How do you get the experience if nobody gives you the job?
February 18, 2021 6:56 AM   Subscribe

One of the recurring problems in my job search: Entry-level jobs want years of experience. But how do you get experience if you can’t get the job to get the experience?

I’ve been working for over a decade in a particular field, but I’m looking to make a change thanks to COVID and other personal circumstances. Thus I’ve been looking at entry-level positions in a field I know others with my background and skill set have gone into. Yet I keep seeing requirements for a few years of experience doing certain job duties or using particular digital platforms or whatever.

I don’t have the luxury of taking, say, an internship or volunteering for a company to get some of this experience. I have bills. I know that job ads are sort of wish list-y, but I’m under the impression that “requirements” are actually required—especially since screening happens through application portals, though if I’m off-base, I’d love to know—whereas “preferred qualifications” are nice to have. So how does one break the experience trap in general and/or when you’re eying a new field or a new position outside of your immediate wheelhouse?
posted by Definitely Not A Robot to Work & Money (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
In my line of work (fundraising), "requirements" are more rigid than "preferred qualifications" but there is definitely still flexibility if someone has a candidate in front of them that they really like.

Not to be presumptuous as I'm sure you're doing some of this already, but this is kind of thing that networking is really good for, so I'd definitely reach out to the people you know have made this transition to get their feedback on breaking into the field.
posted by AndrewInDC at 7:12 AM on February 18

I think the way most people do this is by getting a job through personal contacts.

But also "requirements" aren't always requirements. Sometimes they're nonsensical (you often see the classic "five years experience with software framework that's only been around for three years" requirement") and sometimes they're fuzzier than they might appear - a job that requires "three years product management experience" might be willing to look at someone with 10 years experience in a semi-related field.

Also I wouldn't worry too much about automated rejections based on years of experience - for most positions an actual human is going to have to look at your resume (at least for a second or two) because no software can reliably look at a resume and pull out how many years of experience you have in X based on a list of jobs and responsibilities. If you're going through a programmed questionnaire kind of thing where you have to answer specific questions like "how many years experience do you have in X" that's different, but in my experience in a handful of fairly disparate fields, that's unusual.

Whether you'll actually be competitive with your current skillset and experience is a whole other question, though - with some fields this lack of true entry-level positions really is a huge problem. Sometimes there are so many senior people looking for jobs that organizations have little incentive to hire and train actual entry-level people. If you know people with your background and skill set who are working in your field of interest, you should reach out to them, mostly to find out how they did it/get current info about the market, secondarily so that they're thinking of you if they have or know of a position that would make sense for you.
posted by mskyle at 7:12 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]

Career counselor here. In talking to employers, many of them say that there is plenty of irrelevant experience they will accept in lieu of direct experience. An example would be someone looking to get into coding, has done a bootcamp, but has no paid experience coding. They've been working in a corporate environment for 2-3 years in a non-coding capacity. This would have a lot more weight than say, if they were still working in food service.

Also many employers tell me they're looking for maybe 50% of the required qualifications; that they're a "wishlist."

Some exceptions would be government jobs, where they often can't be creative in looking at transferrable skills.
posted by MonsieurBon at 7:13 AM on February 18 [11 favorites]

Screening varies a lot, but for larger companies there's absolutely a lot of screening that happens through the application portal and at the recruiter level before a hiring manager ever sees a resume.

Do you know others with your background and skillset personally who've made the leap? If so, having them advocate for you for entry level jobs where (presumably) they've come in and leveled up is one of the best ways to move. In my experience knowing somebody at a company/organization who advocates for you is a big leg up.

Failing that, is there a way to add those job duties and/or digital platforms to your current job? The adage "dress for the job you want" should be replaced these days with "start doing the job you want to do."

If you have any flexibility to do that in your current role, start doing some of the functions or working with the applications that you'd need experience in to transition to another job. Need Adobe Analytics to move? If nobody at your current org is analyzing Web traffic, see if you can do that.

Again, it varies a lot and your question doesn't give enough detail to be more specific. A lot of times requirements and preferred qualifications are wish lists but not hard and fast requirements. For example, we might want Drupal experience but settle for CMS experience or even no CMS experience if we think the applicant can be trained easily to put blog posts into the system.

But if we need somebody who can do front-end or back-end work on Drupal we're probably going to pass on somebody who only has experience working with WordPress because they're different beasts - at least if candidates with Drupal experience are on hand. If you are hiring for a social media job, experience with analytics might be listed as a requirement but you'd hire somebody really good at creative. But if you're hiring for SEO and need somebody who can leap in and get stuff done, not so much.
posted by jzb at 7:18 AM on February 18

My totally unscientific and untested impression is that they’re basically screening out new graduates. If it’s really an entry-level position, they can’t expect more than a couple years of experience. But there’s a big difference between a 26 year old who’s been in a professional environment for a few years and a guy who graduated last week and shows up to the interview saying “my mom told me I have to get a job”. (I’ve seen interviews like that, seriously.) They’re looking for proof that you’ve worked in an office and know basic behavioral expectations, not that you’ve done the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours thing.

But yeah, this is a scenario where networking is particularly valuable.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:23 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]

Yeah, there's sort of three possibilities:

- Networking is super valuable, find someone who can kinda get you in the back door! Or even just give an informational interview and break down what's actually useful.

- They would just like you to be able to get by long enough to learn on the job, no one in the world has ever met 100% of the job qualifications. Apply if you meet the basics! (Sometimes not even then. When I interviewed for my current job I made it clear that I had never worked in the sector my company focused on, and I had never done any machine learning. My now-boss was like 'you seem bright, you'll learn on the job like the rest of us' and she was right.)

- Depending on the sector, volunteer. Or as I liked to call it when I worked in the museum and heritage world 'give away my labour for free'. (I wasn't doing sensible volunteer activities, I was a professional conservator doing professional conservation work for free. Ask me why I left the sector.) This is, as I said, pretty dependent on where you want to work and your own feelings about working for a potential future employer for free, but it's a way to both get some of that experience and make connections to network. For some jobs, volunteering is expected, but you would likely know this going in.
posted by kalimac at 7:41 AM on February 18

The most reliable way around this (which is unfortunately way more accessible to some people than others) is to get referred to a job through personal connections. I've gotten every job I've ever had this way. Sometimes I later ended up seeing the job posting and realizing I didn't meet all the requirements, but nobody seemed to care because they liked me and could tell I was smart and willing to learn -- and were giving me the benefit of the doubt due to the personal connection.

Important to note -- a personal referral doesn't have to be through someone you actually know. I got my first job out of school by posting in an industry Facebook group for my city, listing my background and saying I was looking for a job. A stranger replied that I sounded like a good fit for an opening at her company, and she put me in touch with the recruiters. My application still went through the "personal referral" channel even though I didn't know this person. Networking doesn't have to look like asking your close friends for a job -- it can include reaching out to any groups you're tangentially part of.

It's unfortunate and I don't like it, but a lot of recruiting still operates on personal connections. It's the easiest way of getting the "benefit of the doubt" in a hiring situation.
posted by mekily at 7:42 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]

Yet I keep seeing requirements for a few years of experience doing certain job duties or using particular digital platforms or whatever.

Have you started applying yet? Because that will be where you find out, not in browsing the ads.

Where you can, pick up some inexpensive courses. Not sure which platforms you're looking at but and other sites sometimes offer classes and you can even create a portfolio; Google Analytics has a training program, etc. Those credentials aren't worth a whole lot in most cases, but they do show you're serious and you have some experience, so might pull you up to the interview level.

My own caveat is that if what you're looking at is digital publishing adjacent, it's been such a tough year the competition is really tough (lots of people laid off and looking) so I'm not sure I'd invest in an online/remote class over networking in that case.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:34 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]

I don’t have the luxury of taking, say, an internship or volunteering for a company to get some of this experience.

Unfortunately, those are the usual methods of overcoming this all-too-common Catch-22. Or through personal (ie family) contacts, as described by mskyle, above.
posted by Rash at 8:39 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]

Internships are paid, and are what the world now calls entry-level positions.
posted by bbqturtle at 8:51 AM on February 18

Sometimes you can get by with the barest minimum of exposure to the requirements if you have other good qualities.

Like, you may not have paid experience with a particular tool, but if you have used it on a hobbyist/volunteer basis, maybe that's good enough. Or if you can show experience with a similar platform and limited exposure to the desired tool, you've already started to draw enough parallels that you can leverage your existing skills.

Just apply: it may turn out that many companies have published ads that are only tangentially related to what they actually want. (Ask me how I know...)
posted by wenestvedt at 9:01 AM on February 18

I don't know your gender, but keep in mind that there are gendered responses to job requirements by applicants. Make sure you're not cutting yourself off at the knees unintentionally.

You need to be able to explain how your previous experience prepares you for the job you want. Make a list of all the requirements you're seeing in the jobs you want and identify a time when you've used that skill in your previous career. That won't work for specific hard skills like coding, but I bet you could come up with examples for 80% of the other requirements you're seeing.

Look for the key words in the job description and use them in your resume and cover letter. Make sure your resume list quantifiable accomplishments. Use a STAR format to talk about your past accomplishments.
posted by brookeb at 9:08 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]

Volunteer work and/or launching your own project (which you will do depends on what field you are in) are good ways to get some experience. You don't have to make some huge time commitment to either endeavour -- just whatever you feel able to do.
posted by orange swan at 9:11 AM on February 18

As someone who's been involved with writing job postings, I can tell you that they often aren't carefully considered lists of the minimum requirements for a job. A lot of the time, they're the product of a couple of people going, "we really, really need to get this job ad up," and then sitting in a room for an hour like "uh, I don't know, say that they need two years of whatever experience." You should absolutely still apply to these jobs.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:25 AM on February 18 [8 favorites]

I don’t have the luxury of taking, say, an internship or volunteering for a company to get some of this experience.

Volunteering doesn't have to be full time - I work full time and (in normal times) have a volunteer gig that takes up one evening a fortnight, and another that's doing some online stuff for a small charity whenever I feel I have the time. I could probably leverage either of those to work for me in terms of experience if I ever wanted to try for a full time job in their respective sectors.
posted by penguin pie at 10:34 AM on February 18

I would go ahead and apply even if you don't meet all of the quals, assuming you think you can actually do the job in question.

However, I have never—not once—gotten a job through a job posting without having a personal connection at a company/firm. Maybe I am just unlucky or my resume isn't as strong as it could be or something, but I think this is fairly common.

If you are looking to get into tech, a lot of companies have significant ($5k+ in my experience) recruiting bonuses, which go to the employee who turns in a resume that leads to a hire. This makes existing employees pretty, uh, helpful in getting your resume a look by HR. So I would explore your social network (both real and virtual), do some LinkedIn stalking, whatever you need to do, to see if there's someone you know (or someone who knows someone you know, that you could get an introduction to) at your target company. Then send your resume and have it submitted to HR by that employee, rather than just sending it via a generic jobs portal or something.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:23 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]

I think you just apply, but in my line of work specialist agencies are more likely to hire people with little direct experience (you might guess that they have higher turnover) but also bigger teams in general are more likely to have roles that can be done by someone with limited experience.

Otherwise if the two fields are closely related and non-technical, you might actually have better luck applying to mid-level posts than entry level ones as your transferable skills can be more relevant above the bottom rung of the ladder.
posted by plonkee at 11:45 AM on February 18

In the skills vs. Experience tab on your mental computer close the experience tab. If you have the ability to do one skill you can pattern your resume to list your aptitudes. Cashiers are just as capable of doing inventory auditing, security guards are just as capable of doing loss have to be creative and think like you were the job. You are more than just a worker.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 3:05 AM on February 19

Another way that some people get that experience is by already being in that firm, but in a different role. I don't know about your current job, but I know that people in my (large, corporate) company can sometimes move laterally into new roles more easily than people from outside of the company can - because even if they're not experienced in the role, at least they're experienced in the general work of the company, which gives them something of a running start compared to brand-new candidates.
posted by mosst at 12:16 PM on February 19

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