Labor pains

Despite the hot job market, the long-term outlook for some industries is ice cold. What’s a job seeker to do?
Feature Laborpains Issue 1

By now, everyone is probably well aware of the labor shortage facing a number of industries across the United States.

For two straight years, the number of open jobs has been higher than the number of people looking for work. The U.S. economy currently has about 7.5 million job openings, but only 5.9 million people are looking for work, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Labor.

That’s unprecedented. Ever since the DOL began tracking job turnover two decades ago, there have always been more people looking for work than jobs available, but that all changed for the first time in January 2018.

In large part, this is being driven by a 50-year low for unemployment. Nationally, the unemployment level stood at about 3.6 percent in January; in the state of Wisconsin we’re at 3.4 percent unemployment and Madison is even better at 2.2 percent. The unemployment rate for college graduates is 1.9 percent.

By all measures, this is the best time to find a new job in generations, and if you’re a jobseeker in accounting, finance, construction, the skilled trades, biotech, health care, information technology, and even to some extent agriculture, you should have plenty of opportunities to choose from.

However, not every industry is experiencing rapid growth and worker shortages. Some professions are in decline, and if you’re one of those workers, landing a new job within your field can be like finding a needle in a haystack — a haystack teeming with hundreds of other applicants all trying to find the same needle.

Among some of those occupations in sharp decline, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: respiratory therapy technicians, word processors and typists, electronic equipment installers and repairers, textile workers, computer operators, data-entry keyers, printing and prepress technicians and workers, legal secretaries, and executive secretaries and administrative assistants, among many others.

Traditional media, where rumors of print’s demise has been slightly exaggerated, has not been entirely immune either. According to data from the PEW Research Center, U.S. newsroom employment dropped by 25 percent between 2008 and 2018, with the greatest decline at newspapers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a further decline of 10 percent from 2018 to 2028.

Despite the hot job market, the long-term outlook for some of these industries is ice cold. What’s a job seeker to do if he or she isn’t in a field projected for continued growth?

“It’s something we don’t focus a lot on, but I think it’s a good opportunity for a few different things,” notes Jim Jeffers, metro market manager overseeing Madison and Milwaukee for staffing firm Robert Half. “It’s a good opportunity for the jobseeker to really fine-tune their skill set. We’ve seen this a lot in accounting and finance, where you might have years of experience, but you really need to brush up on your skills with Excel or a different type of software program. So, it’s a good time to go back to school or get a certification to really get themselves prepared for that next job.”

Of course, returning to school might not be a viable option for many workers, either due to cost, time commitment, or both. For them, the primary challenge applicants in these industries face is differentiation, explains Ashlie B. Johnson, owner of Brooke Human Resource Solutions in Madison.

“How do they make their resume stand out against all of the others?” questions Johnson. “Many larger employers have adopted applicant-tracking systems to deal with the high volume of resumes they have been receiving. This means that many jobseekers’ resumes are never even being seen by human eyes. In order to differentiate themselves, candidates need to get creative and work harder. Simply submitting a generic resume is no longer enough.”

Jeffers cautions that jobseekers need to be cognizant of the type of jobs they’re applying for if their job search is stalling. For instance, are you applying for a director role when maybe you’re only at the manager level? “Sometimes we look at a job and think, ‘Oh, I can do that,’ but our background doesn’t really justify a hiring manager giving us that return call,” Jeffers explains.

That’s advice Diana Schafer, president/franchisee of staffing agency Spherion in Madison, can agree with. “Be strategic in responding to job postings,” says Schafer. “Don’t simply throw your resume at the job boards or apply to every opportunity.”

Like Johnson, Schafer recommends paying attention to the keywords used in the job posting and including those keywords in your resume to ensure you can get past the AI resume-screening engines. “Keep in mind, however, that resumes alone don’t highlight your strengths and accomplishments, nor do they always convey your specific experience to the job opportunity. Include a cover letter specifically relating your experience and highlighting relevant skills, as well as why you are looking to make a change.”

Schafer says professionals should take advantage of training opportunities with their current employer before automatically looking outside the organization for career advancement. Not only will you enhance your skill set, she notes, you will signal to supervisors and peers that you are open to learning and growing in your career with them. Employees can also volunteer to take on tasks or to participate in special projects that will allow them to stretch their capabilities.

For those whose minds are made up about making a move, Schafer says it’s important to focus on transferable skills. As an example, there is growing demand for project management experience, so candidates can look for opportunities to lead a project or initiative at their current job before taking those experiences elsewhere.

“There may also be free or low-cost training options available online or at local colleges and technical schools,” notes Schafer. “In Madison, we’ve been heavily involved in pulling clients together to create a laboratory associate apprenticeship program that offers candidates alternatives to a typical two-year training program. Instead, they can explore adult apprenticeships, participating in a 12-week training program that leads to state certification. It is an opportunity for some to move from a $14-an-hour job to $70,000 a year. That is life changing!”

Establishing roots

Jennifer Zahari, Madison market manager for ABR Employment Services, says a trend she’s noticed with corporate clients in Madison looking to fill open positions is that they’re having a hard time finding qualified candidates, but not for the reasons one might think.

“When I say qualified, often it’s not a lack of skill as much as it’s a lack of work history,” Zahari explains. “That’s an interesting dynamic to me because often we’re actually seeing people who are close skill-wise, but the new normal is that people tend to jump ship a lot quicker than they used to. So, those folks who are a year here, a year there, two years somewhere else, even if they have the right skills, they’re not necessarily going to be the right fit.”

Conversely, when Zahari speaks directly with jobseekers, she says she genuinely gets the feeling that many of them just want to find the right fit — someplace they can stay longer term. “What I tell people is, the next position you get, stay. Don’t take a position until you’ve really found what you can commit yourself to for a good couple of years and earn back some of that work history.”

Making connections

Knowing the right people in your industry is becoming more valuable than ever, says Johnson. To that end, professionals looking to make a career move need to seek out networking events for their industry and attend and connect with as many people as possible.

“Create your own business cards that have your picture, contact information, and a few key skills listed,” says Johnson. “This will allow you to be memorable without having to hand out an existing employer’s cards.”

Johnson also suggests jobseekers should join professional associations, which will help them gain industry knowledge and potentially introduce them to networking contacts that could help in their job search. And professionals looking to make a move can also volunteer in their field or a related field in which they can gain skills and/or experience. “If you can’t find a volunteer option in your field, showing that you are active and engaged in the community is still an attractive trait,” she says.

Additionally, Johnson tells candidates to seek out a mentor. “Building a relationship with a mentor or coach in your desired field can help you learn more about the industry from someone with direct experience. The right mentor will be able to offer realistic insights and valuable advice on how to meet your career goals and guide you on the path toward success.”

Schafer concurs. “Try to talk to people who work in the field. Ask questions about: How they got into the field; what they most like (and dislike) about their job; how success is measured; and what they do on a daily basis.

According to Zahari, many people aren’t comfortable making that phone call to a prospective mentor or advisor in their desired field or with their dream company, but they shouldn’t be afraid. “Asking for help is a little underrated. People are willing to help other people and give direction if you just make a phone call.”

“You know, ABC Company might be some place you’ve been working to get into forever, and you might have some connections there, so make sure you’re reaching out to them and letting them know that there’s interest there on your part,” recommends Jeffers. “I was reflecting on this the other day — if you go back to when the recession was in 2008–09, unemployment for college grads was in the double digits and now it’s just under 2 percent, which is just fantastic. When I see that job openings are at 7.5 million across the country, I see that as 7.5 million opportunities for people out there right now. One of those jobs might be somebody’s dream job, so it’s up to you as a candidate or person who’s looking for a job to really get out there and figure out what you want to do. It’s a great time to get into your dream job.”

Looking to stand out?

Ashlie Johnson offers the following recommendations:

  • Customize your resume for each position you apply for. Review each job description and make sure that your resume has as many of the keywords and skills listed as possible. This will increase your odds of getting past the automated systems.
  • Develop an elevator pitch. This speech should be concise; in just a few sentences, you want to give people a sense of your skills, competencies, expertise, and personality. It’s your chance to share what makes you special compared to other people with the same skills, competencies, and expertise.
  • Use technology. Create a video bio to link to your social media profiles. Consider sending a video thank you after an interview rather than a simple email. Additionally, leverage platforms like LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter (or even create your own website) to build a compelling online presence. And don’t forget to ask previous co-workers or supervisors to write recommendations for you to publish online.
  • Use social media, the internet, and other resources to find out as much as you can about the company and the people you’re targeting. Even something simple such as knowing that the hiring manager is also a dog lover can help you make small talk and connect when/if you get an interview. Conversely, you should assume that they’re researching you as much as you are researching them. Make sure all of those platforms portray you in the most positive and professional light as possible.
  • Stay on top of developments in your industry and the company you’re targeting. Understanding what is happening in their world shows that you pay attention and care.
  • Finally, follow through. If you’ve submitted your resume and haven’t heard back, follow up. Through research, identify the right person to talk to and reach out directly. The same advice applies if you have had the opportunity to interview. Do your best to get business cards from everyone in the interview and send individual follow-up and thank-you messages.

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