HETRICK: How not to apply for a job

April 9, 2011

I saw a TV news story last week about “older” (read: 50-plus) unemployed people struggling even more than young folks to find work.

Sure, we Americans are living longer. Yes, improved health makes us potentially productive into our 70s and beyond. And certainly, government reformers want us to work as many years as possible so we won’t drain Social Security and Medicare.

But, said the news report, many employers figure they can buy younger talent cheaper and with lower benefit costs.

Consequently, effective job-seeking skills are even more important to “age-challenged” Americans than they are to current collegians and recent graduates.

Yet being on the receiving end of applications, I see the same job-seeking mistakes with “older” folks that I too often see with young people.

So consider this free, unsolicited advice for the class of 2011 and those with a Ph.D. in life.

• You can’t just mail it in.

One of the unemployed people interviewed for that TV news story said she’d been sending out resumes for years, but never heard back from anyone.

I’m all for persistence, but a definition of insanity comes into play: continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results.

Whether responding to an advertised job or blanketing the world of employers, your resume likely winds up in a pile, file or computer server with dozens, scores or hundreds of other resumes.

With standardized resume templates, online application forms and how-to books saying “follow these rules,” your credentials are likely packaged in a way that blends in with everyone else.

So how do you cut through the clutter?

• Ten blinding-glimpse-of-the-obvious questions

When I speak to collegians on this topic, I ask them:

Do you want to stand out—or blend in?

Do you think your resume should be merely a list of what you’ve done—or should it show relevance to what you can do?

Do you think you should let employers connect the dots (trying to figure out how your experience fits their organization)—or should you do it for them?

Do you think you should talk features (“I’m great”)—or benefits (“You get”)?

Do you think your resume should be part of a package—or a stand-alone tool?

Do you think it’s better to customize—or standardize?

Do you think having a product (resume/cover letter) is all you need—or are distribution, follow-up and networking equally important?

Do you think it’s better to blanket the employer world—or target?

Is the follow-up on you—or the prospective employer?

Should you show gratitude for an interview—or should the employer be honored that you’re interested?

The answers to these questions should be self-evident. Your job is to stand out. Customization is king. You must demonstrate relevance, not just tenure. Your written materials will bomb without smart, targeted distribution—and the networking, follow-up and gratitude to reinforce it.

And yet, this is uncommon common sense, because so many people ignore or botch the basics from day one.

• When job-seeking, sweat the small stuff.

Here are some verbatim quotes from cover letters I’ve received from veterans and rookies alike:

“I am ready to become apart of your team, and contribute by combining my previous experience … to help XXXX achieve and surpass company goals…As mentioned before, I bring a prior experience to the table.”

My firm, XXXX, remains apart from this prospective employee.

“This semester, I am in a Pubic Relations Case Problems class.”

Perhaps, instead of pubic relations, we should teach the risks of spell-check.

“Gentlemen: I have a solid background as an engineer performing mechanical design, reliability centered maintenance (RCM) and failure mode effects analysis (FMEA) in the pharmaceutical and heavy equipment industries.”

Then why apply to an advertising/PR agency, especially one where the women were put off by the first word of your letter?

“To Whom it May Concern at Hetrick: After viewing the Hetrick website, I would like to be considered for any open positions at Hetrick’s Indianapolis office. I believe I have the skills and training necessary to be a great addition to the team at Borshoff.”

No one at Hetrick is concerned about this applicant. While I can’t speak for my friends at Borshoff, I suspect they aren’t, either.

“I am interested in the opportunity to internship with Hetrick Communications.”

Um, we’re not interested in the opportunity to employment with you.

The point is this. Your job as job-seeker is to convince employers that you can serve them and their customers. You don’t get a second chance to create a first impression. Whether you’re young or old, if that first impression is boring, generic, mass-marketed and mistake-prone, you can send out resumes forever and you’ll still struggle to find a job.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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