Breaking through the Experience Catch-22

When you’ve just come out of your education, finding your first job – the springboard from which the rest of your career rises – faces the toughest challenge of all. Often when multiple candidates are considered, you will be denied with the statement that you lack the experience necessary for the position. And of course, without your first job, there is no real way to get the experience that is asked either.

This is known as, and referenced by, a catch-22, where the scenario states that someone who is sane would ask not to perform dangerous military missions, but that is only allowed on grounds of insanity. To apply for an appeal to insanity is a sane thing to do, and so it is stated that insane people do not ask to be excused from missions. The outcome: everyone has to perform dangerous missions.

In the job market, this applies to experience being set as a requirement for jobs that are in themselves not actually requiring any experience to do – and would provide the experience that allows access to higher jobs in turn. This leads to a situation where the outcome of the process is a prerequisite to successfully completing the process.

However, we don’t really see people remaining unemployed on these grounds forever, nor are those jobs left unfulfilled. There are several ways that this dilemma can be broken through, whether from the perspective of the job seeker, or the person doing the hiring.

Reframing experience

Once you are at a job interview, it is often too late to somehow alter a person’s perception of your experience and abilities. In a classic scenario, the first check consists of the resume and cover letter/social media profile, hedging out those people who would not be able to meet up to the job’s functional standards. The interview, after that, can take on one of two forms:

  • “Resume -“: A check to confirm that your ability matches your resume. In this case, an interviewer is unlikely explore your capabilities beyond what is already known. The fight here is to reach the “cutting grade” and hope to then enter the next scenario.
  • “Resume +”: An exploration of what you can bring to the table beyond your resume, which becomes the starting point of the discussion. This is a more favorable scenario, where the contents of your resume become less important than your added value and the impressions you leave at this meeting.

You want to enter this second scenario, where your personal input becomes the focal point, as soon as possible.

To do so, you start at your resume, cover letter, and social media profile. These need to evolve from a “Skill based” premise to a “Value based” premise in order to change the discussions you will have. Rather than listing cold skills and education, you will want to reframe what you learned and what you did.

What exactly did you learn at school, beyond facts and figures? (Critical thought, time management, social engangement)

In what ways do your hobbies contain lessons or abilities that are of value to the job you are aiming for? (Collecting implies precision and methodology, outdoors activities implies independence, musical ability implies sensitivity and emotional maturity)

Who have you met in your life that altered your perspectives on life, and how? (Not only implying connections and networking, but also capacity for rational thought, negotiation and discussion).

Cold information (such as a listing of educations and previous jobs) feel to many as a “binary check”. You either made it or not, succeeded or not. It evokes the feeling of being a prerequisite, a checklist for minimum compliance with your job requirements.

But in order to differentiate yourself, it is less important what you did – but how you did it. In the long term, this is what adds value to a company. This is what leads to scenario 2. For a way to set up a cover letter for value-based propositions, I would refer to the excellent guide written by The Balance on Value-based Cover Letters. For ways of improving your social media profile to cater to value-based recruitment and applications, the Social Media Category on this blog should get you started.

Styling and framing your CV or Resume has been the subject of many posts and books through the decades, but a quick-and-dirty guide to a ROAR (Result Oriented And Relevant) can be found here at Wikihow and Rich Wheeler has a deeper post on the difference between “value statements” and “statements about values” if you are into some deeper reading.

On taking, and being given, chances

The second half of this equation comes with the person at the other end of the table, who does the interview and potentially is responsible for the recruitment. What is the difference between looking for a candidate to fit the profile, or looking beyond the profile to find the best candidate to fit the company?

This is not an easy question, because it tugs at the heart of recruitment and corporate profiling. Behind the scenes there may be a lot of importance, politics and emotions connected to the recruitment process.

  • Is the company really looking for a “long-term fit” or are they just seeking capacity to keep the engines running while changes are made in the organization?
  • Are they looking for an external hire specifically to create changes in the organization and the way a particular task/role is executed?
  • If experience is asked beyond what the job seems to entail, are there tasks or responsibilities that are hidden from plain view?
  • Is the company in need of someone to do the work, or someone to learn how it’s done?
  • Are they looking for experienced people because their workforce is older and they feel young people might not fit?
  • Are people retiring, and do they need someone with a lot of experience to quickly grow into a more senior role?

All these questions relate to movements and events in the background, and are directly connected to who is being hired and why. It is the job of the recruiter to make sure that a balance is struck between the overt and the covert needs of the candidate. Company confidentiality aside, here it pays to be open to prospective candidates and ask them how they feel about some of the underlying recruitment. You might be surprised by the fresh perspectives that can come from candidates who have not yet experienced “standard operating procedures” in the company.

From the perspective of a candidate, these “hidden surprises” can make or break your interview. The solid base that was laid by your profile and resume now needs to be reinforced by your personal presentation but especially the questions you ask.

Despite the popular thought, an interview is not (or at least, shouldn’t be) a one-sided affair, where the candidate answers questions and hopes to not make a horrible mistake that disqualifies them. Rather, this is the time to show how insightful and prepared you are.

Patience as a virtue

There is no guarantee how long it takes to be employed when you lack the experience requested in an application. It requires willingness on the side of the interviewer to take a chance, but also work on the side of the applicant to outshine this lack of experience with talent and future promise. With patience and mental fortitude the first job comes through to break the catch-22, and from there you can resume advancing your career as normal.

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