6 tips for midcareer job seekers

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Finding a job in a flagging economy is tough for everyone, but it can seem especially daunting for workers who get pink-slipped during the middle or latter part of their careers.

Not only have you lost a job, but the comfortable lifestyle you’ve built for your family over decades of work is suddenly at risk. Add a few college-bound children to the mix, and the prospect of facing unemployment becomes even scarier.

Unfortunately, millions of out-of-work Americans at this stage in life also face a double conundrum: They are too young to retire but also are loathe to entry-level jobs.

With the unemployment rate currently topping 8 percent, snagging an offer letter will likely involve a lot more than dusting off the old resume and shaking a few hands. You’ll need a full arsenal of modern job-search strategies to find a job comparable to your former position.

Start by making a realistic assessment of your skills. Do they apply to today’s job market? Also, remember to reach out to contacts you’ve made over the years, maintain your health and keep a positive attitude.

Senior job level search strategies
  1. Get tech savvy
  2. Keep resume concise
  3. Remain flexible
  4. Use networking
  5. Prepare for the interview
  6. Consider changing professions

Get tech savvy

Eons ago, in the stone age of corporate America — the 1980s, for example — employers advertised jobs in local newspapers or trade magazines. Circling ads and trudging to the post office with a pile of stamped envelopes was de rigueur.

But those days are fading away.

“More and more employers are posting jobs online, and more and more employers require that you apply online,” says Deborah Russell, director of workforce issues at AARP.

“One of the most important things — particularly for those who may be looking for a job for the first time in many years — is that the world of searching for a job has changed,” she says.

With tools such as computers, e-mail and cell phones taking the place of typewriters and fax machines, “unwired” job seekers will likely find themselves remaining just that — job seekers. Meanwhile, more tech-savvy individuals are likely to land jobs more quickly.

Although most Americans are “wired” and use the Internet frequently, some still don’t have e-mail accounts or aren’t proficient with basic word-processing software.

More than 20 percent of U.S. heads of households have never used e-mail, according to a 2008 survey by Parks Associates, a market research and consulting firm that specializes in consumer technology products.

The same study found that about 20 million U.S. households — or 18 percent — don’t have Internet access.

Don’t fret if you lack a few computer basics. Most big-box retailers sell tutorial software that’s relatively easy to use and allows you to learn at your own pace.

You can also go to your local library and log onto a computer for free in most cases.

For some, formal instruction works best. 

“A great place to go is your community college and even some staffing agencies,” Russell says. “Temporary agencies will also work with you to get your skills up to speed before they send you out on an assignment. So those might be two options to look at.”

Keep resume concise

Older job seekers commonly make the mistake of presenting a resume that is chronologically formatted, says Jim Nanjo, a spokesman for Senior Employment Resources, a Virginia-based job placement service for older workers.

This type of resume focuses too much attention on past accomplishments and risks overshadowing current talents, Nanjo says.

“A good portion of employers today seem to be saying, ‘What is it that you can do for me? What is it that you bring in areas of expertise?’ Never mind what you’ve done in the past,” he says.

Nanjo says chronologically formatted resumes can also spotlight unintended things about the candidate.

“A resume that’s done in chronological order also just highlights how old you are,” he says.

Most older job seekers are better served by a resume that highlights skills, Nanjo says.

Generally, functional resumes that list contact information and job skills at the top — with education and employers listed later in the document — are preferred by time-strapped recruiters who often scan hundreds of resumes for a single job posting.

If you list the dates you worked for a specific employer, don’t make the mistake of reaching too far back into your employment history. Such information may be less relevant in some industries.

“If it’s technology-related, don’t mention anything beyond 10 or 15 years because that’s ancient history, and they really don’t care,” Nanjo says.

For important experience that goes further back, list what was relevant about that job rather than the dates you were employed.

“Describe how you did that particular skill and what the outcome was, which is a lot better for employers to have a better understanding of whether or not you are a good fit and whether you have the skills that they are looking for in that particular job,” says Deborah Russell, director of workforce issues at AARP.

Remain flexible

The best job pickings are increasingly found higher up the fruit tree. A willingness to stretch a little can put those opportunities within reach.

For example, the mid-career executive used to eating lunch at the local bistro every day or heading home on the early train every Friday may want to trade in those old habits and approach the job search with a clean slate.

“The landscape is changing,” says Jan Cannon, an author and experienced career adviser. “You may have to get used to doing your own work and assuming tasks that you may have had support staff doing.”

It also pays to do some soul-searching to determine salary expectations before setting out on the job search, says Cannon, whose books include, “Now What Do I Do? The Woman’s Guide to a New Career” and “Find a Job: 7 Steps to Success.”

Recruiters often ask about salary expectations. Giving the wrong answer could blow your chances of getting hired.

It’s better to delay agreeing on a final number until you’ve researched what comparable positions are paying in a particular market, Cannon says.

“If you ask for an $80,000 salary and the employer is not willing to pay that much, you may price yourself out of a job,” she says. “On the other hand, if you ask for $80,000 but the job is paying $100,000, the employer may suspect that you don’t have the skill set required for the job.”

Use networking

Social networks such as LinkedIn, MySpace, Spoke, Twitter and others are rapidly becoming valuable tools for job seekers looking to make new contacts or re-establish older ones.

On these networks, members create profiles that summarize their professional experience, interests and accomplishments. More importantly, the sites often provide a conduit for obtaining inside contact information — something you ordinarily don’t get from a job board.

“With networking, the advantage is somebody suggested that a company representative contact you, and that puts you in a better position than if you came in off the street,” career adviser and author Jan Cannon says. “It gives you a contact so you can send your resume to the right person.”

LinkedIn alone claims more than 35 million members in more than 200 countries worldwide. Although you can market yourself effectively through these Web sites, it’s also important to show up at career fairs or other social functions.

“There’s something to be said for face-to-face networking as well,” says Deborah Russell, director of workforce issues at AARP.

“The ability to talk about the skills that you bring to a job and how you can bring value to the job makes more of an impact than merely presenting yourself on LinkedIn,” she says.

Joining a trade-specific professional group or reconnecting with college classmates via an alumni association are also excellent ways to network.

Don’t forget to reach out to family, friends and former co-workers. The more extensive your network, the sooner you’ll find a job.

Prepare for the interview

The longer it’s been since your last job interview, the more preparation you’ll need. Many interviewers have gravitated away from the traditional format toward one that is more behavioral.

For example, if you’re applying for a management position, the interviewer might ask questions that assess how you might react in certain situations rather than asking about what you did for a previous employer.

“You may be asked a question like, ‘Tell me about a time that you had to handle a poor performer? How did you handle it? What tools did you use to handle it and what was the outcome?'” says Deborah Russell, director of workforce issues at AARP.

This type of situational interview paints a better picture of how you are going to handle the job, she says.

“That behavioral model is what many older workers, or workers in general, are faced with when they go in for interviews today,” Russell says.

Most hiring managers know that age discrimination is illegal. But questions that may seem slightly “ageist” still get asked. If you have to field such a question, it’s best not to overreact. 

The best strategy is to have a well-prepared game plan on how to respond to such questions long before you get called for an actual interview, says Jim Nanjo, a spokesman for Senior Employment Resources in Virginia.

To that end, he coaches his clients on how to handle various interview scenarios by role playing with groups of three or more people. The practice, he says, prepares job seekers on how to answer off-kilter questions in a positive manner.

A well-prepared interviewee can deflect age-related questions by emphasizing skills that are up to date or talking about situations when he or she worked with younger people or collaborated successfully with them on projects.

If the questions really bother you, ask yourself if you really want to work for a company that makes such inquiries.

While deft interview skills are a big help, you won’t get far if your wardrobe looks like it was borrowed from the set of “Cheers.”

Physical appearance is just as important as your interview skills. It’s likely that the person interviewing you might be many years younger and could be your future boss.

“The minute you walk through door, there is the assumption that you are like their parent,” says author Jan Cannon.

Make the effort to update your wardrobe with basic articles of clothing appropriate for the industry you’ll be working in, she says. Pay attention to personal grooming, too.

Acting your age is one thing; looking it is entirely different. A Brooks Brothers suit may help you snag a bank position, but it’ll probably be overkill if you’re looking for work as a graphic artist.

“There are job seekers of all ages out there competing for the same job,” Russell says. “So it’s important as an older worker to ensure that you are really keeping your pulse on what’s going on out there because you’re competing with fellow job seekers that may be half your age.”

Consider changing professions

Losing your job in the middle or latter part of your life doesn’t always have to be nerve-wracking. Instead, it can be an opportunity to reinvent yourself and explore a different career.

“Job loss is often the impetus to start something new,” says author Jan Cannon.

However, before you decide to start a business or embark on a new career, it’s important to do a little soul-searching and a lot of research and preparation.

Take stock of your finances before exploring your options. How long can you survive financially while you make the career switch? How good is your credit if you need to take out a business loan or a line of credit?

It’s also important to have a good support network. Is your family supportive of your new goals? It can be tough on everyone if you are the only person who is passionate about your new direction in life.

Volunteer work can be a great way to find out if a new career direction suits you. For example, if you’ve always loved working with animals, volunteer at the local animal shelter. If it feels right, consider getting certified as a veterinary assistant.

“Do some soul-searching to understand your limitations and passions,” Cannon says.

Don’t necessarily assume that you need to make a radical change. Assess your current skills to determine whether they transfer into other types of employment.

“I spent almost 30 years in aviation, and now I am in a personnel-related business,” says Jim Nanjo, a spokesman for Senior Employment Resources. “Emphasize those basic crossover skills regardless of where they came from.”

Remember to stay positive during this period of transition. It might take months or even years to establish a new business or complete the necessary coursework to be certified or licensed to do new work.

However, the payoff for finding a new job you love can be enormously rewarding.