How to Change Careers when Everyone wants Experience
Updated: Apr 4
Get started in a new industry without years of experience.
Everywhere you turn, it seems to be staring back at you: "Experience in a similar role required." How can you move into work you love when nobody gives you a chance? Here are some tips to help you dodge the experience of Catch-22.
"No experience, no job. No job, no experience." That's one of the most well-known career dilemmas, especially when switching careers. It seems like every job application requires years of experience.
"But Samantha: I'm qualified and experienced for the jobs I'm not interested in doing... How can I persuade prospective employers that I’m worth hiring?"
The first question any employer asks is: "What have you done in the past?"
"How do I get in the door with potential employers when I have little experience to demonstrate? What if I get hired and end up being a disappointment?"
And, deep down, you're probably not even sure you can deliver something you've never done.
Someone changing careers to a new field doesn't have much relevant experience. So how do you get someone's attention with irrelevant info on your resume? How do you get the employer to give you a chance?
The first step is to know that all problems have a solution. You’re not doomed. There's no need to start from scratch or waste months applying for jobs that don't respond. You need to learn a different game.
Let your story be the star, not your Work history.
Your resume alone won't open doors for a new job in a new industry. So what will? A compelling story.
There are plenty of employers out there who don't hire based on experience. Richard Branson, the Founder of Virgin Group, a $5.5 billion business, hires based on personality and cultural fit. He says:
"The first thing to look for when searching for a great employee is somebody with a personality that fits with your company culture. Most skills can be learned, but it is difficult to train people on their personality."
You may have trouble expressing your personality when you are not in a room with someone and trying to figure out how you could fit in a new environment if you don’t have relevant experience. And even then, nerves and the environment usually get in the way.
Crafting your story is the best way to share who you are and where you're headed with someone.
The field you want to break into is so important to you that you are willing to take risks and are fearless, curious, and passionate about it. You're willing to try despite being afraid of the unknown and the new. Though you may not directly have experience in your chosen industry, you have a wealth of other experience that could benefit a new employer.
This is what I know about you without meeting you. Imagine the stories you could tell when you dive into the details. When you're crafting your story, think about answering questions like:
Where have you come from?
What (positive) elements have brought you to this point?
What's the top reason for moving into this new field?
What are you working on to make the shift?
What do you offer, even without direct experience in your new industry?
What do people come to you for help with (what are your natural skills)?
Your story lets someone into your world. And in today's career market, there are many ways to tell it.
1. Try a skills-based Resume
Craft your resume to focus on your story, not your history.
Functional or skills-based resumes do precisely that. Instead of listing 'Jobs I’ve Done,' they focus on who you are and what you can do. Rather than job titles, your headlines showcase your three or four primary skills and talents. And instead of highlighting your tasks and responsibilities, bullets below your headlines show your most inspiring and exciting accomplishments demonstrating these skills.
A skills-based resume can include your work history, but it's more about engaging the reader in a conversation about what you can do rather than who you are.
Unfortunately, this method won't work for every job. You can't get the attention you want when you're looking for jobs with hundreds of applications - you'll get scanned for the right number of years of experience or skills they’re looking for.
But even if this were the case, giving an employer with a pile of standard resumes a fresh and exciting angle to read would be an advantage and could spark interest in you.
2. Think outside the box
Thankfully, employers are waking up to the fact that resumes aren't just dull. They're a terrible way to get to know someone.
More and more hiring screenings are becoming story-driven and interesting: asking for short YouTube videos to tell us what you do and why you'd be a good fit or asking for portfolios and projects you've made.
But why not share it with a company anyway? You don't have to wait for them to ask for it.
Tell your story through a YouTube video, website, or blog demonstrating your passion for the area. I’ve heard of one man who even created a website for companies to apply to be his employer! Talk about a new angle!
I’ve also recently witnessed an out-of-the-box experience with a candidate applying at our company, Mission Box Solutions. Her application had a PowerPoint presentation attached to the email. It had interesting facts about her, like what kind of coffee she likes, a picture of her swearing into the military at 17 years old, and pictures of her, her spouse, and their pets. Then at the end, she mentioned the volunteer work she does.
I would have never learned so much about her. And you’d better believe I was excited to hire her on ingenuity alone.
3. Act like a duck
There's an old saying: "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck." Now, consider why employers ask for "Two years experience in a similar role."
They're just looking for proof that you're the kind of person they're looking for. They're looking for proof that you're a duck. Someone with skills that can be usefully applied to the work they need you to do. Someone who demonstrates the kind of person they want in the role. Someone who can produce results.
Having two years of experience in a similar role is just one way to prove you are all these things; to prove you're a duck. But how else could you prove it?
Get experience by exchanging Your time.
There are likely to be many ways for you to do the same type of work unpaid (or even for a small fee) if you're not able to get paid work for an established company in your industry.
It's easy to find people in any field who would appreciate less workload if you offered unpaid time to organizations in your field of interest. Even if you don't want to work in the charity sector, you can easily find people who want to work less. You usually have a better chance of getting your story in front of small companies that inspire you than with larger ones.
During your lunch break, you may even be able to gain unpaid experience. For example, if you are interested in working in marketing, you might be able to volunteer in that department. To get the direct experience right where you are, find out if they will give you some training or beginner's work assignments.
But what if your company doesn't have a marketing department? Perhaps you can be the one who volunteers to step in and help out (or handle entirely) the marketing projects. Who is doing them now? Would they appreciate some help?
What projects could you do to build up experience in your chosen profession in your spare time? Who do you know who would appreciate the work you do? You could offer your time to friends or family or ask them to put the word out with their networks about your services.
Many of you know I was a social media strategist in my prior career. But I didn’t start that way. I took courses and learned everything I could; then, I offered to help a couple of small businesses for a month for free. You wouldn’t believe how many requests I got for help after one month. Not only was I building up experience and a portfolio that made me much more employable, but I was also creating a network of people who would help me market myself in the future to potential employers.
It's even possible to get paid for small freelance jobs in your spare time if you've got the skills. There could be a lot of clients out there that can't afford to hire an in-house employee but would like some work done for a lower cost. Find small companies or organizations that could use what you've got to offer, and approach them with a great pitch and a cheap price.
You can be anything you want
Who says you must get paid for something to 'be' it? When I transitioned into recruiting, I permitted myself to self-identify as a recruiter, even though I'd never been paid a penny to source or recruit. I began telling everyone I was a recruiter.
Make your new direction part of your identity, and immerse yourself in what you're passionate about.
If this was already your full-time career, what time and energy would you spend on professional development? What books would you read? What blogs would you follow? What would you spend your time doing? What would you do to be at the top of your game?
You should build up your portfolio, even if you aren't paid. It's not just for designers and writers, you can build a portfolio of expertise no matter what industry you want to get into - and if you're looking for work, you'll be able to show that passion and commitment.
You could even make a blog or podcast about critical topics in your chosen field and interview people working there. Research one key area of your future profession until you feel confident enough to speak about it, then ask someone if you can speak about it for ten minutes at an event. Bonus points if it is a problem area.
From personal experience, if you take the time to develop your knowledge and explore your new profession, it will likely lead to you being noticed. Even if you are overlooked immediately, you will have something solid to offer a potential employer. I did this tip when I was transitioning into recruiting, and lo and behold, the CEO of Mission Box Solutions found me and hired me.
When you're passionate about this career, these kinds of things will be fun and inspiring and provide you with a duck pond to hang out in.
Hang out in the pond
They say, “Birds of a feather tend to hang out in the same ponds.” And the best way to prove you're a duck is to spend as much time as possible in the right pond.
Getting in touch with the right people and becoming part of the community you want is as simple as attending talks, seminars, and events. If you're interested in your new profession but don't need new qualifications, you can still gain excellent experience and make great connections by taking classes.
Contact a company that inspires you if you're unsure where to find these events. Do they know of any industry events you might be interested in attending? Can they recommend any websites to check out?
Hanging out in the pond is usually called 'networking'. It's got so many negative connotations that I want to throw it out the window. No one has to be a top-level executive to do networking. It doesn't have to involve forced conversations, trying to be something you're not, or trying to impress.
To connect with people who can help you, engaging in a genuine, curious conversation in a duck pond is best. As long as you've followed some of the steps I talked about, you can even relax into being the one who can provide value rather than feeling like you are begging for assistance.
People you speak with are usually surprised if you offer to do something without strings attached. This unusual move leaves you firmly stuck in their minds – resume or no resume – and you’ll make a positive impression. And who knows where those positive impressions could lead?
Job searches are still done the old-fashioned way, and finding yourself disadvantaged in this process can be demoralizing. However, remember that only 7% of jobs filled are from a job board.
But the experience of catch-22 doesn't have to be the end of your career-change dreams. There are plenty of ways to build up expertise and hands-on practice and even make a move without a resume bursting with relevant experience.
As the world of work changes, more and more organizations and companies are looking to hire people rather than resumes. Alternative, creative approaches to getting your foot in the door are becoming increasingly common. The only way to do the work you love is to help lead the change.
So let’s recap real quick. To get past the experience of catch-22, you need to learn to play a new game.
Prove you’re a duck: By offering help to your network for free or cheap or volunteering in your company’s other department that you need experience in.
If you have enough experience to get the job done, freelance online or with local small businesses, give yourself permission to identify as a “Project Manager” or whatever role you want to get into. Do NOT put “transitioning project manager” or “aspiring project manager”. You are it because you say you are. Make a plan for your professional development through books, blogs, classes, or whatever you need. And build up your portfolio with personal projects.
Hang out in the pond by attending as many relative events or coffee chats as possible to connect to the right people. And just because someone isn’t even close to the same field you want to be in, doesn’t mean they don’t know someone who is.
Photo credit: Oleksandr Briagin
What's your story? And what could you do to start acting like a duck in your new profession? Let me know in the comments below!