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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 23, 2010

After 22 years in one job, selling skills are rusty


By Vicki Viotti

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Thousands of people turned out last week for the job fair at the Neal Blaisdell Exhibition Hall. One recruiter urged job seekers to show initiative and to practice giving brief examples of how they solved problems at work.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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There were probably a lot of people here with experience, people who never expected to have to sell themselves again. It's a lot like long-married people finding themselves suddenly single, forgetting how it was they ever found their mate, needing to relearn how to behave.

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Job Hunting 101.

After a few decades in my profession, this wasn't a course I wanted to take again, and yet here I am. On June 7, the town's two newspapers will merge into one. While some of us at The Advertiser will end up working for the new daily, most will not. It was time for a plan that would cushion or, better, completely avoid a crash landing.

This is alien territory for someone who's stayed put for a long time. My last job interview had lasted about five minutes on the phone and ended in a firm offer.

Even at the time, that seemed a singular event but only now, nearly 22 years later, do I see how crazy that was.

The phone call was from an editor who knew me from college and had already read my clips from the last time I'd applied. I was just making a follow-up and had called, as luck would have it, at just the moment when he was ready to fill the part-time reporter slot.

This time, it's different. Or, more accurately, this job-search experience is far more typical. And nothing could have made me feel like part of the herd with such painful clarity as last week's job fair at the Blaisdell Center. A few thousand people packed in to survey a tough employment landscape.

There is a method to this madness, the experts say, but I was unprepared, as were most of the people around me. Everyone seemed to be there for a quick look, a stop at the Zippy's booth (where filling out a form got you a free chili sample), a snappy rounding of the horn with the kids in tow. Reading about job fairs on the Web later, none of the sites described them as places to bring strollers, yet here in the exhibition hall there were fleets of them.

And even viewed through my own casual fashion lens, it didn't look like dressing for success. Most people appeared to be on their way to the mall rather than bound for any human resources department. Was it just me, is this just Hawai'i, or are many job fairs this informal?

People filled out loads of job applications, but how many will get past that point? Perhaps some will. The Advertiser news story about the event cited companies that are trying to get a leg up on hiring identifying and locking down the best prospects while they're still pounding the pavement before the economic recovery solidifies and they can make real job offers.

Just in case there was someone casting about for a professional journalist, I made a rapid survey, more superficial than a speed date. Even so, I felt sure my future boss was no stranger I could see across this crowded room.

Determined to get something out of the event, though, I settled into a chair in a curtained-off corner of the noisy hall, just in time for a seminar on how to succeed in a job interview.

By that time, I had already finished my first real job interview of the season and was wondering how well or poorly my unschooled instincts had served me.

Holding a microphone and standing in front of the PowerPoint screen was Jeff Barlow, who at 25 knew more about the art of selling yourself than someone twice his age. At the end of his talk, unable to resist showing off my vast experience, I sweetly corrected his advice that all job applicants, men and women alike, should wear a suit for the interview. Never happens in Hawai'i, I said.

He smiled politely, trying hard not to gaze down at what I was wearing. Maybe he thought I was being motherly. Or not.

In fact, a lot of his advice was rock-solid. Plan in advance. Rehearse. List your strengths. Think of punchy anecdotes that show how you're a self-starter, a problem-solver, an achiever, and practice relating them.

Don't ask controversial questions, and don't ask things you could have found out on your own.

Could I do this? Did I? Mentally rewinding to my own interview, I pondered which rules I might have broken. I didn't want to think about it very long.

Barlow is a rep for the Target chain of stores, where he appears to be moving up quickly, probably ahead of people much older. That takes initiative, a marketable trait he urged everyone to project.

"In today's job market, guys, to be able to act without being told to act, that makes you different," he said, in his one departure from the PowerPoint script.

He's right. It's something experience teaches you, even without Barlow's help.

There were probably a lot of people here with experience, people who never expected to have to sell themselves again. It's a lot like long-married people finding themselves suddenly single, forgetting how it was they ever found their mate, needing to relearn how to behave.

And like those on the dating circuit, folks on a job hunt could use some fashion tips, and now wonder how they'd look in a suit.