimum wage. Do people like the owner of Yum Brands deserve to be richer while tens of thousands of workers get poorer? Is that a free market – or the road to slavery?
P.S. Laura Clawson of Daily Kos adds to this point. As always, her articles are a must read on issues that affect working people.
My friend Bill Savage, a Senior Lecturer & Academic Advisor at Northwestern University, sent me a great article from Harvard Business Review. The author, Priscilla Claman, argues that career ladders are a myth. More importantly, she demonstrates how this notion has led many people down a false path. She recommends that we prepare for lateral moves as well as promotions. The key to career success is developing skills that will let you “grow your job.” Claman’s advice is excellent for workers at any stage of their career. Take control and build the skills that will let you move wherever opportunity takes you.