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How to Get Ahead in a Job Hunt

Two days ago, I read an insightful piece on what jobless 20-somethings are doing these days. The author talked about the difficulty his peers who graduated with degrees in 2019 were facing in getting jobs since graduation. Some ended up taking on odd jobs to lessen the burden on their families, some started speculating in the market with what little of their savings, some decided to further their studies, and some were simply being couch potatoes at home. Those first-hand observations validated what I'd long suspected was the case.

The impending surge in unemployment, shrinking job pool, and this year's new graduates joining the job hunt are just going to amplify competition and make things worse. It's an employer's market now, with starting salaries heading south, pay cuts and, at best, pay freeze.

Over the years, I've interviewed a fair number of people for my businesses. After speaking with a person who chaired an interview panel for recruitment and promotion of senior staff for many years, I've compiled a list of tips for job seekers. This list is not exhaustive, but I hope it will help you get ahead of others and land you one of the "100,000 jobs which the government will be creating". Those headlines are misleading as, more accurately, it should be 15,000 public sector jobs which will be created and 25,000 jobs which "Government agencies will work with businesses to create". The rest of the "100,000 jobs" appear to be traineeship and training opportunities positions.

No. 1: Lay the Groundwork for a Solid CV

In times like these when recruiters are faced with a huge stack of CVs to go through and few positions to fill, shortlisting for interviews will very much depend on whether a CV stands out in terms of educational background, on-the-job experience, whether there are obvious gaps between employment, presence of good referrals, and the stated hobbies of the individual.

Put yourself in the shoes of the recruiter, and ask yourself who would you shortlist for an interview? Someone with a good degree from a reputable university, internships or work experience in the relevant field, no track record of constant job-hopping, no gaps in employment, and with sports and travelling as hobbies? Or someone with a degree from a lesser-known university, no experience in the relevant field, record which indicates regular job-hopping, long unexplained gaps between employment, and with playing computer games and watching TV as hobbies?

Laying the groundwork for a solid CV is very important. Oftentimes, it is the key to whether you are even given a chance to meet with the interviewer.

Take on part-time jobs or internships during your school holidays. Obtain referral letters from those companies before you leave, and include those stints in your CV. These will set you apart from other candidates who have nothing more than their academic credentials in their CV.

By sacrificing your school holidays for those stints, recruiters will see you as a person who's willing to work hard and make sacrifices for the company. It also shows that you're a person who's able to plan ahead.

In addition, if your internship gave you experience in the field you're seeking a full-time position in, chances of you getting shortlisted for an interview will definitely be higher than a candidate without any relevant experience.

Employers are practical. They're looking for smart, healthy, energetic and hardworking people with good vision to contribute to their businesses. Not sedate, self-centred individuals who're more concerned about moving from place to place for less work and more pay, and maxing out their allowance for sick leave.

When someone has long unexplained gaps in their employment history, their CVs will fall to the bottom of the heap. Employers will think: "There must be a reason why others have not hired him. I should not waste my time on him too."

If you've been twiddling thumbs since graduating or your last job, it's not too late to get started right now. If you can't find internship positions, take on a volunteer role at an old folks' home or in healthcare to beef up your CV. You'd be seen as a saint, martyr or hero by recruiters, or at least someone who evokes some sense of enthusiasm to work, which would give you a leg up on others.

No. 2: Proofread before sending your resume and CV, and send them individually to each company.

You can be sure that a resume and CV filled with typos, spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and an inappropriate photo will go straight into a recruiter's waste paper basket.

You'd be surprised at the number of people who don't vet through something as important as their resume and CV before hitting the "send" button. Who would want to hire someone who does a slipshod job, and who takes so little pride in their work? No employer will trust such an individual to send out any document on their behalf.

If you've been looking for work for a while and have never heard back from anyone, you should take a long hard look at your resume and CV. Was your e-mail address mistyped or your contact number missing a digit? Something as simple as that could have set you back by many months.

Resumes and CVs are organic creatures which should be constantly worked on and improved. Take each rejection as a challenge to make them better.

Each resume and CV should be individually addressed to a company, and preferably tailored to suit that company's assessment.

Your resume and CV should be attached to an e-mail and sent individually to each company. They should never form part of a single mass e-mail sent to the entire industry. I frequently receive such mass mails. The individual would email a whole long list of my competitors and myself, and write that he sincerely wants to work for us only. Some even forget to attach their resumes and CV, and follow up with a second mass mail some time later. Recruiters would simply hit the "delete" button twice; the second time harder than the first time!

Be serious about your job hunt and don't take shortcuts. It might seemingly save you some time by mass e-mailing, but the implications are grave. Your insincerity shows up right away. Further, if you miss out an attachment when you mass mail the entire industry, the entire industry will similarly give you a miss!

No. 3: No Social Media Gaffes

In the past before social media was born, employers only had one's resume and CV to make an assessment of whether that individual was worth his salt. Nowadays, employers will look up the individual online and find out more about him or her.

A wall of party pix on Facebook and Instagram showing drunkenness in a semi-clothed state, vulgar comments, and worse still, posts complaining about an ex-boss, etc are clearly not going to help one with his job prospects. Before you post anything online, be sure to consider its consequences as they may come back to haunt you down the line.

No. 4: If shortlisted, find out as much about the company as you can.

You've been selected from a whole pile of CVs and given that one chance to impress upon the interviewer why you should be picked to join the ranks of the company. Congrats on getting your first foot in!

Before you crack open that beer to celebrate, spend some time researching on the company, and understand as much about them as you can. At the opportune time in the interview, bring up certain facts about the company which will help you stand out from the crowd as one who's sincere about having a lasting career with them, and who's able to assimilate into their team and culture effortlessly.

Never ever attend an interview and only then try to find out more about the company from the interviewers. "Actually, what does your company do ah?" Thank you, next!

No. 5: Practice Makes Perfect

Would you go to an exam unprepared? A job interview is as important a milestone as an exam, and you should never assume that your first class honours degree from a prestigious university will necessarily put you at the front of the long line of candidates waiting outside the interview room. Everyone in the waiting area was shortlisted for a reason, and your performance in front of the interviewers will ultimately determine whether you'll get ahead or not.

Brainstorm on the questions you'll likely be asked, and have someone mature and sensible practise them with you. After drilling over and over again, answers will start to come naturally, even for people who tend to stutter or get nervous in front of an audience.

Be prepared for questions which may be designed to provoke or embarrass you.

"You've been out of work for so long. You must be quite bad at what you do. What makes you think you're good enough for us? Why should we even give you a chance?"

"You've job-hopped so much, and you've been unemployed for quite a while already. There're a hundred people waiting for this job. Why should we give you this job? What makes you so special?"

Once you're prepared for difficult taunting questions, you'll be unfazed when asked and not turn red, or worse, get upset with the interviewer. Whatever you do, do not show your temper towards the interviewer. The community is smaller than you think. Your career could end before it even starts.

No. 6: Observe Decorum at the Interview

Dress appropriately for the interview. Many companies have Casual Fridays, but that doesn't mean you should ditch your shirt and tie for t-shirt and jeans on Interview Day. Understanding how a company ticks is crucial. When in doubt, you can ring ahead to check.

With COVID-19, interviews may be conducted via Zoom or GoogleMeet. Do not for a moment think it's fine to sit there in your pyjamas, or shorts and t-shirt to speak to your potential employers. It's definitely not ok!

Aside from checking your appearance, please don't bring bad breath and body odour into the interview room. Breath mints and deodorants might well be your lifesavers in your mission to bring home the bacon.

No. 7: Arrive Early for the Interview

Sleep well the day before the interview and arrive there early.

Certain companies are large and sprawling, whilst others are tucked in an obscure corner. Always give yourself plenty of time to arrive at the venue for the interview. It's better to arrive early and calm your nerves, than to rush about searching for the place. If you arrive all sweaty and smelly, the interviewers will know what had happened and it will not bode well with them.

If you arrive late for your interview (broken down MRT train or whatever), your shot at starting work at the company would have been flushed down the toilet. Always remember that punctuality is a virtue embraced by all employers. They're not going to be interested in your excuses for being late, and won't even give you the time of day.

No. 8: Be Courteous and Exude Confidence at the Interview.

Always greet the interviewers, smile, sit upright, make eye contact to show your confidence, and thank them at the end of the interview.

When the interview is before a panel, it usually comprises of 3 interviewers, with the one in the middle being the most senior and influential member. When answering questions, always look all 3 in the eye to show confidence in your response. Never look away or look down when answering. Always maintain eye contact.

If the interviewer in the middle asks you a question, look at him and answer accordingly. Thereafter, cast your eye over to the other interviewers and find out if they've any lingering questions stemming from your answer.

Exuding confidence does not equate to being cocky or acting like a smart alec. Thinking one knows better than the interviewers and speaking to them in a condescending manner are just career suicides.

Interviewers are watchful for confidence in a candidate. Can they entrust this individual to represent their organization is one of the key questions they're looking to find out in a face-to-face interview. You can have perfect credentials in your CV, but interviewers can only gauge your confidence in person. Having stellar results but a timid disposition will not trump someone with average results but who has charisma, confidence, street smarts and other practical skill sets.

One thing which many candidates miss out is an experienced interviewer can sniff out one's confidence from their appearance and body language very easily. The morale of a person who has been rejected repeatedly and out of work for a while will definitely take a severe hit, and it will show on their faces, posture and mannerisms. Like a deflated balloon, a person with a bruised ego tends to have hollow or shifty eyes, stooped shoulders, defensively folded arms, nervously clasped hands, and a general air of loss of hope and negativity. It will carry through to the way they express themselves and rejection will become a vicious cycle.

Keep yourself busy with other activities if you can see that happening to yourself. Exercise, for example, can help you look better and feel better about yourself, boosting your self-confidence and allowing you to look at life more positively again.

No. 9: If you've been out of work for a while, be smart and give a good reason for it.

As mentioned in point no. 1, unexplained gaps in one's employment history are not a good thing. Most times, people won't even be given a chance to explain themselves at an interview. If you're one of the lucky few with this opportunity, please make full use of it by giving a solid explanation when asked about it.

If you've a good reason eg. illness of a loved one which required you to be the caregiver, taking time off to start a family, coaching your child for her PSLE, etc., be truthful and you won't be faulted for it.

If you don't have any good reason, it will NOT be a good idea to be truthful and say that you had applied to a few thousand companies but was never offered a job, or that you just felt like bumming for a while because your family can well afford to support your lifestyle. Believe it or not, there are many people like that out there who think an interviewer will appreciate such honesty.

Even if you've to come out with a white lie like you took a gap year off to see the world, or to help a family member with his business, is better than admitting the truth. The interviewer may not fully accept your explanation, but the ability to come up with a plausible explanation will still put you in a better light.

No. 10: Ask the Right Questions.

Ask smart questions about the company, job scope, office culture, etc. to show a genuine interest and hope in starting work there. This would be the opportune time to weave in and impress upon the interviewers the information you've learnt about the company mentioned in point no. 4 above.

Never ever say things like: "I've plans to go on vacation in Europe with my boyfriend. If I get the job, will I be able take 3 weeks off in December?" Hmmm... what do you think?


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