Archive for August, 2011

Informational Interviews Part 3 – The 10 most important questions you need to ask

Over the past 2 weeks, we have explored both the benefits of informational interviews and some useful strategies you can use to help you set one up. The next crucial consideration to think about is the questions you will ask once you have done the leg work to make a new connection within an unknown industry or organization. It would be a shame to put in so much effort to set up an informational interview only to arrive unprepared without a clear idea of what you actually want to learn from this practicing industry expert.

While the specific questions to ask are likely to vary slightly depending on the nature of the specific industry or company you are exploring, below is a list of my top 10 general informational interview questions that most people will want to take note of if they want to maximize the value of these critical networking opportunities:

10) What are the opportunities for advancement? This is an important question to ask whether you are evaluating the growth potential within a particular company or assessing the typical career path of a specific occupation. If you have ambitions to climb the ladder to a position with significant responsibility, it is beneficial to have an understanding of what it will take to get you there before you make a final decision about which career to get into or which company to work for.

9) What surprised you most when you first started in this career/company? There will always be things that come as a surprise when you enter a new field or start with a new organization, regardless of how thorough your career plan is. Be prepared for these potential unknowns by asking experts who have already embarked on the journey you are about to start about their experiences in the initial days of their career. This will help you adjust and navigate early-stage surprises that would have been otherwise unforeseen.

8)If you could start from scratch, what would you do differently? Planning a career is more art than science. Things rarely unfold exactly as planned and most people make mistakes along the way. That old saying “hindsight is usually 20/20” is certainly true in career development, and the informational interview provides a good opportunity to look back on the experiences of industry professionals so you can avoid making the same mistakes they did when they first entered the field.

7) What educational institutions offer the best training for this career? Some schools are better at training their students for the workforce than others, and people within your desired industry will know which institution(s) are the most effective at preparing graduates for the day-to-day work of your career. Don’t waste money, time and effort by making a blind educational decision; explore your options ahead of time and get advice from experts in the field who have an intimate knowledge of the quality of the various training programs.

6) Along with the required credentials, what are the desired qualifications to find entry level employment? Our knowledge-based economy is getting increasingly complex and competitive. It is no longer realistic to expect to land a full-time job after obtaining the basic required credentials for your occupation. The candidates who diversify their skill-sets will have an edge on the competition. Careers today are highly dynamic, so it is a good idea to ask about additional qualifications or training you can pursue to make you even more marketable to employers looking for entry-level candidates.

5) What are the most important attributes to have to be successful in this job? Along with all the skills and qualifications you need to get started, it is beneficial to explore the personal attributes one needs to achieve success in the career or within the organization. You can be the most educated and knowledgeable person in the field, but if you do not have the “X factor” traits employers are looking for, it will be an uphill battle for you. Be sure to compare your strongest attributes to those desired by the companies that actually hire people in the field.

4) What is your favourite aspect of working in this career/for this organization? If your informational interviewee has worked in the sector or for the company for an extended period of time, it is likely they have done so because they continue to bring a high level of engagement to their work. Inquire about the aspects of their job that help them get out of bed in the morning with enthusiasm, even after being in the field for X number of years. This will assist you in determining whether the benefits of the career will be sufficient to motivate you to do it successfully over the long term.

3) What are some of the challenges in your job? How do you deal with them? Equally important to understanding the positive aspects of the career is to be aware of the challenges. Every job has its drawbacks. You need to conduct an honest self-assessment to determine if you will be able to handle these occupational hurdles on a consistent basis. The informational interview can give you a first-hand perspective on the challenging elements of the job, and the strategies practicing professionals use to cope with them.

2) What is the employment outlook for the industry? How has the sector historically been impacted by recessions? Are there any major changes forthcoming? I know, I know, this is more of a series of questions than a single one, but they are all related and all extremely important. Various industries have their own unique economic strengths and vulnerabilities, factors you will want to be mindful of prior to making a firm decision. Most people will want to get into a field or organization that is poised to grow, so be sure to ask about predicted job creation and retirement rates. The last thing you need is to put in all the work that comes along with mapping out a career plan only to discover that future employment opportunities will be limited. People working in that industry will have crucial knowledge of these issues so be sure to get their perspective and ask about any looming changes coming to the field that could impact your ability to find work.

1) Walk me through a typical day… As I alluded to in Part 1 of this series, most days in the career you are considering will be average. Sure, there will be ups and downs, but the majority of the days in your working life will pass without major victories or disasters. Is there enough in the day-to-day routine of the job to keep you motivated over the long-term? For me, this is the most important piece of information to walk away with from the informational interview process. We spend a third or more of our lives at work so the least we can do is ensure we will enjoy the time!

To conclude, I’ll say that there are few tools more powerful for helping you make an informed career decision than the informational interview. I’ve mentioned repeatedly that our economy is getting more complex and competitive, but with that also comes more opportunity and choice to find your niche. Job seekers today have such a wide range of career options and organizations to work for that there is no reason anyone should have to do a job they despise or work for a company whose values and goals don’t align with their own. Informational interviews present a great chance to evaluate your suitability for a given career and/or organization. And while the process of connecting with strangers and setting them up may seem difficult for some, conducting informational interviews beforehand is much better than leaping blindly into a career that you end up not loving.

This article was written by Ryan Paulson, a Career & Employment Information Specialist @ Pacific Community Resources Society who specializes in youth career development and Labour Market Information.

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Informational Interviews Part 2 – Top 5 Strategies for Setting up Informational Interviews

Last week I introduced the benefits of informational interviews including a discussion about why they are so critical to incorporate into your job or career search.  Hopefully by now I have convinced you that the informational interview is a highly valuable tool to use when considering an occupation, sector or particular organization.

But now that we understand the importance of the informational interview, the question remains: how do you go about setting one up?  When you are attempting to transition into a new field or company you are probably trying to do so with a limited network of contacts to leverage (or maybe no contacts at all).  Getting started on building your network, and consequently your reputation within the sector, can be a daunting task.  The informational interview, however, is an excellent way to get this process started.

Here are my top 5 strategies for setting up informational interviews:

5) Connect to past alumni from relevant schools:  If pursuing post-secondary education is a component of your career transition, the institutions offering certifications in your area can be helpful in connecting you to past alumni of the programs.  Schools will often hold information sessions to promote certain programs to prospective students.  An event like this could feature presentations by past students who are now working in the field after going through the program.  I recently attended one such session for a local institution that included 3 graduates from the most recent cohort who shared their experiences and thoughts about the program.  Not only were their stories useful and informative, but the informal networking opportunity that followed presented attendees a great opportunity to liaise with them on a more personal level.  This non-threatening environment would have been the perfect setting to set up an informational interview or at least exchange contact information to follow-up later.

If there are no promotional events scheduled in the near future, tapping into alumni through teachers or program advisors is another viable option.  Some schools do a really good job at keeping in touch with graduates, so it is definitely worth scheduling an appointment with a representative of the institution to ask where graduates are working.  If the school maintains any contact with previous students, they may be able to connect you with those who have transitioned from school to the workforce.

4) Join and get active in a professional association:  Most occupations have an overarching membership organization that schedules various events related to networking and professional development for practitioners in the field.  For example, in my field we have the BC Career Development Association and practicing paralegals have the BC Paralegal Association.  These organizations can be instrumental in providing you inside access to people working in your desired profession.  They often host conferences, training workshops and other special events that industry insiders attend to enhance their knowledge base and network with other professionals.  I strongly encourage you to explore whether your preferred career has such an association and if so, become a member!  Or better yet, volunteer!  Associations usually need event help or other volunteer assistance to help deliver their services.  Getting active in your industry association will grant you access to key events where you will have the chance to meet and network with experts in the field.  These venues are ideal for informal conversations and exchanging business cards, which will help you develop a pool of connections that you can approach for informational interviews later.

3) Leverage social media platforms:  As our world moves increasingly online, tools like Twitter and LinkedIn are becoming more and more important to job search and career exploration.  These platforms are free, universally available and can be highly effective in helping you establish connections with practicing professionals.  Just how useful they are will of course depend on the nature of your particular sector.  Some industries use them more frequently than others, but if your career path is leading you towards an occupation that involves any meaningful amount of computer-based work (as so many careers do these days), it is definitely worth creating Twitter and LinkedIn accounts to start searching for other local professionals in your desired field or organization.  This is a non-invasive way to casually connect with other individuals, ultimately allowing you an opportunity to ask about the possibility of an informational interview.

2) Find contacts through the websites of specific organizations: Whether you are seeking to work at a particular company or just trying to get a sense of the relevant organizations in the local landscape for your industry, targeting specific organizational websites can often lead you to the names and contact information of potential informational interview candidates.  Check out the “Contact Us” or “Who We Are” tabs on the homepages of the companies that interest you to see who works in the organizations; more often than not corresponding phone numbers and/or email addresses will be provided as well.  Use this information to initiate contact, introduce yourself, explain your interest in becoming a _________ (insert career here) or working for the organization and inquire about setting up an informational interview.

1) Maximize the value of your existing network:  Even though you may not directly know many (if any) people in your new industry or company, there is a good chance that someone you know can help you establish a connection.  The clients I work with who have been the most successful in conducting meaningful informational interviews really buy into the “six degrees of separation” principle.  They network hard within their existing pool of social and professional contacts to see if anyone knows anyone who knows anyone, etc… who works in the field or for that specific organization.  You might be surprised at how far your existing network stretches (friends, family, past co-workers) and it is probable that if you work that inner circle hard enough, somewhere along the line you will find someone who will be able to connect you to your first informational interview prospect.

There are many different strategies you can use to arrange informational interviews, and hopefully the ones above are enough to at least get your creative juices flowing.  To conclude, I would like to recommend one final thing all effective job seekers do when sourcing out a new field or company: asking to be referred to other contacts once you have established a connection and completed an informational interview.  Once you have done all the hard work to set up your first meeting with a complete stranger, you will want to get as much value out of it as possible.  No need to start from scratch again!  Try to tap into the network of your interviewee, which is probably quite vast given they are practicing professionals in your chosen industry.  Politely asking at the end of your informational interview if the person can recommend any other people to talk to can be hugely beneficial in helping you get your snowball rolling.  And more often than not, the person is more than happy to do it!  Visit our next post for the top 10 questions to ask in an informational interview.

This article was written by Ryan Paulson, a Career & Employment Information Specialist @ Pacific Community Resources Society who specializes in youth career development and Labour Market Information.

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Informational Interviews Part 1 – Top 10 Benefits of Informational Interviews

Over the next 3 posts I will delve into the topic of Informational Interviews.  What is an Informational Interview?  Why are they so important to your job search or career planning process?  How do you go about setting one up?  What questions should you ask?

We will have a look at each of these questions in detail and by the end of this series you should have a solid sense of why the informational interview is so crucial to solidifying your decision about which career to pursue or which company to work for.

Many of the clients I work with have little to no knowledge about what an informational interview is or what it is designed to accomplish.  According to the popular employment and career website CareerBuilder.com, an informational interview is “a meeting that you schedule with a practicing professional for the purpose of learning more about their job, career path and/or company.”  Not to be confused with a job interview, the informational interview is meant to help you explore a new career or potential employer you might want to work for in the future.

While there are many benefits of doing informational interviews, here is a list of the top ten reasons you should incorporate informational interviews into your job search or career exploration:

10) Assess organizational culture:  Informational interviews can be invaluable in helping you decide where you want to work, either now or following any education or training you have to complete before entering the field.  Almost as important as deciding which career to pursue is finding an organization that has workplace values and goals that are aligned with your own.

9) Evaluate the industry: Every field has its strengths and vulnerabilities, and it is critical to be aware of these ahead of time.  Informational interviews present a chance for you to get insider knowledge about the predicted growth or reduction of the industry moving forward.  If the sector is anticipated to shrink or expand rapidly in the coming years, people working in the field will know about it.  And you will want to know too!

8) Understand what you need to get started: In a rapidly changing and increasingly complex labour market, it is imperative that you are aware of the baseline skill requirements needed to obtain entry level employment in your industry.  There is no need to waste thousands of dollars or years of time getting trained if the education is not relevant or sufficient to helping you land a paying job.  Further, if there are additional skills or certifications you need prior to entering the field, you can ensure you get them beforehand (i.e. First Aid or specialized computer training).

7) Clarify your educational goal: Most new jobs created in the next decade will require some post-secondary training.  But what if jobs in your desired field are the exception?  What if employers prefer to prepare people for the work through targeted internal training initiatives over formal educational programs?  This knowledge could potentially save you thousands of dollars and a lot of time by allowing you to avoid unnecessary educational endeavours.

Alternatively, if your career is one in the majority that will require post-secondary training, informational interviews are highly beneficial in helping you decide where to go.   Some schools have solid reputations in the workforce; others are widely unknown or unrecognized.  If education or skills training is a component of your career transition, you will want to know which schools and programs employers look to when they are hiring.  Use this feedback to guide your educational decision-making.

6) Determine a potential career path: What does a typical career path look like in your desired field, starting from the entry level?  What opportunities for growth and advancement exist in a particular organization?  Is there a saturation of professionals in leadership roles already?  These questions are all essential to a thorough job search or career plan.  Most people will not want to stagnate in their careers for extended periods and will want to have effort and hard work rewarded.  Will you have the chance to move up the latter if you work hard and strive for excellence?  An informational interview can help you assess these queries, both for a specific company and/or the sector at large.

5) Learn from mistakes: People in your industry have already gone through what you are about to go through and will have valuable advice as to what they would do differently if given the chance.  As the old adage goes, “hindsight is always 20/20.”  Ask your contacts what they would change if they could go back and start their career in the company or industry from scratch.  This way you can ensure you avoid making similar mistakes along the way.

4) Gain a competitive edge: Job seekers are currently facing an unprecedented amount of competition for opportunities, especially in the continuing aftermath of the global economic downturn.  Employers have the luxury of being more selective when assessing the talent pool.  Those individuals who come with secondary or supplemental skill-sets will stand out from the crowd.  An informational interview can shine light on potential volunteer or skill-building opportunities you can engage with to get on the inside track to employment in the industry or organization.

3) Build confidence: When you succeed in setting up an informational interview, you will feel good about it (and rightfully so!).  You can feel confident that the information you are getting is first-hand expertise from industry insiders.  This is knowledge that would be otherwise unavailable to you, and it will help you confirm or adjust your career choice and occupational goals.

2) Get a glimpse of a typical day:  It is crucial to get a realistic perspective on what an average day looks like in the life of someone currently working in your desired career.  After all, most days will be average days, and you will want to gauge whether you will be able to bring a consistent enthusiasm to the work over the long-term.  Ask about the good aspects of the job and inquire about the challenges; these are both very important.  But even more critical is to understand the day-to-day routine you will be dealing with on a continuing basis.

1) Expand your professional network: Above all, the informational interview is a powerful tool for building or stretching your professional network within an organization or industry.  They help you establish connections that can prove to be pivotal in helping you find employment.  In today’s economy, roughly 80% of jobs are not publicly advertised and are only available by tapping into “the hidden job market.”  Informational interviews allow you the chance to present yourself and “get your name out there” in your new field or company, which can be instrumental in helping you achieve your employment goals.

Although the benefits of informational interviews go well beyond this list, these are some of the most important ones to take into consideration.  Next week we will expand this discussion by looking at strategies you can use to set up your informational interviews.

This article was written by Ryan Paulson, a Career & Employment Information Specialist @ Pacific Community Resources Society who specializes in youth career development and Labour Market Information.

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Top 5 Ways to Study for an Interview

A big mistake that job seekers make is thinking that they can’t study for a job interview. This is rooted in the belief that you don’t know what questions the employer is going to ask. While it is true that you may not know the exact questions, you can predict the questions that an employer is likely to ask. If you have ever had to study for a big test these suggestions may sound familiar.

1.  Prepare answers for the questions you don’t want them to ask.  Have you ever written a test and come up against the question that you hoped and prayed wouldn’t be on the test. You took the gamble and it didn’t pay off. The truth is that this strategy never pays off.  Even if you get lucky and they don’t ask you the dreaded question, you will be a million times more nervous throughout the interview than you would have been had you prepped it.  Take a look at these top interview questions for some hints to tackle your fears.

2.  Questions are only tough when you don’t know the material. Come up with a plan to deal with the tough questions.  An employment counselor can help you come up with strategies to deal with the questions you hope they don’t ask you.  Reviewing your tough questions with a trusted friend will make coming up with the answers easier.

3.  Answer every question. Teachers often tell their students to pick any answer in multiple-choice tests. The same is sort of true for job interviews. Leaving any question the interviewer asks you unanswered almost guarantees that you won’t be getting any marks for that question. Usually, job applicants respond “I don’t know” in response to a question because they’re caught off guard. If this happens to you remember that it’s okay to ask for a minute to think about your answer so that you can be sure to say everything you need to say.  You can buy some time to think of a response by asking them to rephrase the question.

4.  Strive for full marks. It’s great to receive partial marks in an exam when you know some but not all of the answer. In an interview partial marks can often easily be avoided. Anytime that you are asked to give examples or talk about your experience you can often end up with partial marks if you only talk about yourself and your experience in a general way. Give details and back up the things that you say with specific examples.  It will help to prepare some examples to common interview topics ahead of time, such as leadership, teamwork, overcoming workplace conflict, etc.

5.  Practice, practice, practice. It’s great to think about the ways that you will answer certain questions but, until you say it out loud you don’t really know exactly what you are going to say or how your going to say it. It’s good to ask a friend or an employment counselor for feedback on your answers before using them for real at the interview.

Visit the My ESC website for more interviewing tips at http://www.myerc.ca/Content/Job%20Seekers/Interviews/Main-Interviews.asp#Prep

What questions or fears are making you feel nervous about interviewing?

This article was written by Mike Bourke, a career/employment counsellor with Pacific Community Resources Society.

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