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How to Sell Yourself

Out of the job market for years? Changing careers? Never worked before? If you’re looking for work, and don’t have much relevant experience, there are ways to package the skills you have to impress a potential employer. You just need to know where to start. 

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In an interview, you're selling YOU, not just your skills.

In an interview, you’re selling YOU, not just your skills.

Work life isn’t always a straight path from job to job. Sometimes, there are stops, starts, and unexpected turns–which can make selling your skills challenging. Think of people like stay-at-home parents who are returning to the job market. New graduates with no experience. Older workers who’ve retired or been laid off, and want back in. Anyone who switches careers. Or recent immigrants who lack Canadian work experience.

How do you package your skills to make yourself more attractive to potential employers – or even identify those skills?

Consider All Your Life Experiences

If you have workplace experience and “hard” skills that relate to a job you’re pursuing, great. But think more broadly. Review the skills or talents you’ve developed outside the workforce, and determine which could appeal to that employer.

Ever volunteer for a charitable or community organization? If so, what skills did you put to use for them? If you headed a committee, maybe you honed your organizational skills. Do any fundraising or budgeting? That could translate into financial skills that are useful on the job.

If you’re a student looking for your first job, think of what skills you’ve learned through extracurricular activities and clubs that you can transfer to the workplace. Serving on the student council, for instance, demonstrates leadership, while being a member of a school team or band indicates your sense of teamwork.

Stay-at-home moms, too, typically have many transferable skills–everything from coordinating an event at your child’s school (organizational skills), to coaching a kids’ soccer team (leadership skills). Even the qualities developed inside the home can have value to an employer.

“Mothers come to my office and say they have nothing to offer – but think of all the skills moms have, such as planning, leadership and human relations,” says Ross Young, an employment counsellor with the Winnipeg Transition Centre. “People have blind spots about their skills.” 

Stay Current

Whether you’re currently in the workplace or trying to get your foot in the door, learn what employers are seeking in your field and upgrade your skills and knowledge as required, says Patrick Sullivan, president of the job website Workopolis.

Getting up-to-date, he says, could be a matter of ensuring your computer literacy or taking a course to learn the latest techniques in a particular field.

Sullivan says it’s a good idea to talk to associations related to your area of interest, to research the current qualifications for the field, and to assess if you have them. Besides a course, one way to get up to speed on a particular skill (for free) is to practice it through volunteer work with a community or non-profit organization.

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Make Your Resumé Relevant

A chronological resumé is fine if your jobs show the steady progress you’ve made, and if those jobs clearly relate to the one you’re pursuing now. But what if you have holes in your employment history, or are entering a new field?

In those cases, try organizing your resumé by the qualities employers would be interested in, instead of by job experience.

As an example, if you’re looking for a job in customer service, but don’t have any paid work in the field, think instead of the skills required for that particular role and where you’ve acquired them. Many varied experiences, from summer camp counselor to volunteer committee member, could have helped you build your interpersonal and problem-solving skills – generic skills that are of great value in customer service.

You’ll have the chance to make your case even more strongly during a job interview. The function of the resumé is to help you land that interview, and to achieve that end a list of your qualities can sometimes be just as effective as a list of your jobs. 

Prepare for the Interview

In interviews, the people hiring aren’t just interested in your past job titles. They want to hear how you’ve applied the skills they are seeking in a new hire.

“Give specific examples that demonstrate certain skills – the situation you used them in, the actions you took, and the results [of those actions],” says Young.

Although you may get points for relating how you overcame certain challenges or setbacks, focus on the positive results. The examples don’t have to come from a previous job. Running a successful 10-person department shows HR skills, but so does running a team of fellow volunteers at a charity.

Says Young, “In an interview, 20-25% of questions will be job-specific; the rest are about your soft skills, like communications and decision-making.”

Show Enthusiasm

The most important part of packaging your skills – you, the actual package.

“In an interview, you’re selling your personality,” says Gail Pierre-Jerome, regional director, Eastern Canada, for The People Bank, a staffing solutions firm. “You need to show your desire to learn, dedication, and sense of teamwork.”

That enthusiasm can set you apart from a candidate who, in theory, is more “qualified”, adds Young. “Anyone can learn job skills,” he says, “but you can’t teach someone to be motivated, or a good team player.”

He himself is an example of someone who packaged his skills wisely when changing fields. After 32 years in office products, mostly in corporate sales, Young retired in 2005 at the age of 52. He wanted to do something fulfilling afterwards, and went to community college to pursue a certification in employment counselling.

“I had never worked in the industry, but sent a proposal to employment agencies to see if they would take me as [an unpaid intern]. My selling points were my knowledge of the Winnipeg business community and the business acumen I’d bring to the job.”

That volunteer internship helped Young land a full-time position. Today, a sign in his office reads “I don’t know you well enough to limit your possibilities”. No matter your experience, just sell yourself, he says – don’t sell yourself short.