After months of job searching, it can be easy to lose perspective about how much difference a small change can make.
After hundreds of unreturned e-mails, phone calls that get no response and the understanding that success doesn’t happen overnight, job seekers like Natalie, a human resources executive in northern Virginia, don’t expect drastic results from a little change like improving their resume. Those expectations shrink even more when, like Natalie, you’ve already tried it twice before.
“I had paid twice to have my resume done, and they just didn’t do a good job,” said Natalie, who asked that her last name not be used. “Over two years, I sent out more than 400 resumes and couldn’t find a full-time job. I fell deeper and deeper into debt and was in foreclosure. I was six months behind in my payments; it was a really precarious situation.”
It was demoralizing for the woman, who worked her way to an associate’s, then a bachelor’s degree and added technical and functional certifications during the 11 years she spent at IBM, where she rose from an executive assistant position to human-resources roles and held technical positions along the way.
“I know all the work I’ve done, but I was not able to show it on my resume, so that information was not being communicated to recruiters,” she said. “What was hindering me was not my lack of skills – it was how it was presented on the resume that failed.”
The two biggest reasons Natalie’s resume got no attention: It didn’t include the kinds of keywords and phrases human-resources software applications look for when they scan resumes and didn’t give human readers a clear, instantly recognizable set of skills and value for her. That’s the expert opinion of Tina Brasher, a certified professional resume writer who works with TheLadders and wrote Natalie’s most recent resume.
“You have to determine what the person wants to do next, and that has to be clear from the resume,” Brasher said. “What occupation and what level and what would make you better at it than everyone else whose resumes come in.
“To even be considered you have to have the right skills. She had things like ‘strong communicator, problem-solving skills, listening skills.’ That’s all a lot of hooey,” Brasher said. “Hiring managers are interested in accomplishments. Natalie was looking for a position as an HR generalist, so if she didn’t have words like ‘recruiting, benefits and compensation, regulatory compliance’ in the list, her resume would never see the light of day. And she didn’t.”
Natalie began her career at IBM as an executive assistant, but was soon promoted to asset manager where she managed the inventory of laptops, desktops and devices for more than 4,000 employees and ultimately became resource manager where she managed the complex personnel elements and regulatory issues of projects for defense contractors and federal agencies. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my career,” Natalie said of that job.
She has also worked part-time as a 911 emergency services operator and customer service representative in a call center while taking courses toward an MBA.
A career misstep; a new search
In 2006, Natalie made what she now calls “a mistake”: She left IBM to start her own identity-theft-prevention consultancy. There, she used her training as a Certified Identity Theft Risk Management Specialist (CITRMS) to counsel small businesses in northern Virginia on IT security. She found few customers, and the business failed in 2008.
“Everything just fell into a black hole,” she said. “My 401K, savings, pension, everything. I put everything into building my business and got no return on my investment.”
Natalie was back looking for full-time employment for the first time in two years, and she found trouble explaining her experience in a resume. What she saw as working her way up in the business world, the business world saw as “a convoluted career path,” Brasher said.
Natalie tried twice before to have her resume written by experts, the second time going to a company that specialized in resumes designed for companies that work closely with government agencies.
“Imagine paying more than a thousand dollars to two companies to do your resume and then you send it in for a free critique [at TheLadders] and it comes back with five pages of what’s wrong with it?” she said. “Imagine investing $695 for a new one? No one looking for a job thinks they can afford to do that. But if it will get you a job in one to two days? That’s priceless. It would pay for itself.”
Brasher formatted and rewrote the resume to focus on Natalie’s laundry list of skills and qualifications: project management, lifecycle recruitment strategy and support, HR regulations, federal employment standards, IT security, federal, state and local contract bidding, law-enforcement, asset management, administration, and project-resource management. She introduced the document with a summary of what Natalie brought to the table and included a list of keywords that described her skills in ways search engines and HR software applications could identify. Then she listed Natalie’s roles at IBM and her part-time jobs in decreasing order of importance.
“She had all these jobs, so it looks at first glance like she’s a job-hopper, Brasher said. “But she’s not. She got promoted frequently at IBM. So we had to make that clear.”
But would it pay for itself?
Natalie found out one day after Brasher handed her the final draft. Natalie attended a job fair in Northern Virginia sponsored by local defense contractors. After standing in line with all the other hopefuls, Natalie noticed one recruiter’s table open. Applicants would sit for a minute and talk, then just walk away.
“I walked over and gave him my resume, and he just beamed; he said my qualifications and my clearances fit what they were looking for and he didn’t think he was going to find anyone,” Natalie said. “He talked to me and called right back to another manager, and it all happened just that quick.”
The defense contractor, who Natalie asked not be named because she’s still going through the required verification process, offered her a position as an executive administrative assistant. The job is for a division of the defense contractor that maintains high-security data centers for the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection to verify the identity and contents of planes, trains and ships entering the U.S.
The job fits with Natalie’s administrative, IT, law enforcement and government experience and gives her the chance to do HR work while she completes her MBA and reopens negotiations on her foreclosure.
Such overnight success is rare and a first for Brasher. No other client has ever reported such a fast response. Not that they would call the resume writer, she laughed. “They’re usually busy calling friends and family and being relieved that they got it. The resume writer’s usually the last one they think of to call.”