Monday, January 23, 2006

How to Get a Job With No Experience

[This is for those who want to change jobs. For anyone else, the following post might be long and boring.]

At various times in my life I got sick of whatever I was doing to earn a living and decided to totally change it. At the end of my time in gradual (yes) school, I was ready to leave my academic world of make-your-own-schedule, write/read papers whenever you want and discipline yourself (I also hated grad school, HATED it, but that’s another story). I was ready to get away from the other eggheads. Instead, a more strictly monitored, conventional job appealed to me, just to see what it was like.

POINT: If you can’t figure out what you really want to do, at least figure out what you don’t want and get the hell away from it.

I was able to type and answer a phone politely, so I applied at a temporary agency. I had no office experience, but temp agencies look for well-groomed, dependable, adaptable workers. If you have potential, there will eventually be a job assignment you'll fit. I worked my way from receptionist work to administrative jobs and eventually landed at a tiny (two-person) marketing firm that needed an office manager. The owner was impressed with my ability to adapt to a computer system I didn’t know, edit a paragraph and talk in complete sentences. He eventually hired me. Did I have office manager experience? No. But it was a fledgling company that didn't have a big budget and they were willing to take a chance on me. They recognized a good worker.

POINT: Temping is a great way to get inside a lot of companies that would normally never consider someone with your background. They're often hiring for the position you’re temping in and once they discover what a great employee you are, you'll most likely be a candidate.

By the Way: Many employers know that an office worker who can WRITE WELL is worth her weight in gold. We bloggers are infinitely valuable just because we can put a sentence together, so never sell yourself short.

When I got sick of running an office, it took me a couple of tries to figure out my next move. I wanted a dayjob connected to music, so I took a support staff job at a music school. I wasn't happy. Soon I realized I longed to teach music, but the school required certification I didn't have. Over six months I became so unhappy that my mistakes multiplied and the school let me go. Yes, I was fired, but I was SO relieved because I knew that wasn't where I belonged.

POINT: Never be afraid to quit or get fired from a job that feels like a bad fit. I’m serious. Do not feel bad about this. Now you’re free.

BTW: When you get fired or laid off, apply for unemployment immediately. You're entitled to it and you deserve it. Do NOT let feelings of failure or shame stop you. It’s just money and money is always useful.

Now I could pursue my dream to teach singing, but how? My bachelors and masters degrees were in English literature. I had no teaching credentials and didn't even know how to play piano. I dug into my memories of all the singing teachers I'd learned from. I remembered that my favorite one didn't use a piano at all. She incorporated yoga, movement and deceptively simple voice exercises in her lessons. Could I do that? Sure!

I began compiling vocal exercises and techniques I could do without a piano, used a lot of creativity to develop new exercises and form lesson plans and decided that I was a voice instructor. I implemented a marketing plan and started taking private voice students who I taught in my "studio" (dining room of my one-bedroom apartment). Yes, I really did. I charged $50 for a 50-minute lesson and $25 for a 25-minute lesson, usually had between 6 and 10 students a week and I was a music teacher! (Those are prices I used in 1998.)

POINT: What do you do well? Chances are, there’s someone who will pay you for it, whether it’s playing guitar, cleaning out basements, mediating conflict, calming nervous parents, anything. If you’re creative about it, you can market it well and if you can market it well, someone will buy it.

Every once in a while someone would ask about my background and certification and I’d say this, “My degrees are in English literature and everything I know about music I’ve learned on my own. I’ve taken classes and studied extensively with private instructors to learn voice, theory, guitar and the keyboard. I’ve had excellent private voice instructors and I incorporate their techniques in my lessons. What I teach my students is a very body-centered approach to singing...” and then I’d go back into my pitch of how my lessons will benefit them and why I’m different from all other voice teachers.

POINT: Don't be afraid to declare yourself an expert. If someone needs your skills, they'll often choose you based on your personality, your presentation and the specifics of what you offer. Make a good impression and they'll often give you a chance, regardless of your official degrees, certification, etc. or lack thereof.

At the same time, a former co-worker from the music school had a baby. I told her I had lots of free daytime hours in case she needed childcare. Of COURSE she needed childcare, she was a new mother trying to figure it all out. I told her I had babysitting experience (as many of us have) and based on that, plus the dependability and intelligence she'd seen in me at the music school, she hired me. Eventually I was taking care of her son three days a week (with no former nannying experience) and between that and the voice lessons, I was financially solvent.

POINT: If the employer is new to their field (whether it’s a fledgling marketing firm or a new mother), they might not be able to afford someone with lots of experience, or know how to find them. If you can convince them that you have the necessary skills, attitude and desire to learn, they have every reason to give you a chance.

Years later (next big shift), my previous office manager experience got me an administrative assistant position at Arthur Andersen, not an easy company to get hired at (I went through three interviews). After that company went under, the president of a small holding firm hired me in large part based on my job at Andersen (he knew of their rigorous requirements).

POINT: Once you get the ball of experience rolling, working your way up to better positions isn’t that hard. You just have to be willing to keep looking and move on.

My last extreme transition was a year ago when I decided to try restaurant work. I’d never waited tables in my life and knew that going in as a rookie would mean a huge pay cut. The holding company job had paid me $40,000/year, but I believed waitressing was the right thing since it would allow me the nightlife I needed as a musician (remember, all this wage earning is always in support of my music). I decided to do it.

POINT: Sometimes you just have to suck it up and take the pay cut. But if you’re good -- and I know you are -- you’ll work your way back up to your former income bracket before long. (I’m convinced I’ll do it within the next year. OH, yeah.)

Most restaurant want ads say they require experience, so I focused on the ones that didn’t mention experience required. The best times to find restaurant work are during the busy summers and the busy Christmas holidays. Searching in mid-November, I spent just two weeks finding my first serving job at Carson’s.

POINT: You can always find someone to hire you with no experience. You just have to be willing to pay the price. The price can be a low wage, not great working conditions, a place with an unknown reputation, etc. You just have to decide how bad you want that new career direction.

And part of it is just luck. After I moved from Carson’s Ribs to Nick and Tony’s Italian, I found myself at a place owned by a company that owned lots of restaurants across the country. After Nick and Tony’s closed, I had a great opportunity: Restaurants America would have been willing to place me at one of their restaurants in Florida or Arizona if I’d wanted to relocate. (But I love Chicago and hate sunshine, so you couldn’t pay me enough to move to one of those wimpy-weathered states.) Working at Restaurants America’s Bar Louie, I’m still part of a company with many opportunities and I will be taking advantage of them.

POINT: Sometimes it’s just about luck. Be on the lookout at all times for luck!

I’ve had lots of jobs in lots of different industries and my resume looks quite unconventional. But my odd resume hasn’t yet stopped me from making a move I wanted to make. Just like all those elective requirements in college helped me try different fields and figure out my major, so have these varied jobs helped me figure out what I really want. And startlingly, at the age of almost 40, my heart is set on waitressing, the job most people start with.

And now I’ll take questions. Yes?


Anonymous said...

wow this was amazing, i need to hear this my whole life, and you said it all, i'm 24, and son't know what i want out of life,carrers, jobs, school, you have just motivated me to reach for the stars!! thank you so much!! god bless your heart and soul =)

Regina said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'm glad if this helped. Granted, it was written in completely different economy. I'm not sure I would still assert that you can always find SOMEONE to hire you with no experience, although if you count volunteering, then it's still true. This post was a reflection on 1990's and 2000's economic survival, and those were different times, but I still stand by this advice. There are no more decades-long careers with companies that will take care of you with fair benefits and no lay-offs. Building a career by the seat of your pants is pretty much how it goes now. Good luck!