Everywhere you turn it seems to be staring back at you: "Experience in a similar role required". How can you move into work you love when nobody will give you a chance? Natasha shares the key ideas and practical actions that can help you dodge the experience Catch-22.
It's one of the most well-known conundrums of the career world. No experience, no job. No job, no experience.
And it's never more relevant than when you're making a major career change.
Every job application seems to require years of experience in a similar role.
"The jobs I'm qualified for and have the right experience for are not the ones I want to be doing."
"How could I convince a prospective employer that I would be worth hiring?"
Every potential client wants to know what you've done before:
"How can I get that first foot in the door with potential new clients when I have virtually no experience in my new career to demonstrate?"
And, on a deeper level, you're not even sure you can deliver something you've never delivered before.
"What if I get hired or land my first client and end up being a disappointment?"
But as a career changer moving into a brand-new field, of course you don't have relevant experience. When your CV looks like a long list of irrelevant information, how are you supposed to be taken seriously? How do you get people to pay attention to you, and to give you a chance?
The first step is to know that it's a problem that it is possible to solve. You're not doomed to starting entirely from scratch, or spending years submitting job applications that you never hear back from.
You just need to know how to play a different game.
Lead with your story, not your history
We've already established that your CV isn't a great opener for dialogue with an employer or client in your new field. So what is?
A compelling story.
Richard Branson (and many other employers, including our own Richard at Careershifters) doesn't hire based on experience. He hires based on personality and cultural fit:
"The first thing to look for when searching for a great employee is somebody with a personality that fits with your company culture. Most skills can be learned, but it is difficult to train people on their personality."
When you're not in a room with someone, it can be hard to express your personality and how you could fit into a new environment without traditional experience. And even when you are, nerves and environment can get in the way. The best way to share who you are and where you're headed with someone is by crafting your story.
And as a career changer, you have a great story.
You're someone who's intrepid, curious, and so passionate about the new field you want to break into that you're willing to take risks. You're someone who's not scared of the new and the unfamiliar – and even if you are scared, you're willing to try anyway. You may not have direct experience of your chosen industry, but you have bucketloads of experience in other areas that could impact a new employer or client in a fresh way.
And that's what I know about you without even having met you. Imagine the story you have to tell when you dive into the detail.
When you're crafting your story, think about answering questions like:
- Where have you come from?
- What (positive) elements have brought you to this point in your life?
- What's the one most powerful reason you have for moving into this new field?
- What are you working on in order to make a shift?
- What do you see you have to offer, even without direct experience of your new industry?
- What do people come to you for help with (where do your natural skills lie)?
Ultimately, your story is a chance to invite someone into your world. And in today's career landscape, there are loads of ways to tell your story.
1. Try a skills-based CV
If you have to use a CV to make that invitation, craft your CV to focus on your story, not your history.
A skills-based or functional CV is designed to do exactly that. Rather than the classic list of 'Jobs I Have Done', a skills-based CV focuses on who you are and what you have to offer.
Instead of job titles, your headlines are your three or four main (and most relevant) skill-sets and talents. And rather than tasks and responsibilities, the bullets below your headlines showcase the key accomplishments that showcase these skills in the most inspiring and interesting way.
You can add your work history at the end, but the point of a functional CV is to have the reader engaged in a conversation about what you can do, not just what you have done.
If you absolutely have to submit a CV and covering letter, and there's no other way into the organisation, a shining skills-based CV is far more likely to get you in the door for an interview.
It won't work for every job application. The sad truth about the classic job-searching process is that with hundreds of applications, many are simply scanned for the relevant number of years' experience without receiving the attention you'd like (for more on how to ditch the traditional job search, click here).
But even if this is the case, giving a employer with a pile of standard CVs on their desk a new and interesting slant to read is an absolute gift, and you'll be much more likely to grab their attention.
2. Take an alternative approach
A growing number of companies and organisations are recognising (and celebrating) the fact that CVs are not only dull and bland, they're a terrible way of getting to know someone.
We're increasingly seeing job application processes that embrace a more interesting and story-based approach: requests for short YouTube videos to introduce yourself and share why you'd be a great addition to the team, or invitations to share examples of projects and portfolios you've created or worked on.
But there's no need to wait for a company to ask you for your story – why not share it with them in a captivating way anyway?
Andrew Horner even created a website for companies to apply to be his employer!
Act like a duck
There's an old saying used in philosophy:
"If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck."
Let's think about why employers ask for "Two years' experience in a similar role".
They're simply looking for proof that you're the kind of person they're looking for.
They're looking for proof you're a duck.
Someone who has skills that can be usefully applied to the kind of work they have for you. Someone who embodies the kind of person they want in the role. Someone who can produce results.
Having two years' experience in a similar role is just one way to prove you are all these things; to prove you're a duck.
How else could you prove it?
1. Exchange time for experience
Maybe you can't get paid work for an established company in the industry you want to move into. But there are likely to be plenty of ways you can do the same kind of work on an unpaid basis (or even for a small fee).
Contact organisations who work in your chosen field and offer your time on an unpaid basis. This may feel like it's only a route for those who want to move into the charity sector, but it's surprisingly easy to find people in any sector who would appreciate a lighter workload. It's usually easier to get your foot in the door with smaller companies, so target small organisations that inspire you and tell them your story.
There may even be opportunities to gain unpaid experience in your current company. For example, if you want to work in marketing, how about offering to help out in the marketing department during your lunch breaks? See if they would be willing to give you some training or beginner's work assignments to give you direct experience right where you are.
But what if your company doesn't have a marketing department? Perhaps you can be the one who volunteers to step in and help out (or handle entirely) the marketing projects. Who is d oing them now? Would they appreciate some help?
What projects could you do in your spare time to build up experience in your chosen profession? Who do you know who would really appreciate the work you do? You could offer your time to friends or family, or ask them to put the word out with their networks about the services you're offering.
Dan, who's currently taking part in our Career Change Launch Pad, realised a few weeks ago that he's fascinated by coaching and supporting people. He offered to coach his fellow Career Change Launch Pad participants for free after the course ended, and has been inundated with requests for his time. Not only is he building up experience that will make him much more employable, he's also creating a network of people who will help him market himself in the future.
Another Career Change Launch Pad participant, Lucy, dreams of setting up her own travel business. She sent an email out to everyone she knows (with a request to spread the word) offering to organise entire trips (holidays, business trips, etc.) for £20. She can't afford to launch her own business just yet, and she's still looking for a foot in the door of the industry, but she's not letting that stop her from building up experience, connections and glowing testimonials.
If you've got skills, there's even a good chance you could get paid for small freelance jobs in your spare time. How many clients could be out there who can't afford a full-time, in-house employee, but would love some work done for a lower fee? Look for companies or organisations who look like they could benefit from what you have to offer, and approach them with a great pitch and a reasonable price.
3. Be what you want to be
Who says you have to get paid for something to 'be' it?
I landed my first writing job the day I realised I didn't have to have a client to be a writer. I gave myself permission to self-identify as a writer, even though I'd never been paid a penny to write a single word. I began telling everyone I was a writer, starting with a stranger in a bar. And that stranger ended up being my first freelance client.
Take on your new direction as a part of your identity, and immerse yourself in the work you're passionate about.
If this was already your full-time career, what kind of time and energy would you spend on professional development? What books would you read? What newspapers or blogs would you follow? What would you spend your time doing? What would you need to do to be at the top of your game?
A portfolio is usually thought of as something that only designers or writers need to think about. And if you're interested in these kinds of professions, it's a great idea to start building one up, whether you're getting paid for the work or not.
But you can also build up a portfolio of expertise no matter what industry you want to move into – and the passion and commitment that this showcases will stand you in great stead when you're looking for work.
Start a blog on the key topics in your chosen industry. Invite people who work in that industry to be interviewed for your blog or a podcast. Focus on researching one key area of your future profession (bonus points if it's a problem area) until you feel confident enough to talk about it, and then see if someone will give you ten minutes to speak about it at an event.
As you build up your knowledge and explore your new profession from the outside, chances are you'll start to be noticed. And even if you're not noticed immediately, when it comes to talking to a potential employer, you'll have something solid to show them.
If this is truly a career you're passionate about, these kinds of actions will be fun and inspiring, as well as providing you with a duck pond to be seen in. Speaking of which…
4. Hang out in the pond
Birds of a feather tend to hang out in the same ponds. And the best way to prove you're a duck is to spend as much time as possible in the right pond.
Where could you go to be around the right people, and to become part of the community you want to join? Seek out talks, seminars, and events. Even if you don't need new qualifications to move into your chosen profession, you'll gain great experience (and make some fantastic connections) by going to classes relating to your new industry.
Stuck for where to look for these kinds of events? Find a company that inspires you and give them a call. What industry events do they know of that would be interesting for you to attend? Can they recommend any publications or websites to keep an eye on?
Hanging out in the pond is often known as 'networking', but there are so many negative connotations to that word that I prefer to chuck it out of the window altogether. Networking doesn't have to be something that only top-level executives do. It doesn't have to involve forced conversations over canapés, trying to be something you're not, or trying to be impressive.
An authentic, curious conversation in a duck pond is the most effective way to connect with the people who can help you out. And if you've followed some of the steps above, you can even relax into being the person who can offer value to the person you're speaking to, rather than feeling like you're begging for a leg-up.
Another Career Change Launch Pad participant, Di, found that these kinds of authentic conversations – and offering to help people out in return for their support – gave her career change an incredible boost in the right direction:
"The response has been overwhelming. Most of the people I connected with were delighted to be contacted, and were so generous in sharing their time, knowledge and connections. It's created a bit of a snowball effect and I now always have people to talk to about my shift. As a thank you for people's time, I asked whether there was something I could do for them. Since my meetings I have had two requests for help in return, one of which was to create videos for a woman I really admire. I've gained confidence just by 'doing' something."
Di told me that the people she spoke to were more than pleasantly surprised by her offer to do something in return for them. I'm pretty sure this unusual move has left her firmly stuck in their minds – CV or no CV, she's made a positive impression. And who knows where those positive impressions could lead?
The old, traditional job search machine is still grinding away, and it can be incredibly disheartening to find yourself at a disadvantage in that process.
But the experience Catch-22 doesn't have to be the end of your career-change dreams. There are plenty of ways you can build up expertise and hands-on practice, and even make a move without a CV full to bursting with relevant experience.
The world of work is changing. More and more, companies and organisations are opening their minds to the idea of hiring people, not just resumés. Alternative, creative ways of getting your foot in the door are becoming more commonplace. And if you really want to start doing work you love, you're going to need to help lead the change.
What's your story? And what could you do to start acting like a duck in your new profession? Let me know in the comments below.
Natasha Stanley is Head of Content for Careershifters and Head Coach for our Career Change Launch Pad. She also currently travels the world as a horse-trainer, freelance writer, and soon-to-be sailor and yoga teacher.