Escaping the Experience Trap
I have had this blog post in draft form for awhile. My recently recorded interview with Lexie--which will be available on Thursday--finally motivated me to finish it. (Yet another example of how connecting with people is energizing!) Her story is a great example about the importance of obtaining some sort of experience while you are in school. (She did a great job at that.) Learning in your courses is important, but that is only the beginning. Many employers also want to see some experience--even for "entry-level jobs."
For the past few years, I have taken a close look at job announcements for a variety of jobs that are often classified as entry-level. I have consistently found that the majority of job announcements list experience as required, and often list 1-2 years of required experience. Yikes, right?! Well, the first bit of good news comes from my husband who has a background in industrial/organizational psychology and who I regularly draft to weigh in on such matters (whether he actually wants to or not). Job announcements are often "wish lists," and some organizations don't always know exactly what they are looking for when preparing them. If you think you would be a good fit for the job, you should apply anyway, even if you don't meet all of the qualifications (such as not having all of the required/preferred experience). Be honest about it, but don't automatically take yourself out of the pool of applicants.
On the other hand, it seems to be VERY common that organizations prefer applicants with at least SOME kind of experience, bringing me to my own list of encouragement/recommendations below:
1. First of all, you need to try to do something in addition to going to class. For some students, this is easy because they HAVE to work. However, even if you are fully-funded on a scholarship or independently wealthy, it still helps to have some form of hands-on learning and experience beyond the classroom. It tells potential bosses a few things:
#1. You were at least responsible enough to bother showing up consistently to the job/internship/whatever for a considerable length of time. You might be surprised how many people don't do that! #2. Someone tolerated you long enough to let you keep hanging around. #3. They can call on someone who can provide a few details about your work ethic and people skills--things that can be difficult to assess from simply a resume or cover letter alone.
2. It probably doesn't have to be a perfect match. Often, the experience does not have to be 100% related to your ultimate career focus. As long as you have experience that is somehow related, that tends to be helpful. Surprisingly, experience that seems unrelated at first glance is often related somehow once you deeply consider what you did in the role. For example, you might think your job as a clothing salesperson is unrelated to your ultimate goal of working in a nonprofit that provides services to families. However, when you consider the fact that you had to interact with hundreds of diverse people each week, communicate well with your coworkers and customers, assist with training (a form of teaching) a new co-worker, and work in a fast-paced, stressful environment while maintaining a positive attitude, you might begin to see how many aspects of the experience might be transferable. Whenever possible, help potential employers draw connections between the experience you have and the jobs you are applying for.
3. It probably doesn't have to be full-time experience. Sometimes, job announcements will specify that the experience must be full-time. Most of the time, though, they don't. Even if they do indicate a request for full-time experience, you might still consider applying. DO NOT LIE about the fact that your experience is part-time, but don't automatically take yourself out of the pool of applicants either. You never know who else they will attract (bringing us back to the "wish list" idea). In a perfect world, maybe they thought they wanted someone with full-time experience. However, your part-time experience might suddenly start looking really good if you have other qualifications that would make you a good fit and if there are not many other good options in the pool of applicants with full-time experience.
4. Not all of the experience has to be paid experience. Volunteering, experiential class projects, and getting involved with clubs and professional organizations can also provide forms of experience. It seems that what hiring staff care more about is the nature of the experience and the length of the experience. The key here is to ensure you receive a high-impact experience even if it is unpaid.
Perhaps your only designated task at your volunteer opportunity each week is to answer phones. Well, you can choose to stop there. Or, you can choose to go above and beyond and take on additional work to help the organization in between phone calls. Perhaps your only task is to hand out brochures about vaccines to parents in a clinic waiting room, but you notice that they also keep asking about potty training information. You can simply say, "Sorry, I don't have that," week after week. Or, you can speak to your supervisor, explain the situation, and then offer to draft out an additional brochure with developmentally-appropriate potty training information from credible sources that is still a quick and easy read for parents. Do what you can to make any experience you have an impactful one.
5. Internships can be awesome. They can be paid or unpaid, but typically your program/college/university has vetted the organization/business. This helps to ensure that you will get to do more than just address envelopes. Nothing is wrong with addressing envelopes, however, you probably would want to do something a bit more novel and college/university-sponsored internships typically ensure that happens.