SCENE: In a campus career centre, a stressed student meets with a career coach.
STUDENT: I’m having a lot of trouble with my resume.
COACH: What seems to be the problem?
STUDENT: Well, I’ve never done any work in my field, and now I’m graduating and going after jobs related to my program. I can’t put any of my summer jobs on my resume, so I don’t know what to write.
COACH: Why can’t you put any of your summer jobs on your resume?
STUDENT: Because they’re not relevant.
If this little scene was part of an improv workshop, this is where I would shout “stop!” and jump into it as the career coach. Based on my experience, I suspect this is the single-most common conversation in campus career centres across the country. There are plenty of soon-to-be grads who are on the cusp of receiving a post-secondary credential in a variety of disciplines but have only ever had jobs in environments like camp and recreation, fast food or retail. So their job search is doomed, right? Well, in the infamous words of MC Hammer, “yo, sound the bells, school’s in.”
You’re not supposed to be an expert
The first thing I tell students when they come to see me with this issue is that they are likely applying to something entry level. That means the employer does not expect the candidates to have boatloads of experience already. They are specifically seeking someone who has a firm grasp on the basic theoretical or technical components of the industry, but is trainable (read: can be molded) to their specific way of doing things. In that case, the most important attribute the new grad can take into their first “grown-up” job is a collection of employability skills. This formal list of Essential Employability Skills is is the baseline post-secondary institutions use to incorporate employability skills into curricula and co-curricular activities in Ontario. On a more casual level, employability skills, which are more often known as “soft skills,” are literally the skills you will see in every job posting, ever. And that brings us back to relevancy.
Transferrable skills are … transferrable
Has the student ever been in a job that required them to work with people, whether they were team members or customers? Did they have to communicate clearly at work, either in writing or verbally? Have they led a project, delivered a part of a project or solved an issue for someone?
Of course they have. And most people would answer those questions with “yes” whether they have worked in a fast-food joint or the head office of a Fortune 500 company. Recent graduate or not, any jobseeker needs to look for the links between their past work and the position they are seeking. The goal of a resume is to clearly draw that line for the hiring manager, so they don’t have to.
“… students should take stock of anything else in their wheelhouse an employer might find valuable.”
Let’s consider an example student, whom I’ll call Cinderella. Cinderella always had a job cleaning houses through college. Now she’s finished her public relations diploma and is going after a job as an account manager at a public relations firm. The position seems completely unrelated to her past employment experience. However, a closer look reveals Cinderella has picked up many soft skills cleaning houses:
- Time management and trustworthiness: Having to get to client locations within set time frames and working without supervision.
- Information tracking: This might involve maintaining a database of addresses and cleaning instructions, pay rates and schedules or extra bits of information like who has a dog or a toddler or asthma that may be aggravated by certain cleaning chemicals.
- Customer service: I often dub this one as “working with jerks” because inevitably, when you work with people, you will come across jerks. Dealing with jerks effectively is a life skill.
- Safety: Cinderella is probably one of the few people you know who realizes that mixing bleach with household cleaners containing ammonia can produce fumes that are toxic to animals and humans. She also will be hyperaware of safety issues involved with working in other people’s homes, often alone.
- Problem solving: It is probable that Cinderella has had to deal with issues like traffic jams, pesky home alarm systems that clients forgot to mention and unfriendly (or too friendly) pets that get in the way. She can handle things that come out of left field, as they inevitably will.
There are probably quite a few other soft skills Cinderella could call up from her experience with a little bit of thought.
Any other lines to draw?
Above and beyond the employability skills, students should take stock of anything else in their wheelhouse an employer might find valuable. Have they taken a generally applicable training course like First Aid and CPR? Were they ever promoted or given additional responsibilities at work? Whether or not the tasks of the job are similar to the one the student is now pursuing, a promotion shows that a former supervisor recognized their solid work ethic or greater capacity for responsibility or leadership. If nothing else, all previous work experience at least tells a potential employer that another hiring manager was willing to take a chance on them once upon a time.
The one question that should always be on a jobseeker’s mind when writing a resume is “what skills and experience do I have, and how will they benefit the next employer if they pick me for this job?” Everyone cares about what’s in it for them, and employers are no different. Jobseekers need to get in the employer’s head and look at themselves from the hiring manager’s perspective. Those jobs that seem unrelated at a glance will start to look awfully applicable in no time.