How to Overcome 4 Common Job Search BarriersSep 24, 2020
By: Lauren Frazer
Lauren Frazer is a senior editor for Indeed’s Career Guide with over 15 years of experience in content creation, editorial, and marketing. Based in the US she thrives on helping job seekers learn what they need to develop and grow.
Finding the right job and securing the offer can feel difficult – especially now, given the record unemployment rate and therefore more-competitive-than-normal candidate pool in Hong Kong and across the world. Job seeking with barriers such as gaps in employment or lack of education can make the job search feel even more intimidating.
However, it's true that every individual faces unique challenges based on their background and career goals. If you’ve been diligently applying to jobs without getting many responses, it may be a simple matter of reframing the 'negative' characteristics of your professional background and emphasising the value and experience you do have to offer. In this article, we sit down with Tara Thompson McCracken of Goodwill Industries to understand common barriers to employment, and solutions for addressing each, during the hiring process, from resume to interview – plus resume and cover letter examples.
The most common employment barriers
Tara Thompson McCracken, Director at Goodwill Industries, works with job seekers who want to get back into the workforce but may have employment barriers keeping them from getting the job. She cites the following as the most common reasons she sees that job seekers get passed by on jobs they have applied for:
- Lack of experience (new graduates, changing careers)
- Gaps in employment
- Insufficient education or training
- Absence of reliable professional references or referrals
There are, however, several ways to communicate your barriers that are compelling and positive, so employers focus on the qualifications, experience, and qualities you do have that make you the best person for the job.
How to address the most common job barriers
In the following section, we’ll explore ways to turn each 'negative' into a positive throughout your job search process.
If you lack experience
If you’re a new graduate, seeking a career change or lacking experience for some other reason, you might face this common conundrum: How can I get a job that requires experience, to get more experience? The solution lies in not just framing your background creatively according to what you do have to offer (such as transferable skills), but also in identifying and reaching out to companies who might be most receptive.
What it says to potential employers
Some employers may view a lack of experience as costly and time-consuming due to the training they may have to invest in your onboarding. On the other hand – and what you should underscore in your job application and interview – others may see it as an opportunity to work with someone who is receptive to their processes and can be trained specifically for their company needs.
What to do if you have limited experience
It’s helpful to remember that many employers are looking for entry-level candidates to perform necessary tasks. Finding opportunities with companies who are looking for candidates like you is the best first step. McCracken explains:
'One thing we are seeing now that is slightly different (or maybe just heightened because of the pandemic) is people with certain skill sets and job history in one industry that they can’t really go back to right now. One example would be individuals with hospitality experience, wanting to stay in hospitality, but not seeing the breadth of openings that we would usually see in that industry. With these job seekers, we really talk about transferable skills, positions, and environments where they might like to work. During this time, we are also coaching about the benefits of finding temporary assignments as a way to expand professional networks, gain new skills, and fill the void while the industry recovers.'
1. Look for entry-level jobs or internships
Start your search by filtering jobs by 'entry-level' as well as the occupation and industry in which you’re interested. Your priority as an entry-level job seeker is to gain valuable experience and training, not necessarily to acquire your dream job. The more experience you gain, the more traction you have in being considered for future positions and companies.
Once you have a list of companies with entry-level positions available, research them. Learn their mission as a company, what they are looking for in their team members, and what kind of career growth and training they offer. Focus on the soft skills, hard skills, qualifications, and values listed in the job descriptions and identify the ways you align with their goals. Once you have a comprehensive understanding of the company and role expectations, you are better positioned to create a customised application.
2. Reflect on what you do have to offer, not what you don’t
While you might not have years of experience in the position or industry you’re seeking, you do have a unique set of experiences, skills, interests, and other qualities some employers are seeking. Start by identifying any industry or academic groups, volunteering activities, and other relevant experiences you have. Such experiences require certain skills that you can relate back to the job.
For example, perhaps you organised and led a book club and you’re applying for a customer service position. You can emphasise your organisation, communication, and leadership skills from your experience as a book club leader.
Once you have a working list, you can start developing a tailored resume and cover letter. It is best that you customise your general resume for each job you’re applying for.
3. Choose the right resume format
Consider using a functional or skills-based resume format that highlights your objectives and transferable skills as opposed to the standard chronological format, which draws attention to your professional experience. McCracken says:
'As a hiring manager myself, the first thing I review is the resume as this provides the ... experiences and skills the applicant has had in the past. It is also the first thing I will see come across in the application process. Focusing on skills instead of the gaps is a great way to use the resume as your advertisement. The different types of resume formats have become much more common in the last few years than maybe in the past where the mindset was chronological only.
We see a lot of employment gaps for various reasons – extended periods of unemployment, background barriers, just to name a few. Job seekers are sometimes nervous to talk about their employment gaps and what those gaps might look like to employers. We coach around utilising functional resume formats and focusing on what they have done instead of what they haven’t done – which would be the gaps.'
4. Customise your application
Carefully study the job listing and include all of the skills, qualifications, and qualities that match your background in your resume. For example, a posting for an Entry-Level Marketing/Merchandising Assistant might list:
- Create and write relevant informational descriptions, images, and videos, as well as other product merchandising tasks
- Researching and launching new products
- Executing our team’s merchandising strategies on the site
- Managing promotions and assortments on the company’s retail website
- Supporting the marketing team's existing marketing plan
- Carrying out ongoing product collection maintenance functions
- Outstanding communication, writing skills
- Self-starter with superior organisational abilities and a professional attitude
- Results-driven attitude and strong work ethic
- Keen interest in marketing, web content, product promotion, and social media
- Familiarity with the following are beneficial: Photoshop, HTML and CSS
- Express complex ideas in a simple, clever, and appealing way
- Manage projects from beginning to end, create and manage timelines
In your resume, you can address the requested skills and experience by integrating keywords from the job
description. For example, if you held a job as an office assistant, you likely have experience creating and writing informational descriptions in some way. Be sure to phrase a bullet under your professional experience that addresses such a task, for example:
Office Assistant | Sept 2018 – Current
- Creates and writes informational assets for office maintenance tasks and products, reducing new-hire onboarding time by 30%.
If you have yet to have that experience, mention that you are eager to learn in your cover letter with ways you’re currently working on building those skills. Your cover letter should expand on your resume, not repeat it. It is best to summarise all of your skills and experiences that match the job description, along with your motivation for applying to their specific company in that specific role.
5. Connect and follow up
While it is always a good idea to follow up on a submitted application, it is especially important if you have limited experience as it demonstrates your enthusiasm for and commitment to the job.
Start by reaching out to the primary hiring contact (unless the job posting says otherwise) to acknowledge receipt of your application and ask if there are any other materials or information you can submit. Next, research other applicable professional contacts at the company that you might be able to start a conversation with. A good place to do this is by looking at professional networking platforms or seeing if the company has a 'meet the team' section on their website. Be respectful and do not overwhelm them with too many questions or emails.
Introduce yourself and include the position you recently applied to. Ask if they might be able to offer insight on the position, hiring processes, and the company. Most often, starting a conversation like this will not only give you the information you are looking for, but it will also start a conversation with someone who could recommend you for the position and/or keep you in mind for future roles.
If you have gaps in your employment history
Perhaps you were a stay-at-home parent or caring for a sick relative. Maybe you decided to go back to school, freelance or start your own business. Whatever the reason, you should address it in your application to avoid any potential negative assumptions from employers.
What it says to potential employers
Some employers may interpret unaccounted-for periods in your work history as unproductive, lacking motivation or inability to keep a job. However, correctly accounting for and addressing your employment gap can show employers that you used such time to do what was right for you and your family.
What to do if you have gaps in your employment history
Remember that just like having minimal experience, there can be value in a background without a conventional chronology of employment. Knowing how to identify and explain these experiences as positive, valuable assets can make all the difference in getting the job.
1. Reflect on why you were unemployed
The first step in bridging the gap(s) in your employment background is determining why you were unemployed in the first place. Know that having employment gaps is more common than you think. A few common reasons for gaps in employment may include:
- Having or caring for a child
- Illness or recovery
- Caring for a loved one
- Death of a loved one
- Career switching
- Going back to university
- Upskilling through internships or certifications
- Freelancing or starting a new business
- Looking for the right job
2. Determine the skills or qualities you acquired
Based on your reason for not being employed, you can brainstorm skills, qualities, and perspective gained during that time. For example, if you had a baby, you undoubtedly learned how to multitask, work long hours, and troubleshoot. While not every life event needs explanation – such as a loved one’s death – the ones that do can be highlighted by naming the skills you won as a part of the experience that make you an attractive candidate.
3. Include it in your cover letter
Include your employment gap story in your cover letter in a brief paragraph to complete the summary of your qualifications and motivations for the job. Again, do not overstate – one to two sentences will suffice. The priority of your cover letter is to communicate your experience, education, and skills as they relate to the position.
4. Use a functional resume format
A functional resume format focuses first on skills and summarised experience and less on the chronology of employment. This is the ideal format for a resume that has gaps in employment. You do not need to explain in your resume why you were unemployed unless it is of a professional nature – such as an internship, education or a volunteer position – that will add value to your background. Another option is to include your employment gap in your professional experience section, for example:
Kowloon, Hong Kong, 2015 – 2017
Took time away from professional career to raise young children and manage the household
If you lack education
Often, a job posting includes a minimum amount of education for the role. Other times, you’ll see that they will accept a minimum amount of education or a certain number of years of experience. So, while a lack of education can certainly be a barrier to the role you’re interested in, it doesn’t always mean a dead end.
What it says to potential employers
Some employers may view candidates without the required education as lacking in core concepts and hands-on training commonly offered in standard education. However, the experience you gained instead can be equally valuable when communicated correctly.
What to do if you lack education
Perhaps you have a Bachelor degree and the employer is looking for a Master’s. Or maybe, there are some advanced courses the employer requires you to have passed. Here’s what you can do:
1. Seek out jobs that allow for a combination of education and experience
Employers want you to be versed in certain hard skills and proficiencies – how you acquire them is often less important when explained correctly. For example, you might not have a Master’s Degree in Computer Science but maybe you taught yourself programming, took an online course or have been working as a programmer for x number of years. Such experience speaks to your knowledge and ability to apply the required concepts and functions.
It is best to apply for jobs that take a combination of experience and education as stated in the job description, but you should also reach out to the hiring managers of listings that don’t. Even if it has not been explicitly stated, it does not mean that they wouldn’t still consider you.
2. Make a plan to gain necessary education
While earning a degree or accreditation can be expensive and time-consuming, it can also increase your earning potential and ability to get jobs with such requirements.
If you know that this career path is the one you want, make a plan to reach your education goals. Most education institutions allow you to take courses on a part-time or full-time basis (and often from home) based on your needs.
3. Proactively communicate your education plan to employers
Once you have a plan in place to achieve your education goals, explain the details of your enrolment and timeline as you apply for jobs. Some employers will likely be more willing to hire you based on your commitment to self-improvement and fulfilling their requirements. Another aspect to consider is that some employers may pay for your education as long as you complete it within a certain period of time.
If you have a limited professional network
SilkRoad’s applicant tracking data revealed that referrals accounted for 30% of all hires overall in 2016 and 45% of internal hires. Having a solid professional network can support your ability to get the job you want in a number of significant ways. Networking online and in-person can:
- Increase your ability to secure internal job referrals
- Alert you to positions that haven’t been posted
- Help you earn a positive reputation to be considered for current and future position
- Offer insight into a company’s position and culture
- Provide tips for growing professionally
- Offer mutually beneficial friendships
What it says to potential employers
Some employers rely on recommendations and referrals to ensure they’re hiring the right candidates. A solid network of professional contacts expands your knowledge base for sourcing and getting the jobs you are interested in, as well as positive recommendations to support your applications.
What to do if you have a limited professional network
Building a professional network is an ongoing process that requires effort – but the rewards are well worth the work. Here are a few ways you can get started:
1. Identify and evaluate your current contacts
The best place to start is by making a list of people you’ve worked with such as colleagues, managers, team or club members, classmates, and instructors.
Make sure your contacts can vouch for your qualities, qualifications, and experience. If not, this is a good opportunity to build the relationship by sharing your goals and background as well as learning about the background of your contact to understand how you might support one another.
2. Join online professional networks and associations
There are countless free online networking groups and resources you can join to further expand your network by gaining new contacts. You can start by simply searching online with keywords including your profession, industry, interests or career stage (for example, 'Online networks for entry-level finance professionals').
Choose both general interest and industry-specific groups to start building a holistic foundation for your professional network. You can use these to research open positions in your field, find people you’ve worked with, and identify important contacts for positions and at companies you’d like to work for. Industry-specific groups may have smaller memberships than general networking groups, but the contacts you find here will likely share similar career and professional goals and experience, making your search for contacts, insight, and jobs more targeted.
3. Stay in touch with new and existing contacts
The best rule of thumb when reaching out to either existing contacts from a previous position or new contacts you’d like to connect with is to respect their online presence. Typically, if they have a profile on a professional network, they are open to receiving requests to connect. The reverse might also be true. Remember that while you should feel comfortable reaching out to your network with questions about positions and job search tips, you should follow the cadence of their communication – especially in the case of a new contact.
4. Attend conferences and networking events (virtually)
While the impact of COVID-19 has made in-person connections difficult, remote conferencing technology has increased virtual networking alternatives. You can find remote networking in the form of:
- Career fairs
- Conferences/trade shows
- Virtual groups
- Industry-specific seminars
- Roundtable discussions
Remember to treat any networking event with the same professionalism that you would if it were in-person. Dress professionally, ensure your computer is set up correctly beforehand to avoid interruption and have a professional background according to virtual etiquette best practices.
How to address potential negatives at the interview
Once you’ve made it to the interview, the hiring manager may or may not ask for more detail about your
employment barrier. If they do, you should highlight what you’ve learned from it and how it makes you a better candidate. McCracken advises:
'If any employer noticed the barriers in your resume/online application submission, and still called you in for the interview, they are not too concerned with that barrier, though you should be prepared to talk about it when asked. The best way to tackle those interview questions about barriers is to practice your answers so that you don’t ramble on and say too much.
Talk about the reason for the gap and all of the things accomplished during that time or since that time. For example, if someone was out of work caring for a family member, briefly touch on that time period and then focus on online trainings that have been completed, past work history, the desire to get back into the field, articles or research you have done about the changes in the field. Anything to show that you are prepared to be in the workforce.'
Here are some additional best practices for communicating barriers in the interview:
- Be honest. Most employers care less about the potential barrier that you have and more about what you have done or are planning to do to grow as a professional. Being honest without oversharing is the best way to start.
- Stay positive. The most important thing to remember is to frame your answers to potential follow-up questions from your interviewer in the positive. When explaining your employment gap, for example, don’t discuss that you didn’t get along with your co-workers or thought the work was boring, which ended your employment. Instead, explain that based on your career goals, you decided it was time to find an employer that could offer new opportunities and challenges. Your employment gap, in this case, may have been spent trying to vet the best company and work environment to match those goals for growth and what you learned, gained or experienced as a result.
- Stay focused. Though there are likely many details involved in explaining your employment gap, keep it brief. It is an aspect of your background and not the strongest selling point for why you should be hired. Mention the nature of the barrier, what it taught you, and how it makes you a strong candidate for the job.
Tips for staying productive between jobs
Unemployment can be a frustrating time, especially if you are doing all the right things to get hired. In the meantime, here are some ways to get the most out of your job search:
- Consider finding temporary assignments and contract work. Doing so can help you stay current on your skills, gain new skills, and expand your professional network while offering reliable income.
- Do a self-audit. Identify where you're experiencing blockers in your job search. For example, if you're getting good responses from your job applications but can't move past the interview phase, it's likely you should change up your interview preparation and methods. Conversely, if you’re applying for jobs you’re qualified for and not getting calls, your resume and cover letter might need updating or tailoring.
- Customise and fine-tune your resume/cover letter. Make sure you are giving each job application the customised level of attention it requires. When you apply for a position, ask yourself the following: Are the skills and experience required in the job posting highlighted in my application? Does my cover letter mention why I wanted to work for that company? Does my application show I have done research on the company, their mission and goals? Have I addressed potential barriers in my application? Is all of the information in my resume relevant to the job?
- Request informational meetings. Requesting informational interviews with employers or professional contacts is a great way to both network and learn more about a company, industry or job in which you’re interested.
- Be patient. It can be stressful looking for a job, but job searching and finding the perfect fit takes time for everyone.