When scrolling through job ads, the unrelenting sight of “experience essential” can strike doom into the hearts of school leavers, university graduates or jaded professionals wanting to make a mid-life career change.
It’s a classic handicap for all first-time job hunters or anyone switching careers. Experience may be essential, but everyone starts with no experience and the only way to get it is to convince someone to hire you.
Inexperienced job seekers might wonder if it’s even worth applying for that great-sounding job when they come across the words “experience essential” – but it may still be worth applying under some circumstances, says Rachna Singh, senior consultant at recruitment agency Madison.
“You may not have held a role with the job title advertised,” she says, “but you could have full understanding and practical knowledge of what is required. ‘Experience essential’ is a reflection of the skill level required to carry out the role. Read the roles and responsibilities of the position, and if it looks unfamiliar to you then it would be best not to apply. But if this is the role you aspire to be in, take some steps to narrow the gap. It could include simple steps like taking a free online Excel course.”
Singh had no experience in recruitment when seeking a job a couple of years ago. She remembers thinking she might want to do recruitment but it took a couple of steps to get there. “Madison placed me in a contact centre support role and sometime later I became a client contact and regularly worked with Madison to source employees,” she says. “Now I’m back here all grown up and in a recruiting role that suits me.”
If lack of experience for a role means you’re thinking of telling a hirer, “I’m a quick learner and I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it in no time”, Singh suggests you think twice. “Almost every job seeker claims this. Steer clear of overusing cliche phrases like quick learner, great attention to detail and listening skills on your CV or in an interview.”
Singh notes that to stand out from other applicants it’s important to find a way to provide evidence to demonstrate a particular quality, which can be highlighted in achievements related to education or any experience to date. “However, make sure you can back up what you say,” she advises. “I once came across a CV which had ‘meticulous attention to detail’ listed under attributes. Ironically, meticulous was spelled incorrectly on a page consisting of multiple fonts and sizes. This person clearly did stand out — but not for the right reasons!”
Focus on ‘transferable’ skills
One way around not having the relevant experience is to give examples of things you’ve done that could help land you the job. Maybe you were on the school council, managed a sports team, did student work experience or helped organise the school ball. Skills such as money handling, vehicle or equipment licences and computer skills may also come in handy. Singh says these transferable skills are incredibly valuable. “To stand out during your job search, it’s important to identify and apply these appropriately.”
You might think you can get into a role by faking experience you don’t have, but this is sailing into dangerous waters, advises Singh. “The ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ mantra isn’t one you want to adopt while job seeking.
“The gap will most likely be picked up in an interview, reference or testing stage. And if for whatever reason it’s not and you land the role, it won’t be a comfortable situation for either party. There will be inherent performance issues and the loss of trust isn’t easy to recover from.”
A great way to gain valuable experience is by offering to do unpaid internships or volunteer roles for non-profits. Singh suggests researching the organisation and role you intend to offer your services to, then finding a link you can genuinely connect on. “Internships and volunteer work will not only present interesting and challenging learning opportunities for you — which are great for future competency-based interviews — but also show potential future employers your commitment and drive for your intended field.”
It can be useful to focus on your education and ‘soft skills’ — people skills that are developed throughout life.
“If you don’t have work experience yet, you can reflect on what you’ve learned through life and through your education. For example, through university you learn how to manage your time to meet deadlines and the value of teamwork through group assignments. It’s important to put your passion, education and talent to work. Network, write a relevant blog, reach out to people who can assist and add value to your goals, and keep on top of industry-relevant skills and information.”
Singh notes that, regardless of your level of education,you first need a foot in the door to prove yourself, and this may mean taking an entry-level position with corporate organisations that offer career paths and development opportunities. “Keep your expectations realistic and seek roles accordingly. My team recruits for predominantly contact centre, phone-based customer service, sales and account management roles. If you’re seeking your first opportunity with little experience, contact centre roles are a great way to start.”
It’s important to write a sharp and punchy cover letter demonstrating enthusiasm and drive, and ensuring your skills align with what the employer is after, says Singh.
“A generic cover letter gives you no more than five seconds of the recruiter’s attention. In an interview, be confident and remember they can leverage off your fresh perspective and skills. Be visible and hungry and it will only be a matter of time!”