Money and Main Street

Why you aren't finding a job in a different field

Whether trying a mid-career switch to a new industry or going from the military to the private sector, most frustrated job hunters are making the same few mistakes, says one expert. Here's how to avoid them.

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By Anne Fisher, contributor

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Friends, here's one thing we've all realized by now: This isn't your ordinary garden-variety recession. During one of those - in fact, as recently as last fall - people laid off by one company could often go right out and get hired by a more prosperous competitor. Now, however, entire industries (banking, autos, construction, retailing, newspapers, the list goes on...) are shrinking fast, putting larger numbers of qualified candidates in competition for fewer openings. At the same time, thousands of people are leaving active military service every month. It all adds up to a huge number of job seekers looking for work in unfamiliar businesses - which, for many veterans, means any civilian enterprise.

For people coming from industries that have been reduced to smoking heaps of rubble, this is a chance, albeit perhaps a wrenchingly involuntary one, to make a fresh start. That's not always a bad thing. More than half (54%) of us would choose a different career path if we were starting all over again with the knowledge we have today, according to a recent survey by staffing firm Adecco USA. So it's not surprising that legions of the laid-off are making lemonade out of lemons by exploring new options and thinking creatively about where to go next.

Just one small problem: Most people are really bad at explaining why an employer should hire them when they have no experience in the field they're trying to enter. And that is a virtual guarantee that they won't get hired. "Job hunters often don't seem to understand how important this is," observes Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., head of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin. "But with so many experienced people looking for work, if you are trying to change fields or industries, the burden is on you to spell out exactly why you'd be the right fit for the position. Don't expect the employer to figure it out. That's your job."

Brooks speaks from experience. She frequently hires career center employees, and gets flooded with resumes from people whose backgrounds vary widely: "I had one applicant, coming out of the military, who emphasized that he was an expert sniper." Not much call for that particular skill in the civilian world, but don't laugh. Ex-bankers, former human resources executives, and displaced managers of all stripes commit similar faux pas. "Most resumes are loaded with vague catchphrases that don't tell an employer anything," Brooks says. "If I see one more resume or cover letter from someone who claims to have 'excellent communications skills', I will scream."

Here's how to avoid the four biggest mistakes career changers make:

1) Research each prospective employer as thoroughly as you can. Study the company's Web site, read up on it elsewhere online, and take a close look at its past couple of annual reports to shareholders. The more you know about the company, its industry, its competition and its culture, the more you can customize your resume and cover letter to address what that particular company is looking for. And yes, although it takes a lot more time and effort than simply mass-mailing the same resume and cover letter to everybody, write separate ones for each place where you're applying. "Sending out 50 or 500 resumes and cover letters that are all the same - the insert-name-of-company here model - does not work," says Brooks. "You might as well put them in the shredder as mail them. " Gulp.

2) Describe precisely how your previous experience is relevant to the job you hope to land. For example, says Brooks, ex-military applicants tend to highlight their high-level security clearances. "That's nice, but why should I care?," she says. "The way to present that to a civilian employer is to point out that you were trusted with access to sensitive, confidential information, and further note that you understand that our student records here - as well as all kinds of information elsewhere in the civilian world, from medical records to computer security systems - require that kind of trustworthiness. Now I see where your security clearance fits into my job opening."

Of course, the same principle applies to non-military career changers. "In almost any job, you would be working with a specific population, which in our case is college students and corporate recruiters, but elsewhere it might be, say, customer-service reps and salespeople," says Brooks. "Don't just say you're a 'team player' - everybody says that. Instead, tell exactly why you think your experience equips you to work well with those particular groups." Include whatever relevant volunteer activities may fit the bill. Successfully running your daughter's annual Girl Scout cookie sales drive may, for some positions, be more valuable experience than you think.

3) Be aware of stereotypes about your current (or former) field, so you can address them. Human resources managers, for instance, are sometimes regarded by people in other functions as mere paper-pushers. To overcome that image, Brooks suggests highlighting accomplishments that made a real difference, such as the time you developed and ran a new training program or revamped a former employer's hiring practices. Says Brooks, "Delve deeply into the work experience you have so far and connect it to what you'd be doing if this employer hired you." This can be a valuable exercise, since you may find yourself identifying skills you'd forgotten you have.

4) Read over your resume and cover letter carefully - or have a trusted friend do it - before sending. It sounds obvious, but Brooks says she has seen dozens of glaring bloopers, such as "applying for a job in Austin, Texas, while stating in the cover letter that the person looked forward to returning to the great state of Louisiana." Ouch. Needless to say, that letter and the accompanying resume went straight to the circular file. It's worth a few extra minutes of proofreading to make sure yours don't.

Readers, what do you say? Are you trying to change careers and, if so, have you managed to get to the interview stage? What has - or hasn't - worked for you? If you're a hiring manager, what advice would you give candidates with unrelated backgrounds? Any tips for job seekers who want to get into a new field? Tell us on the Ask Annie blogTo top of page

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