Have you ever seen a job description like this?
ENTRY LEVEL JOB OPENING:
Hiring recent college grads
5 years of experience, 6 Olympic gold medals, and superpowers.
— Jordan (@jordan_stratton) July 6, 2015
Call it the employment-experience paradox: you need prior experience for the job, but you need the job to get the relevant experience. Many job seekers face this seemingly unsolvable problem. Even more established professionals may encounter this challenge when they attempt to change careers or work focus.
So what do you do when the job requires experience that you don’t (or, perhaps, can’t possibly) already have?
The first thing to keep in mind is that many employers knowingly set very high expectations in their job descriptions.
The requirements often describe an abstract, ideal candidate; this is the employer’s ultimate wish-list for the perfect new employee. In practice, however, employers know they aren’t going to get everything they want. Most will be happy if they find someone who meets most of these qualifications.
As a jobseeker, you shouldn’t be intimidated by inflated job requirements. Don’t be afraid to apply just because you don’t meet the ideal job criteria… the truth is that no one does! Of course, some jobs absolutely require specific hard skills, but in many cases “years experience” is a flexible requirement.
That being said, you want to be responsive to the employer’s stated needs. If your dream job asks for work experience that you don’t have, you need to “find” that experience. Here are some ways you might approach this challenge:
Volunteer in the field
Sometimes you can’t work around a lack of direct experience. In these cases, volunteering is the easiest way to fill the gap and get hands-on experience in a new field or organization. Be strategic in how and where you volunteer your time; try to find organizations and projects that provide the experience your ideal job requires
Think about translatable experience
Perhaps your past work experience isn’t 100% relevant to the job you’re applying for; but can you frame your employment history in a way that makes it 90% applicable? For example, let’s say you are looking for a job in nonprofit development; do you have any experience in sales, customer service or communications that speak to challenges of nonprofit fundraising?
Think about non-work experiences
Reflect on the previous volunteer experiences you’ve had–even those outside of your desired field–and try to extract meaningful skills you’ve developed from those experiences. Maybe you led the local PTA or girl scout troop? Undoubtedly that experience gave you some insight on leadership, involved financial management and project management. These are the kinds of skills that are directly applicable to nearly any job.
Think outside the box
We’ve all had unique life experiences where we’ve learned and practiced special skills. Can you frame any of your own personal (non-work) experiences in a way that meets the employer’s needs–even needs that the employer may not fully articulate in the job description? For instance, perhaps you spent a semester abroad in college; what skills did you learn from that trip that are applicable to the job at hand?
Leverage your professional contacts
Ultimately, you best bet at overcoming a lack in direct experience may be a recommendation from a professional contact you share with the hiring manager. References are huge in the hiring process and a good word from a known and trusted contact can cover nearly any flaw in your application. For instance, assurance from a trusted third party that you are “a great, dedicated worker and a quick learner” may convince the employer that you can succeed in spite of your limited experience.