Lessons we can learn from Sam Pointon

When I was six, I thought I was going to be a teacher. This may have had something to do with being around teachers all day. Teaching isn’t on my radar now, but I could see myself in some kind of educational role. No matter what I end up doing, it’s important that I have fun and demonstrate drive on the job, for life is too short not to have fun.

Sam Pointon is learning this lesson very early on. He’s the director of fun at the National Railway Museum in York. This in itself is remarkable. What’s even more remarkable is that he was only six years old when he got the position, and he applied for the regular director position at first. Sam’s application shows his passion for trains and his determined attitude, traits anyone should have (well, maybe not always with trains). The hiring folks were so impressed that they made up a position for him.

We job seekers can learn a couple of things from Sam’s application, even if we’re not in elementary school anymore.

1. Stand out. Sometimes it’s not about the material in your resume or cover letter, but how you present it. Sam obviously didn’t have a resume, but he showed off his interest in trains with style. You (and I) can do the same. What makes you stand out against the other candidates? Surely that’s better than the “blah blah this is what I’ve done” BS.

2. Don’t worry if you don’t seem qualified. Sam obviously wasn’t qualified. If you’re passionate, apply! (And show why you’d be better, of course.) I’ve done this for several positions and gotten interviews. None of them worked out, but they remember me.

In case you’re wondering, Sam still has to go to school. Going to school and having a cool job? I’d take that, even at that age.

Buzzwords: not just from candidates

Today LinkedIn posted a list of the top ten buzzwords users mentioned in their profiles. The top ten in the USA are:

1. Extensive experience
2. Innovative
3. Motivated
4. Results-oriented
5. Dynamic
6. Proven track record
7. Team player
8. Fast-paced
9. Problem solver
10. Entrepreneurial

These results don’t surprise me a bit. When job searchers hear about their resumes and cover letters being scanned for those buzzwords, they feel the need to stuff their resumes with the same buzzwords that employers use in their job descriptions. Don’t believe me? I have a couple of job descriptions in front of me right now. Let’s take a look. The first one is relatively buzzword-free, though it does mention motivation and being a team player in the traits needed for this position. I’m proud of you, large company. I expected you to be the one filled with the most buzzwords.

The second position is at a small company that’s looking for a dynamic person. Uh-oh. One sentence in and they’re already speaking buzz. Luckily the rest of the job description is (mostly) buzz-free, partly thanks to the qualification listing.

But the third job. Oh, the third job. Let’s take a look.

“…work in a vibrant environment that fuses the dynamic worlds…”

Hello, buzz. I didn’t miss you.

From the qualifications section and in the same bullet point: “self-starter, innovative thinker”. Wow, they managed to cram two buzzwords in one bullet! I’m not sure whether to give them a cookie or take it away.

And another one a bit further down: “Ability to work in fast paced growing environment.”

Wow, that’s four in one job description. One buzzword that should get an honorable mention is “detail-oriented”. I’ve seen that in so many job descriptions that the term has lost its meaning by now. Of course employers want people who check for the little things. Assuming being detail-oriented isn’t a critical part of the job, it shouldn’t have be said. If employers stop using these buzzwords constantly, then maybe prospective employees will stop using them as well when introducing themselves, and everyone can start being more genuine when looking for a good fit.

Someone’s always more qualified than you

Last month I interviewed at a company to work in their internationals parts department. I didn’t have any experience in mechanical parts, but I spoke French, and this was the important part. How many people in my tiny town, or even in the not-so-big city I live in, speak French? The interviewers told me that the person they hired a few months ago didn’t know anything about the field when she came in and had to learn everything the fun way, so I figured mechanical knowledge wasn’t a huge deal. I did about as well as one could in the interview, and the interviewers even told me that they liked me.

Still, I wasn’t expecting to get hired. Maybe it’s because promoting people at random can happen with no ill effect, so why not hiring?

I didn’t get hired. (Obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing this.) One of my interviewers called me to tell me about a week ago. The person they hired happened to be a native French speaker with experience in the field. In other words, the perfect person for the job. I wasn’t that surprised when I found out that this person got hired instead of me.

Still, this brings up a very important lesson in the job search. You are never the most qualified person for a job. This is doubly true if you have limited work experience, and it’s particularly true when everyone is looking for a job. As much as I complain about ridiculous qualifications for jobs that are not that hard to do, some employers put those out there because there are people with a Ph.D. in environmental chemistry who speak English, Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese. That’s why they’re the idea candidate. The ideal candidate always exists, and it’s probably not you. Not on paper, at least.

So what are we great but still not quite ideal candidates to do? We rely on the other thing we have going for us: fitting in. It’s great if we can do the work, but doing the work and fitting in with the company’s culture is even better at some places, especially in team environments. No one wants to be that cranky coworker who never says hello to anyone, so show that interviewer that you’re not only qualified, but you’re a great fit.

Job queue: almost clear

Accomplishment of the day: My job queue is almost clear. Considering it was in the hundreds of items on Wednesday, this is definitely an accomplishment. There are only two items left, and I can’t do anything about them until Monday since the site those jobs are on is down.

Jobs, consider yourselves applied to. This means I can spend tomorrow doing job stuff at a more reasonable level while balancing it out with non-job things and apply to a more reasonable number of jobs per day starting next week. I have finally exited the frenzy of NaNo life, even if I haven’t been writing at a NaNo pace for four days. Maybe December should be National Apply To Jobs Month? Wait a minute; that’s every month for me until I find a job. Still, setting a quota for jobs to apply to every day isn’t a bad idea. Maybe I should do that.

Employers should put their best foot forward, too

One of my recent hobbies is making fun of job descriptions and wondering what went through the employers’ minds when they wrote them. The poor grammar makes me doubt the honesty in the “excellent writing and communicatino [sic] skills” requested in the job description. The job that called for an operatiions [sic] assistant (yes, I really did see this in the job title today) made me wonder what was going through the employer’s mind when they posted the listing.

If advice all over the job searching community is about putting your best foot forward, then don’t employers deserve to do the same? At the very least, they should show that they care about the things presented in the job description as much as they’d like the candidate to. That job description could be the first impression that a candidate has of a company. If the candidate cares about correct grammar and spelling, that candidate might eliminate the company from consideration after seeing an obvious error in the job description. Employers, please proofread before releasing jobs to the Web. Your candidates will thank you.

If I’m unemployed next November, I’m writing 500,000 words

I accomplished the word count that I did this year (300,787 words) in part because of a good chunk of spare time. The primary source of this spare time was the lack of a job, so while I wasn’t writing, I was spending time looking for a job and complaining about employers’ poor spelling in job descriptions.

The last couple of days and the fact that I doubled my original goal have made me wonder what next year’s goal should be. 50,000 words in a month isn’t a challenge for me after nine years; I can write the daily 1667 words in less than half an hour if I sit down and focus. One person has suggested going for 400,000 words. This is theoretically possible even with a job that doesn’t exist yet, especially if I use the weekends to catch up, but the amount of time spent writing would consume me. Knowing me I would probably do it.

If I don’t have a job next November, then I’m definitely going for it. In fact, let’s do a little more. If I don’t have a job (part-time or full-time) by 1 November 2011, I am aiming for 500,000 words for NaNoWriMo 2011. That’s an average of 16,667 words per day. I exceeded that four times this November, and #50kweekend leaves me confident that I can come back from behind if I do fall behind.

There’s only one problem with this: my wrists. My wrists have stayed in great shape this November thanks to my learning how to adjust to all the typing my body adjusting to what I do to it every month. During my first year of frantic noveling my wrists cried out in pain even when I was far behind on the 50,000 word goal, partly thanks to my not knowing how to treat them. Now I know better, but even though I take good care of my wrists and the rest of my body, there’s still a chance that they’ll give out during my quest for 500,000.

There’s one way to save me from this quest: get me a job.

Dear employers (I know there are a few of you reading this), don’t you want to get in on this deadline-driven productivity? Imagine. Instead of me writing 500,000 words in a month, you hire me and I channel that passionate productivity into your workplace. My actual qualifications aside for a moment, let’s look at what my experiences with National Novel Writing Month would bring to the workplace.

* NaNoWriMo has taught me the power of a deadline. Give me a deadline, and wonderful things happen. Give me a seemingly unreasonable deadline, and even more powerful things happen. Writing a book in a month? Sure. Why not try multiple books or even a book in three days? I can get things done, and I can get them done quickly.

* I set goals and then exceed them. My original goal for the month was 150,000 words. That was shattered in two weeks, and my goal grew higher and higher until I threw sanity to the wind, #50kweekend turned into 66,000 word weekend, and I saw that 300,000 words were possible.

* I can promote things to the right people. The #50kweekend challenge to write 50,000 words over Black Friday and the next two days was the brainchild of two other Wrimos and me, but I started the #50kweekend Twitter hashtag and posted to the overachievers’ thread where many of the folks with the high word counts hang out. This is how the majority of the people who participated found out about the challenge.

* I love community, but not in the creepy “for the greater good” way. Part of writing with NaNoWriMo is writing with a community of other writers, and it’s why I keep coming back year after year. Where else can thousands of writers discuss issues of plot, character, and signs that NaNoWriMo has eaten their soul? It’s a community that I’ve proud to be part of and have given back to through the collaborative site Wikiwrimo that I founded.

Don’t you want to get in on this? I save my wrists from the wrath of 500k, and you get a productive employee who also happens to be writing a novel or two or three while juggling a job. We’d both win. If you’re convinced, why not hit that contact button? I could be your next ridiculously well-rounded employee.

Some job search annoyances

Over the past year and a half, I’ve applied to a lot of jobs. I’ve also encountered a lot of annoyances when applying to said jobs, from the big to the small to the ones that make me question the competence of the person posting the job. So with this in mind I’m going to list some of my annoyances in job applications.

* Typos in the job descriptions. I am always tempted to call the employers out on the typos, especially when the job calls for attention to details. If they can’t be bothered to proofread the job descriptions, what kind of coworkers can I be expected to work with?

* Autoreplies that state that no more applications are being taken. Why leave the position online if you’re no longer taking applications? This one irks me because I’ve encountered it multiple times this week alone, and I know the positions were posted that day thanks to my RSS reader. I can understand having a lot on your plate at work, but taking down a job description takes one minute, if that.

* Brassring. The job application site, that is. I have had only negative experiences with this site over the past six months, and it has become a pain in the neck. The page doesn’t load when I try to submit something, and I know it’s on Brassring’s end. This all but eliminates many sites to apply to.

* Uploading your job openings as a .doc file. Doing so as a .pdf is only slightly less annoying, but at least you’ve chosen a standard format. I shouldn’t have to download a file in order to read a job description. Just take the info and put it on the web site or job board. Problem solved, and you’ve saved the job seekers the trouble of downloading and opening the file. This is especially important for .doc files because you’re assuming the recipient can read it in its original format. And that doesn’t even get into the security concerns of a Word file.

* Dropdown fields that don’t also provide an Other option or a fill in the blank so you can write in your choice that doesn’t appear in the options. This happens to me often enough that it’s annoying, and it’s the only annoying thing about graduating with multiple majors (math and French, for those who don’t know). When I can’t fill in the blank for my majors, my next option is to enter Other because I earned both of those majors. Both of them should count. If the Other option is unavailable, I usually choose the major that’s more relevant to the position. Interestingly, French is available only about half the time in the drop-down menus, and it’s not a newfangled specialized major.

* Sites that only let you use a certain browser, usually Internet Explorer. I’ve encountered this outright only once, thankfully, and I was only checking the company for job opportunities and not applying to a specific position there, so I let it go. This one’s the fault of the webmaster, who apparently doesn’t realize that many people these days don’t use Internet Explorer. I look at people funny when they tell me they use Internet Explorer, but that’s the geek in me talking. Especially if they’re still using IE6.

* Employers who want a salary requirement or a salary history. I’m a recent grad; I don’t have much of a salary history in the first place. As far as a salary requirement, the first person who says a number loses. There’s little reason for me to put a number in the original email and risk losing the ability to negotiate later. I can understand having a tight budget for a position, but asking a candidate to state a salary and then finding out they’re a) too costly and therefore out or b) below your budget and therefore good means that the candidate loses the power later.

* Emails that bounce back. This should speak for itself.

What annoys you about the job search?

I wish I could put this in a cover letter

The cover letter is the hardest part of the job application process. How many people actually learned to write a good cover letter before applying? I didn’t know until actually applying for jobs that wanted cover letters, despite noticing a career planning workshop on cover letters that I couldn’t go to. I’m not talking about the dry and boring cover letters you find when you search for something like “how to write a cover letter” (something that’ll guarantee me more hits for people searching for that–sorry, future, I’m on the same end of the counter as you are). I’m not even talking about the boring cover letters you and I write that get tossed aside or deleted as soon as they get read. I’m talking real cover letters, ones that show your personality while showing you actually know the company in question.

The problem is that for those who have to learn the art of the cover letter alone, the existing examples online make me want to take up reading Alan Paton. Look at this cover letter sample from about.com’s job search site. Can we say snoozefest? Also, my grandmother writes her emails in the format of the last bullet point:

*Good listener…Solid work ethic…Desire to excel…Meet deadlines…Enjoy a fast-paced environment…Extraordinary factual recall…

I don’t know about HR folks, but if I read a bullet point in that format, I’d definitely doubt the fast-paced environment bit and wonder who taught them to write like that.

I’ve written cover letters like those before when I didn’t know better. Most of them were snoozefests. In fact, the only people I have heard from were the cover letters I livened up more than usual. I didn’t liven them up as much as some of these lovely tidbits, but I certainly showed that I know my stuff.

But one has to wonder, especially with online job application sites: who reads those letters, anyway? With an email, the answer is obvious. Something, even if it is something that fails a Turing test, is scanning the letter. The same may be true of the online job applications. Sometimes I’m tempted to put nonsense in the cover letter box to see if anyone responds. What would I put?

Dear You,
If you’re reading this letter, I’m still unemployed. Call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx or email me at mygrownupemail@gmail.com to change that.
-Me

Nah, too short. Let’s try again.

Dear person whose name I couldn’t find on the website,
I’m writing in response to your response for a position involving menial tasks in exchange for money. I can do menial tasks at an alarmingly productive rate, and I enjoy not having to wonder where my bill payment will come from. I also enjoy hiding my geeky nature from my coworkers who talk about the latest TV show, party, sports event, or office drama and ask me about my personal life instead of working on their own menial tasks. I enjoy jumping through red tape to make sure I will get paid on time, admitting that my supervisor is right, and office bureaucracy. Therefore we will make an excellent fit. My buzzword-free resume is below. Feel free to contact me at xxx-xxx-xxxx or by email at mygrownupemail@gmail.com so I can rejoice at finally getting an interview, dress fancily for a day to talk about my ability to do menial tasks, then have all my hopes crushed a few weeks later when I get the rejection email because you hired someone who will spend their day chatting with friends instead of doing those menial tasks. Thank you for making it this far.
Me

Actually, I kind of like that one. It’s how I feel when I apply for a job that I’m applying for just because it’s an open position.

Hey,
What do I have to do to get a response around here?
-Me

This is how I feel when applying to really menial jobs.

Don’t apply if you’re unemployed. What is this, a cruel joke?

The Room for Debate blog at the New York Times has a post asking if any job is better than no job. Naturally, opinions varied across the board: people need money so they can pay the bills, graduate school will improve your qualifications (though not necessarily your experience, which is emphasized now), everyone has to start somewhere, working hard in one job is the best way to work your way up.

All valid arguments, whether you agree with them or not. Here’s one point they left out: You may not be considered for that job if you’re unemployed. In an economy where many talented people are unemployed, finding talent these days is less expensive than ever. Why continue recycling the current workforce when there’s a whole workforce waiting to apply if not for that last line of the job description, some of whom could be the right person for the job? Retraining can be expensive, but for the right person in the right industry, it won’t matter, and they will have kept up anyway.

Some depressing statistics from my job search

In another fit of unemployment, I inventoried my inboxes: my main inbox, the one mentioned on my contact form, and another inbox that I use to pretend that I’m an adult. There is no mention of sushi or writing in this address, and everything from this inbox forwards to my main inbox, where it is tagged accordingly.

I have 385 items tagged jobsearch in my main inbox today. A few of these items are not actual job applications. A few are items related to job hunting that I found interesting enough to save and thus tagged with the jobsearch tag. Other items are conversations because for some reason Gmail decides to group multiple items sent from the same sender with the same subject within a short period in the same conversation. This usually happens when I apply to multiple positions within a short period. Without going through every item, I think it’s safe to say that there are at least 350 items that are confirmations of job applications.

Some people prefer their cover letters and resumes to be emailed, though. Looking in the sent mail of my non-sushi account, there are 289 items. Some of these are also conversations with people I have to be a professional adult around, and others are overlapped with the 385 items mentioned earlier. Let’s say that 200 of these emails are for actual jobs.

Once you add up the applications I’ve done in person at places and the resumes I’ve handed out in person, we’re definitely at 575, if not 600 applications, well over my estimate of 500 jobs that I thought of earlier today. And this is ignoring the fact that I didn’t apply to as many jobs as usual in November because I was drowning out my unemployment sorrows into writing two novels, one of which can be read at this site and the other of which will be edited starting next month.

Despite all this, I’ve had only five job interviews since graduating from college in May. What am I doing wrong? If we assume 600 job applications (or shows of interest, as is the case), that’s one interview for every 125 applications. One hundred twenty-five. Looking at the lower end doesn’t improve that statistic much. I’m willing to bet that not too many others have that kind of luck. If you do, let me know so I know I’m not alone.

If ever I get a job, I’ll post the final estimated statistics.