31 Days to Financial Independence, Day 20: Finding a Better Job

“31 Days to Financial Independence” is an ongoing series that appears every Thursday on The Simple Dollar. You might want to start this series from the beginning!

Last time, we took a serious look at the steps that you should take to put yourself in position for a promotion at work. Today, we’re going to to take a look at building a game plan for moving yourself from your current job to a new one.

Why would you make that choice? There are many reasons, of course, but the one that really deserves consideration here is that changing jobs can often improve your true hourly wage significantly or else put you in a position where it will improve quickly.

The obvious route to that success is through higher wages. If your pay goes up, it’s very likely that your true hourly wage will also go up. (Remember, your true hourly wage is the total income you make in a year minus all work expenses divided by the total number of hours devoted to work plus things like commuting.)

However, you might see financial benefit from switching jobs if it drastically reduces your commute or enables you to no longer have to pay for child care or if it opens the door to a completely new ladder of potential promotions or if it gives you equity in a company. Those things indirectly impact your true hourly wage either by reducing your job-related expenses, reducing the hours you devote to work, or opening up potential increases in your wages.

It’s not just about the pay, in other words.

Is a job switch the right move for you? It’s usually a good idea if you’re unhappy at your current job or if you feel like there is little opportunity for advancement or pay increases at your current job. It’s usually a poor idea if there is plenty of room for pay increases or advancements at your current job and you’re happy there. Don’t switch just for the sake of switching.

Exercise #20: Laying the Groundwork for Finding a Better Job

If you do see a job switch as something that’s right for you, something that will improve your financial outcomes, here are some strategies to start employing right away that will set you up for a job switch in the future, along with some strategiest to make that switch as effective as possible.

Identify a number of jobs you’d ideally like to have and discover what the requirements are. If you’re considering switching jobs, what exactly is it that you’re hoping to switch to? Are you just trying to escape a poisonous work environment? In that case, you’re likely just looking for the exact same job you have now, just elsewhere.

Many people, however, are focused on finding a new job that provides the financial benefits described above. It increases their pay, gives them opportunities to move up, or provides new challenges. Generally, these jobs tend to be ones that you’re mostly qualified for, but a bit underqualified for in a few areas.

Find listings for those jobs (LinkedIn is a good place to start). See what is actually required of them. If at all possible, talk to people who are in that position that you won’t be competitive with (people you may be competitive with may have ulterior motives for not giving you the full picture) and see what the job is actually like.

In other words, understand what your target is.

Make those new requirements your checklist going forward. Your search for new positions should have provided you with a long list of requirements and highly desired traits. Take that long list of requirements and traits, cross off all of the things that you clearly already have, and turn the rest of them into a giant checklist for the coming months in your life.

It may be that you need more education. In that case, start taking classes and progressing toward the degree that you need.

It may be that you need more experience. In that case, stick with your current job if it gets you that experience, or move sideways into another job that will give you that experience.

It may be that you need certain skills. Take classes to help develop those skills, or else find ways to work on those skills in your current workplace.

You absolutely should talk to your current supervisor about polishing and building up certain skills, even if your intent is to move to a new workplace. Just simply say that you’ve self-identified some skills that you’d like to improve and ask for opportunities to do that. This is particularly helpful if those skills are ones that show up on the performance reviews at your current job anyway.

Take on tasks at your current job that are specifically chosen to bolster your resume. Many job listings are actually looking for people willing to take on extra challenges of various kinds, and many jobs offer great opportunities for taking on new challenges. When a challenging task that will fit perfectly on your resume shows up at your current job, jump on it and do it to the best of your ability.

Not only will completion of that project give you something to add to your resume that looks impressive and enable you to potentially fulfill specific requirements of the job that you want to have, it also teaches you new skills – both in terms of the technical aspects of your job and transferable skills like time management and project management – that you’ll be able to apply elsewhere.

The people that step up to the plate and take on challenges and difficult tasks are the ones that build up a nice resume and get the rewards. If you want a better job, that needs to be you taking on those challenges.

Build up lots of transferable skills. Transferable skills are skills that are useful in almost every profession out there. Communication skills, both written and verbal. Public speaking skills. Leadership skills. Time management skills. Information management skills. Project management skills. Self-directed and independent working habits. Research skills (this does not mean “know how to use Google”). Many, many, many jobs want those skills.

Think about the job that you want to have and ask yourself what transferable skills would really shine in that job. We’re not talking about the job-specific technical skills here, but the other elements that would make you successful there. What are they?

Work on them. There are opportunities in every workplace to polish those skills and there are many classes you can take to build up those skills as well. Learn to use them, not just because they look good on a resume or during an interview, but because they’ll make you a more effective employee both in your current job and your destination job.

Cultivate strong positive relationships with professional peers outside of your workplace. If you’re looking to advance within your organization, as we discussed in the previous installment of this series, cultivating relationships with people within your company is a great move. However, if you’re looking to move out, the relationships that become the most valuable ones are the ones outside the company, with people who may be evaluating you, employing you, and working with you.

If you have any interest at all in switching employers, you should be involved in local and national professional organizations. You should be attending conferences and meetings if at all possible. You should be looking for opportunities to present things to people outside your organization. And, in all of those situations, you should be focused on meeting lots of people and building real, meaningful relationships.

That’s a hard thing for some people to do (myself included). I found that simply mastering the mechanics of How to Win Friends and Influence People helped immensely with face-to-face situations, and the mechanics of

Never Eat Alone helped greatly with regards to building and maintaining relationships outside of face-to-face interactions.

Which brings me to my next point…

Get involved in social media from a professional standpoint. Social media, particularly Twitter and LinkedIn, provides a great opportunity for you to get to know professionals in your field, hiring agents who may want to hire you, and many other valuable folks in terms of elevating your career. You can build relationships, learn new things, and raise your public profile from pretty much anywhere.

Many people use social media personally, but turn that idea on its ear and use it professionally. Use it to share your professional knowledge, build relationships with people in your field all across the world, and follow up on face-to-face relationships that you’ve launched.

I often use social media as a tool for following up on potential professional contacts. I’ll immediately suggest following them on Twitter or connecting on some other social media network (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) and then do it immediately on my phone. I usually make a note as well regarding something that I can follow up on with that person, because following up is key for building a professional relationship (or a personal one for that matter).

Make sure your resume is up to date. It is really easy to let your resume atrophy over time, especially if you’re comfortable in your current job. Don’t let that happen, especially if the idea of switching jobs is on your radar at all.

It’s a good idea to keep a current resume up on LinkedIn at all times. Review it at least once every few months, if not more frequently, and be sure to add any and all relevant skills to it. It’s not a bad idea to keep resumes on other job sites, too, particularly ones focused on your career area.

A valuable tip: don’t be afraid to highlight your unusual experiences or skills, as they’re almost always a benefit rather than a drawback. If you can speak, say, Norwegian, list that on your resume even if you don’t think it’s potentially relevant to anything you might be applying for. It might be a subtle skill that’s a big benefit at a particular company, or, at the very least, it might be a differentiator between similar candidates or a talking point in an interview.

Another valuable tip: avoid using overused terms on your resume. Don’t bother with terms like “dynamic” or “team player” or “detail oriented,” as they’re practically meaningless unless you can tie them to specific experience that you can describe. As generic descriptors, you’re better off without them.

Have a broad focus when applying for that new job. When you start actively searching for a new job, it’s tempting to look for jobs with a very tight focus. You might just look for a job in your current area that pays at least a certain amount in a certain field, for example, which quickly narrows your options.

Expand your search as much as possible. Look at jobs that pay a little less that have clear advancement opportunities or the potential for earning equity. Look at jobs that would require you to move to a new area. Look at jobs that might be a little different than what you might normally look for, like a computer programmer considering a job in IT.

The goal is to find a job that matches your skills, offers an increase in your true hourly wage, and offers opportunity for advancement. Finding a job like that might mean letting go of other factors like location.

Look for jobs based on a company rather than a job title. If you know of some companies that are known to be great to work for, look for positions within that company that you might be able to match up with. In this case, you might want to stretch even further than normal in terms of the type of job you might be looking for.

For example, if you know that a particular local employer is really great to work for and has a ton of opportunity for internal advancement, look at all of the job listings there and see what they have available. You might find something that works well for you that’s outside the scope of what you might normally be searching for.

Practice your interviewing skills. Many jobs whittle their potential candidates down based on their resumes to a small group, then interview those candidates. At that point, it’s usually your interview that decides things (unless the “fix is in” and there’s already a vastly preferred candidate for reasons you may not see… which is why it’s a great idea to build relationships so you can be that preferred candidate).

The best way to practice, honestly, is by interviewing at every opportunity until it begins to feel natural. Accept any and all interviews that you get, even if you’re pretty sure you wouldn’t take the job.

If that opportunity isn’t open to you, simply find sets of interview questions for your job and have a friend interview you. I’ve actually done this for a few of my closest friends in order to make them feel more confident about job interviews and, in at least one case, I’m absolutely certain it improved his interviewing skills and helped him get a job in his field.

Dress appropriately for the interview. Don’t show up to a job with wrinkly clothes and without taking a shower or brushing your teeth. That’s just begging for them not to hire you. Instead, show up dressed as though you want this job and you’re ready to start right now. Imagine you’re about to have a meeting where your job is on the line with your supervisor’s supervisor and 80% of the judgment is going to be a snap judgment when you walk in the door. How would you dress?

For many people, really knowing what to wear in such situations can be a bit of a mystery. I usually rely on DressCodeGuide.com for advice. For example, the advice given for business professional men seems to be utterly spot on and can be a great guide for selecting a wardrobe.

If you’re still not sure, ask around. Ask people who have earned the position you’d like to have what they would wear to an interview and do that. Make sure you’re clean, presentable, and not wearing wrinkly clothes.

Interview them as they’re interviewing you. A good interview will involve you being asked a lot of questions about your background, your skills, your personal philosophies, and so on. However, a great interview is a two way street, where you find out things about the organization and the people who work there.

During the interview, don’t hesitate to ask questions about the specifics of the job, the company itself, the company culture, and so on. Find out what the interviewers like about working there and don’t like about working there.

This can help you quickly figure out whether this is a job that you actually want or not and whether or not this position would be a good fit for you.

If you get a job offer, negotiate a little. The initial offer you’re given is usually at least a little flexible. Don’t be afraid to ask for a higher salary, particularly if you have documentation that the salary is on the low end of the expected scale.

You may also want to ask if the company offers a signing bonus or some money to help with the costs of moving. Again, it does not hurt to ask for these things; they’re not going to rescind an offer and restart the job interview process just because you asked such a question.

Another great perk to ask for – and one that I have heard “yes” to every single time I’ve asked it – is for some extra leave in your personnel account at the very start of your job. Most jobs offer some amount of annual leave and accrue that leave at some regular rate. Simply ask for some leave to already be accrued for you, so that rather than starting with zero leave, you already have, say, a few weeks of leave accumulated. Many jobs, especially in the private sector and in larger government organizations, can easily accommodate this perk and it’s one that doesn’t affect their bottom line directly, so they’re often happy to offer it if asked. You might also ask for a higher rate of leave accrual, though that’s less likely to be given, especially in government positions where such accrual is highly regulated.

Don’t burn bridges at your current job at any point in the transition. If you’re leaving a job where you don’t like the work or the conditions or have painful relationships with coworkers or simply don’t like them, it can be very tempting to burn some bridges on the way out in various ways, whether through confrontation or through leaving your job in an unstable place.

Avoid that temptation like the plague. It will bite you, especially if you’re staying in your current field.

Instead, do everything you can to transition peacefully and smoothly to your new job while preserving the best possible relationship that you can with the people you leave behind. Don’t use your last days to tell people off or to twiddle your thumbs. Use those days to cement relationships and to document standard work protocols. That time you spend will reflect incredibly well on you moving forward, which can do nothing but help your future career steps.

Next time, we’ll talk about strategies for starting a “side gig” that can provide supplemental income.

31 Days to Financial Independence: The Complete Series

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.