February 1, 2011

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Out-of-Work Utahns Struggle Against Employer Perceptions

Peri Kinder

February 1, 2011


In June 2010, a job recruiting website called The People Place posted an advertisement asking for applicants to fill an engineering position. Along with the usual computer, technology, education and communication skills required, candidates were informed at the bottom of the ad, “Client will not consider/review anyone NOT currently employed regardless of the reason.” After a flurry of complaints, the post was taken down, but many believe this declaration reflects the attitude too many employers have when hiring new workers. Even in today’s economy, when thousands of people have lost jobs, employers often believe an unemployed applicant may not have top-notch skills, were considered “dead weight” at their former place of business or could even have a behavioral problem that could become a liability if hired. While these are all simply assumptions, people who have been unemployed for a significant amount of time are finding it harder to overcome these attitudes. Employers want a person who is currently employed and don’t want to risk hiring someone who could be a problem in the future. Essentially, the unemployed are all too often discriminated against because they are unemployed. Fishing for Talent Due to personnel cutbacks resulting from the slack economy, Justin Wright* was laid off from his job at a public relations firm. Through no fault of his own, he was unemployed for nearly three months. He went to numerous job interviews and felt he was often defending himself against employers who saw his unemployment status as a negative. The reaction he seemed to get was that if he wasn’t “indispensible” at his previous job, why would someone else want to hire him? Instead of focusing on his job skills, employers wanted to know the circumstances that led to his being laid off and what he’d been doing during his unemployment. Wright says at first he would joke about his situation, telling potential employers he had “been home being Mr. Mom for a while.” He quickly stopped joking when he realized employers weren’t amused—and weren’t hiring him. “I think there’s a tendency when hiring people to believe that the best workers and most indispensable people already have a job,” Wright says. “When there are so many people looking for jobs, I felt they were going to go with someone they could poach from another company.” According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, more than 100,000 Utahns were considered unemployed in November 2010, a number up just slightly more than 1 percent from the year before. However, DWS also issued figures showing the state gained more than 13,000 jobs during the last year. Utah’s unemployment rate of 7.5 percent (in November 2010) is below the national average of 9.8 percent, but that still leaves thousands of people searching for jobs in the state and competing with each other to find work. It is estimated that for every job available there are five candidates vying for that position. Brooke Clark is a senior financial recruiter for Prince, Perelson and Associates, a professional placement firm in Salt Lake. She agrees that there are jobs available in most industries and hiring has increased. “We’ve seen it pick up in the last two months. I’ve been busier than I’ve been in the last two years,” Clark says. She believes while unemployment bias might have been a bigger issue a year ago, with the number of people laid off and the cuts being so deep, employers have developed a better understanding of the situation. In fact, because of the number of jobless workers, employers are hoping to acquire valuable employees that are immediately available, more willing to be flexible with salary and benefits, and ready to prove themselves with a new employer. “It’s a time to hire top talent they might not have been able to find otherwise,” Clark says. Rise to the Top With so many other people hoping to get the same job, Clark gives some suggestions to improve your chances of being hired—especially if you’re currently unemployed. First, start volunteering with a professional organization or charity as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter if you’re manning the front desk or answering phones—and it doesn’t have to take up tons of time. But having a set schedule keeps your mind in work mode and allows you to keep up social and communication skills. Volunteer to work at charitable events and while you’re there, do some networking and keep your name out there with business leaders. An added benefit: working as a volunteer is a great way to bolster a resume. Clark says continuing education is a must. Technology changes fast and, when you’re out of work for a long period of time, you tend to lose the ability to keep up with software advances. She advises job seekers to take a business class or seminar to keep up with technological trends and advances in business communications. Plus, you could acquire a new skill that could lend itself to a better job in the future. Being out of work could be a great time to learn or beef up your Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Excel skills. If possible, serve on committees or boards, keeping your finger on the pulse of organizations in the business, education, nonprofit or political community. Working as a committee or board member is a great opportunity to meet new people and open up possibilities for future employment. These extra activities on your resume show employers you are dedicated, hard-working, philanthropic and connected to the business industry. “Do these things to keep your skills sharp,” Clark says. “Then you can say, ‘Yes, I was laid off, but here’s what I’ve been doing since then.’” Job Ready It’s hard to constantly explain to potential employers why you’re unemployed, especially when you’ve been working hard to find a job. Unemployment bias is hard to prove and currently there is no legal protection for unemployed individuals. Although Wright feels he was discriminated against because of his unemployed status, he chose not to dwell on it and learned to adapt to the situation. Wright eventually found work with another public relations firm by changing his approach to interviews. Instead of deliberating on why he was let go, he redirected the interview. “I focused on what I had done and what I could bring to the table. When the question of my unemployment came up, I answered quickly and concisely, and moved on.” Mark Robbins is managing partner of HirePointe Management Group in Salt Lake. He works with employers looking to hire executive-level employees in a variety of fields including financing, marketing, human resources, sales and engineering. Robbins says hiring a new employee can be tricky, and when clients see a potential candidate has been unemployed for a certain amount of time, they want to know why. Employers often ponder the consequences for hiring someone who is unemployed and would much rather hire someone presently working. “They say, ‘I’m going to take a risk on someone no one else was willing to take a risk on for several months. Why should I hire them?’” Robbins says. People looking for work should understand that employers want to be flawless in their hiring. They no longer have the luxury to develop, train and babysit a new employee. They want someone who can hit the ground running. Usually that person is working for a competitor and already doing the job. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t employers willing to take the risk. “We place a lot of unemployed candidates,” Robbins says. “They represent us. We want the assurance that they are who they say they are.” Personal references are vital. If previous employers don’t want to discuss your job loss because of legal reasons, find a reporting manager who will vouch for your stellar performance as an employee. Locate someone who will stand behind you and substantiate that you were not let go for misconduct, but that your job was downsized. The Perfect Fit Keeping connected to your business industry is a must, says Vaughn Taylor, management consultant at CTI International. He agrees there is an underlying preference on the part of employers to hire people who are not unemployed. It’s up to the candidate to prove they are the perfect fit for the job. “A lot of people blame bias when they don’t get hired,” Taylor says. “But they are inadvertently sabotaging their ability to be hired. They need to exploit every opportunity to explain why they’re the perfect fit.” Stay up on periodicals, magazines, journals, books and articles pertaining to your job field. Demonstrate you are still in contact with people in your industry and have ongoing conversations regarding trends, procedures and advances. Taylor describes the situation of a female attorney in Salt Lake who quit work to stay home with her children. However, she continued doing pro bono legal work during her time home so when she wanted to go back to work, she had kept her skill set up to par. There’s also a big reluctance to hire people who seem overqualified. Many top-level and highly skilled business leaders have been laid off to cut costs. Employers are concerned these talented employees will leave as soon as they get a better offer. The responsibility is then on the unemployed person to reduce the risk on behalf of the employer. Be able to indicate longevity and be completely transparent when it comes to experience, skills and references. The more a person can convince an employer that they are not a “high risk” candidate, the better the chances of landing a job. Some people also use the opportunity of unemployment to look for work in a different industry. If you’re interviewing for a job not in your previous field, learn everything you can about the position and the company, and explain to the employer how the job skills you acquired at a previous job are transferrable. Study the industry and portray that you understand the DNA of the job you are applying for. Above all, don’t gloss over the fact that you’re unemployed. Don’t dwell on it, but do address it. “They should craft a true but positive story of the circumstances surrounding their departure from their previous employer,” Taylor says. People should also craft a positive, factual story about why their unemployment has lasted for so long. Have the answers prepared and be confident. Finally, be sure to learn something from every job interview, good or bad. Develop insight into your strengths and weaknesses, and be willing to change tactics if things aren’t working. Don’t always assume you didn’t get the job because you’re currently unemployed. Flexibility is key. Patience is crucial. Accept the fact that employers might be biased when it comes to unemployment status—but don’t give up. Incorporating some good advice, staying focused, demonstrating your abilities and talent—and adding a little luck—will help overcome objections about your employment status and let you land the job you need.
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