How to Get a Job When You’re Short on Experience

mm Russ Finkelstein

Work is filled with catch-22s, or unsolvable double-binds. The origin of the term is Joseph Heller’s satirical war novel, in which pilots who said they were too mentally fragile to fly were in fact showing concern for their safety, and therefore, judged sane enough to fly. In other words, they were damned to be pilots, either way.

It may not expose you to the imminent risk of death like Heller’s pilots, but there’s a common catch-22 term I hear about work, which risks boredom, depression, and a lack of professional engagement: “How am I supposed to gain experience [to be hired for a job] if I’m constantly turned down for not having any?”

If you are seeking a new role, it should not be surprising when you find amazing opportunities. Not finding intriguing opportunities should make you question where and how you are looking. However, when you begin looking, you may notice that recruiters for the roles you like don’t seem to be interested in you on paper. There are lots of ways where you might be a misfit based on the kind of work you have done in the past, the educational level or degrees required, management or fiduciary responsibility and technical skills. However, most people don’t complain as much about those aspects of job descriptions.

Job seekers hold their greatest vitriol for the catch-22 line that indicates how much experience a candidate needs to have. As a thoughtful recruiter (so I’m told), I can assure you, it’s one of the most common sources of frustration amongst would-be hires, that a job description has, say, “five to eight years of experience” or “at least 12 years’ experience” in there. When you’re pretty sure you can do it with far fewer years on your professional clock.

Many recruiters put years of experience in a job description because it is a good way to screen out unqualified applicants. If the company doing the hiring is using a robot to make its decisions, then there isn’t much you can do, although I offer a few approaches that can work below. But smart recruiters are often flexible about the way they consider experience, and that means there’s an opening for you to leverage if you’re looking to leap ahead and take on a role that you think they are trying to screen you out of based on your years of work.

If you’re trying to consider how to pitch yourself to get an interview, or how to pitch yourself in the interview, here are five distinct tactics that I have seen work:

The natural. This work or role has been your life. Perhaps you have been selling, marketing or issue-directed since high school. You show a progression that gets across your ability to take on newer and more challenging work, and have dedicated your life to learning more and increasing your expertise. For example, you have always sold things—it’s how you paid your way through college. Or perhaps your commitment to women’s health developed through college leadership roles, summer internships and your choice of study. As a recruiter, I respect your dedication, signs of skill, and passion. I know that you are hungry to learn and willing to put in the hours.

The risk: You may be seen as inflexible, idealistic, and have a very set concept of the right and wrong way of doing things. Basically, that you think you’re a purer talent, care more about the issue than anybody else, and that you lack humility. Go into an interview being prepared to manage how you communicate around those concerns.

The entrepreneur. Oh, god. Uber has recently talked about avoiding hiring “talented jerks”, and that sums up the risk of using the word “entrepreneur” in your job application. The ‘e’ word has been the rage for quite some time. If you are someone with a history of conceptualizing and implementing new projects or products that create new revenue streams, that’s fantastic. Talk about how many people you engaged. Talk about the money you brought in, as a result. Mention environments you walked into, ideally like theirs, and how you were able to make a difference.

From most of my conversations it seems that institutions love the idea of hiring entrepreneurial sorts, but are not really prepared to deploy them. When I speak to recruiters I ask them about the top three things they want from a candidate and the “e” word comes up seemingly more than any other term. Just because you may not be deployed well does not mean that you shouldn’t take the job. But it’s worth reaching out to others you know who can provide an insider view, to figure out how that role may emerge within that institution.

The risk: You need to do everything you possibly can to show you’re not going to be a problem to manage and that you can work within the structures of your employer. Talk about your collegial nature when it comes to working with others.

The connected. You have displayed impressive skills in building a network of leaders in your space, and beyond it. Perhaps you’ve established yourself as a “thought leader” on social media. Perhaps you’ve run a conference, or a meetup of like-minded professionals in your field. This is the easiest person to shape into, somewhat rapidly. You need to put in the time to develop your personal brand via social media, professional associations, and conference attendances that lead to the development of a persona as someone who knows everyone in the field, and actually can begin to help you know everyone in the field.

The risk: The main risk, actually, of being looked at as a “good networker” is that people want to know you aren’t going to be treating them like a stepping-stone. Also, that you can do the work. You are not so directed at building your reputation and network that it will come at the expense of your employer.

The anti-experience. There are certain fields in which a lot of experience can actually be detrimental to being effective, particularly in fields where rapid change is a constant. But if you come up short in terms of years of experience, you’ll need data and anecdotes ready to show why your fresh approach and lack of experience are important. There are some fields in which this is more likely to work than others. “I know I can do this job because everything I have delivered, from a metrics perspective, shows that I’m prepared for it” is a good statement to make. “My lack of experience is actually an asset” is not typically a good statement to make, but I have seen that work, too, if you can make the compelling case!

The risk: There may not actually be much risk here. You already aren’t getting the interview so this is an angle to play to try to get in.

The Beatle. I call this person the Beatle because their application, essentially, challenges the job description with the words: “So you say you want a revolution?” That’s right. I’m referencing a Beatles song from the 1960s, Revolution, having already referenced a work of fiction from the 1960s, Catch-22. It’s amazing, really, that I keep drawing from this era for my cultural references, because I was actually born in the late 1990s. Anyway. My point is, if a company’s job description says it’s looking for a fresh perspective, entrepreneurialism, someone to shake things up a bit, in other words, if they say they want a revolution, then it’s a good idea to respond by challenging them on how serious they are about that. You might start by saying, effectively: “We all want to change the world.” Then challenge them further. Say: “If you’re looking for someone with at least 10 years’ experience in a given area, well, I’m afraid that doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary. How about employing me, instead?” This is of course particularly effective if you hear them bandy about a connection to millennial or desire for a digital native.

The risk: Likewise, there is not much risk here. Let’s see how innovative they are really prepared to be.

As a recruiter, I am not a specific “years of experience” person. I try to look on every recruiting conversation as the possible beginning of a longer relationship, and I’m much more inclined to people who take less conventional paths to get ahead. I have greater appreciation, actually, for intellectual curiosity and for people who work across specific silos.

You could be that person. And if an organization or recruiter doesn’t appreciate you, ask yourself: Do you really want to work for them anyway?

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >