Employees are like Rail-cars... if you don't replace us as 3% a year, you'll be screwed down the line...
March 11, 2009 1:11 PM   Subscribe

JobSearchFilter: How do I explain years of non-documented interest and knowledge in an interview, and where can I look to search for shipping industry employment?

For full disclosure, I'll put a shorted version of my CV/circumstances at the top here:

I graduated from a US University with a BS in Political Science (yes, yes, would you like fries with that?), and a minor in Naval Science. The minor was necessitated by a military ROTC program which I had to leave immediately prior to commissioning due to medical problems (having to do with tendon swelling during long distance running-- doesn't affect civilian employers unless I'm running more than 5 miles a day.).

Since then I spent six months overseas mastering my command of the German language (I learned pidgin German at home in the US when I was young as my dad was learning English at the same time), then arrived back in the States for the worst job market of my lifetime. Hooray.

I am trying to get into the shipping/transportation industry. (Carriers, Freight forwarding, Customs Brokering, that milieu)

The good news: I'm in Houston, TX where, while the economy is catching up to the rest of the country, low cost of living, a steady housing market, and city-wide diversification since the bust of the 80's has kept us relatively shielded from some of the nasty effects of the current recession. (You know. 1 000 applicants per job instead of 10 000...)

I have a double-passport (US/Germany), so I can work anywhere in the US, EU or Switzerland. I have previously (so in theory, could attain again relatively easily) attained a US mil. security clearance.

The Marine Corps was pretty good about teaching me to size up a situation very quickly and make decisions, and gave me the management experience of a year or so dealing with my 40ish compatriots. (Everything from creating long-range company plans to managing briefings, planning and executing operations, etc.) (Yes, I realize that the military offers opportunities to both lead and manage peers at a much younger age. While I feel that the training and experience I received there is very useful, I recognize that in a civilian environment I won't be in a position to do the same sort of job for 10-15 years.)

Industry specific good news: I've spent 20 years reading/analyzing/researching the practice of ocean freight shipping because at the dinner table. I know how to read maritime survey reports, house/master bills, import/export declarations, etc.

I am having difficulty with interviews, and the problems are two-fold:

One: I don't know how to start answering the question "Are you looking for a job, or are you looking for this job?"

I've had a few interviews and at the bluntest (and least confusing to me... I admit, I usually am curious at interviewers who tip-toe around problems/questions. ... I'm not made of glass and won't crack if you ask a real question... ... but I digress.), the question that's come up is "You look like someone who studied to be a military officer... then, failing that, said "I need a job." ... how do we know you're interested in our business/industry?"

My internal answer is pretty simple: I am in a lucky position where, due to saving and planning, I am able to apply for jobs that I want instead of anything-to-pay-the-bills. Also, this industry is something that I've learned more or less my entire life. Complexity and a high pressure environment is good.

My audible answer is usually some form of "You're absolutely right. But the training I've received in complex operational thinking is exactly what's applicable to your business. Also, in addition to being a quick learner, I am already cursorily familiar with your industry. I have a world map in my head. I know the logistical demands and constraints of supply chains in Europe, Asia, and the US."

That answer rings hollow to me, and, judging with the (lack of) success I've had in interviews, to the employers as well. The same (refreshingly) blunt employer went on at one point to note "You've given me all the right answers, but you also seem like you'd realize what those answers are. Of course, you wouldn't tell me you didn't want this job. That's why you're here."

I know that I'll have to start at the bottom. The US, to my knowledge, doesn't really have the same apprenticeship programs that European countries do (especially regarding carriers-- my particular interest), and so I've taken University courses in Materials Management/Logistics to put something on paper. (I enjoy the courses, but often end up getting the "That's a bit beyond the scope of what we're looking at with the time we have" from professors-- most of my questions are analytical and trying to encourage expansion on the difference between the theoretical teaching of the material and practice.)
The nature of the industry--- well, I understand that any employer has to look at me as taking on an 8 month to 1 year drain-on-resources, because I don't pay for myself until then. Because of my previous knowledge/experience, I know that it'll be shorter than that--- but not nearly equivalent to hiring someone who's been in the industry for 5 years. (That is, I'll learn the details of the company's operating procedures in 6 months as opposed to a year, because you don't have to start from scratch with your explanation "Ship X can't go routing Y because it's above PanaMax", etc.)

The second, and much more basic problem:
I don't know where to look to find openings. I know that the industry pretty much hasn't hired (to capacity) in 15 years... which is creating a vacuum in regards to the necessary young-to-middleaged workers. Also, as a whole, the industry doesn't advertise.

posted by Seeba to Work & Money (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also-- just to get an obvious, albeit necessary answer out of the way: I understand that the US is in the middle of a recession. I also realize that the industry operates both ahead and behind the curve-- a lot of freight planning is done 4-6-10 months early. So looking ahead is a necessary component of the job, and companies that have managed to do it right are still expanding. Just a lot slower than they'd like to at the moment.
posted by Seeba at 1:18 PM on March 11, 2009

First off I'd suggest you realize that you have a lot more to be confident about than your self-conscious explanation would suggest. You know what direction you want to go in, and that is a big deal, especially in an environment where many applicants will be more desperate than you sound like you are.

So it sounds like some of the people you've been interviewing with are dicks. This may be just a culture clash on my part due to a difference of familiarity with your chosen industry, though. I would answer the "any job/this job" question simply by acknowledging the circumstances in which the question comes up: an interview. Take the lead, an interview is just as much you finding out about the company as it is about them finding out about you. It's perfectly reasonable to answer that you don't know if this job is the right one, and that's why you're interviewing: to find out. It may be that the job is right but the company is full of assholes, or the people are cool but you're actually overqualified. That's the whole purpose of an interview, so don't let them wrong-foot you in attacking your motives.

As for the military thing, you don't have to account for all of that and you can focus on the military experience you did receive. I guess you could say you had a physical disqualification or something vaguely health-related without disclosing too much (or it may not matter to you since it's only a tendon thing).

For the "how do we know you're really into shipping?" question, you'll have to come up with your own spiel. Try and include some technical, obscure or otherwise interesting knowledge about the industry. "I've been interested in proper shipping operations and safety ever since I was 12 and saw a size-8 Johnson rod fall off a tanker right next to me, denting the asphalt," or whatever.

And don't be afraid to task them on some questions, too. Ask them what it is (with specific examples) about the position that requires complex operational thinking. See yourself as the prize that you are trying to award to them. I know that might sound a little dippy, but they want someone like you, you just have to convince them that you are actually that person. Don't be afraid to try to talk over their head, but it sounds like that one employer was calling you too smart? I dunno, that's weird, but I wouldn't let any of these people flag your confidence. People who really want to get into an industry like shipping out of personal interest are rare and (ought to be) valuable.
posted by rhizome at 1:30 PM on March 11, 2009

It sounds like you are not letting your passion show. The answer to the "this job" question is a story about how you have been fascinated by shipping since whenever, you actually read and study about ocean freight shipping on your own time and then pick an example of something that you consider to be an interesting question that would be germane to your new job. For example "I'm fascinated by the problem xyz. It is similar to some problems I have worked on the past but with the additional complexity of abc." By the way, what do you know about worldwide logistical supply constraints? Give an example. As rhizome suggested, include details that only someone with industry experience or your love of shipping would know.
posted by metahawk at 2:01 PM on March 11, 2009

Why not say what you wrote above?
I am in a lucky position where, due to saving and planning, I am able to apply for jobs that I want instead of anything-to-pay-the-bills. Also, this industry is something that I've learned more or less my entire life. Complexity and a high pressure environment is good.
The idea that you're not desperate, but in a position to be sincere, is compelling enough.
posted by amtho at 3:24 PM on March 11, 2009

This is the story of how I got into college.

I knew what college I wanted to go to, I applied to that college and only that college. I told them this in the interview. I had shit grades from being out doing activism and poetry all the time.

I told the interviewer about my preparation for the college and most of my argument was based on experience and written recommendations from friends and activists.

I had documented proof of my uncertifiable knowledge; I could talk about it confidently and deeply.

What's more, I had clearly gambled on them - put a lot on the line to show I was serious.

They accepted me and they found enough scholarship money to reduce the cost for me by about thirty percent per year.
posted by By The Grace of God at 4:27 PM on March 11, 2009

I don't know how to start answering the question "Are you looking for a job, or are you looking for this job?"

You seem cynical and that probably comes across in your interviews - the interviewer is essentially asking you, if you dislike us so much why are you here? Even the title of your question is, to me, borderline insulting. I have to tell you, if the cynicism is real and not affected, employers will see you as poison to their work environments and you will deservedly have a hard time getting hired. Business owners and managers are not all jerks. They are, for the most part, trying to do the best they can for their company, their employees, and their families. Try to lose the cynicism and replace it with something positive.

It would be helpful to create a few clear bullet points about what your goals are, and a simple narrative of your history. I think clarity and simplicity should be your watchwords. I had to read your narrative a couple of times and here's what I think it conveys:
- You're a recent college grad
- You have prior service experience in the Marines, including a substantial amount of leadership experience
- You are bi-lingual
- You have taken courses in areas related to the jobs you are searching for
- And:
I've spent 20 years reading/analyzing/researching the practice of ocean freight shipping because at the dinner table. I know how to read maritime survey reports, house/master bills, import/export declarations, etc.

You really have a great background and just need to convey it in a clear, positive manner. Here are my suggestions:
- Create that simple narrative, put it on your resume, and memorize it.
- Create a blog. Subscribe to some relevant industry RSS feeds and start writing about news that impacts your field of interest. Refer to the blog on your resume and during your interviews. This helps overcome the experience issue.
- In those RSS feeds, watch for industry events and attend them whenever possible.
- Google for "interview questions" and write down some short, clear, truthful answers. Then practice saying them. Also practice simple variations of your narrative.
- Think about possible sectors rather than just the field you want to be in. Energy is king in Houston, surely Exxon, Chevron, etc have logistical divisions. Check them out.
- How old is that security clearance? I don't know that it would be useful in logistics but defense contractors would love you if it was reasonably current. Perhaps Raytheon, etc. has some logistics career paths?
posted by txvtchick at 6:00 PM on March 11, 2009

As to the second part of your question, shipping industry jobs do pop up on craigslist from time to time. Port cities will obviously have the most opportunities. Several of the major ocean carriers are currently downsizing and consolidating their domestic operations into fewer local offices, so it might be tough to get a job with one of them right off the bat. You could send your resume off to local companies, and maybe get a bite that way. Another option might be to look for job openings at importers and exporters. Even if that's not your preferred career path, it would be a foot in the door that could easily lead to other opportunities. While you're searching, it couldn't hurt to study up for the customs broker license exam. That would surely give you a leg up. Unfortunately, like you said, it's a tough business to get into in the current economic climate. Good luck!
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:47 PM on March 11, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you for your responses:

txctchick-- I like and appreciate your suggestions, thank you. The title of the article was from a joking conversation that I had with a friend about the railcar situation in the US right now, and not meant to be a serious take on the situation.
I'm not sure how to phrase this correctly- but I try to be congnizant of the reality of my situation-- that I'm entering the job market very very green (I am-- background knowledge is great, but I've no actual experience) in a profession where training, while necessary, takes time and money--- while at the same time, I am very confident in the industry, myself, and I generally have a positive outlook on those people I meet. I guess-- the reason I air these concerns here, in an internet forum, is because these are the nagging questions that go through the back of my head while I am concentrating with the other mental tracks on better things. :^)

By the Grace of God - Nicely done, congratulations.

Amtho - ... reading that, I did a double take and said "Oh! ... yes! The simple (and direct) solution is the best." Awesome, thanks.

rhizone - Good advice, thank you. I admit, I kind of prefer the direct dickish interviewer to one that but tries to be circumspect about everything. (i.e. My resume says "Left due to physical problems relating to long-distance running". I admit I always wonder why they ask "Why'd you leave?" when the real question is "What physical problems?", that sort of thing.) But yes, I will absolutely take some of your suggestions under advisement.
posted by Seeba at 8:05 PM on March 11, 2009

Response by poster: Balonious Assult - Thank you for the suggestions. Right- I did the same search, also with a port directory, which actually had more to offer than google. The hard part with this-- a lot of the shipping companies in Houston (US and Foreign) only have agencies here; the HR departments, etc are all somewhere else, so walking in with a resume, or calling them with questions/resume has ended in a brick wall-- the workers at the offices are ops people and don't do hiring/firing for the most part. (Or if they do, I'm not talking to the right people at the offices- not sure how to tell who would do that in an organization that doesn't have HR people onsite.)

Absolutely, the Custom's Broker License Exam was something a professor suggested, and I'll take the test in April.

I hadn't thought of craig's list-- admittedly, I've never looked on it, always assumed it was for swapping couches and that sort of thing. I'll check it out.
posted by Seeba at 8:09 PM on March 11, 2009

Seeba, in one of my classes, a professor had a representative from a logistics company (Mohawk Global) give a presentation. Those professors you took Materials Mgmt/Logistics from - do they have any industry contacts? Can they recommend trade journals or something?

Also, Mohawk seems to give inexpensive seminars on a regular basis but they are not in Houston. If there is something similar going on in Houston it would be a good way to make contact with someone in the company. Also a good way to show interest in the company on a cover letter or phone call..."I attended one of LogisticsCompany's seminars in Houston and you sound like a great company to work for. Can you refer me to..."
posted by txvtchick at 7:47 AM on March 12, 2009

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