Updated on 12.10.07

What Color Is Your Parachute? The Mechanics of the Job Hunt

Trent Hamm

parachuteThis is the second part of The Simple Dollar Book Club reading of What Color Is Your Parachute?, a seminal guide to your career. These entries appear weekly, each Monday afternoon, and you’re invited to read along. This entry covers chapters five through seven in the 2008 edition (earlier editions are roughly similar). If you didn’t participate from the start, feel free to jump back to the first part.

In today’s second reading for the book club, we’re going to finish off the first section of the book, “The Things School Never Taught Us About the Job Hunt.” This includes chapters five through seven, which focus on a lot of the specific mechanics of the job hunt that we’re all familiar with. Honestly, I find these three chapters to be the dullest part of this book because the advice is similar to stuff that appears all over the place. Thankfully, there is some awesome material later in the book. So, let’s dig in!

Chapter 5: Resumes & Contacts – How to Get In to See an Employer

Right off the bat, the following statement is made: “The primary purpose of a resume is to get you in for an interview.” That’s all a resume does, period; when you begin to add anything to the resume beyond selling yourself as well as you possibly can, you’re effectively dulling the sword. Given that the average resume is looked at for eight seconds before the first cut is made, you need that sword to be as sharp as possible. Bolles offers a lot of questions to ask yourself when seeking material for your resume; here are some other resume tips for building your own.

Think of your resume as a business card instead of a biography. Much like a business card, every item on a resume should be evaluated with the following question: does this item help me get invited in for an interview? If the answer is ever no, just delete it – if it’s not a resounding yes, mark it for potential deletion and be willing to drop it to make room for other stuff.

This issue is something that generated a lot of interesting discussion a while back. The logical conclusion of Bolles’ points about resumes is to strive to keep it short. If you actually use this filter honestly, you’ll find your resume getting quite short. Thus, I recommended something of a replacement for this question – just ensure your resume is one page in length and keep trimming fat until it gets there.

Another key part of the job hunt is contacts. Contacts are people you can call up and ask for help in getting your foot in the door for an interview. This is a big reason why it’s good to have a big, broad social network – these people can really help you when the time comes to find a new job. Bolles touches on this for just a few pages, but I find it a very valuable and compelling point – one that’s worth following up on by reading the excellent Never Eat Alone.

I will say that I’ve never been involved in getting a job where a personal contact wasn’t far more useful than a resume. My high school work was entirely directly connected to family and friends. My first job in college was set up by my academic advisor. My second job in college was set up by a friend I had come to know in my first college job. My first post-college full time job was with the same employer as my second college job. My next job after that was basically fed to me by a person I had come to know well in my first post-college job, and that’s the one I’m still working on. In no case had my resume helped at all, other than to draw some severe criticism once about it being far too long and full of useless stuff (drawing out the red pen from a person during my interview).

Chapter 6: Interviews – The Employer’s Fears

Bolles offers a ton of excellent advice about interviews here, well worth reading over and thinking about if you find yourself in an interview situation. As usual with What Color Is Your Parachute?, there are at least a few that will leave you saying “Hmmm…” and perhaps even disagreeing, but I do think they’re all worth thinking about. Here are three points that really leaped out at me from this section, with my thoughts on them.

In an interview, determine to observe the 50/50 rule. Basically, the interviewer and interviewee should each be speaking about half the time in an interview. If you feel like you’re talking too much, try to draw the interviewer into conversation. Why does this work? Conversation gets the interviewer involved, and everyone likes to talk and share their thoughts when they feel that they’re wanted, plus it gets the interviewer intellectually involved in your interview. I usually try to incorporate a question back to the interviewer in at least every third question I answer, simply to try to start a conversation.

Employers don’t really care about your past, they only ask about it to help predict your future. That means you should help them out. When questions about your past pop up, speak about the traits of that past experience that tie directly into what they’re looking for. Do not spend time slamming your previous employers, even if that place was the most poisonous place on earth – just simply state you were ready for new challenges. After all, that’s the truth of the matter, isn’t it?

Most interviews are won or lost in the first minute or two. Your personal appearance, your courtesy towards others, and your general values are apparent very quickly in an interview, and they’re usually key parts of it. Dress well (and especially, be cleanly), treat everyone with respect and courtesy that you see, and be humble. In my interview experiences, I can think of two instances where the first minute completely destroyed any hope for a candidate – one involved personal appearance (dressing extremely casually and shaking hands by just touching palms like a dead fish) and the other involved ego (an extremely proud candidate who quickly took on the tone of a braggart).

Chapter 7: Salary Negotiation – Getting Paid What You’re Worth

I had a hard time reading this chapter because recently I was involved in interviewing a person who used the exact strategy that Bolles recommends here – and we failed to come to terms with an excellent candidate and hired the second candidate. He told us during the interview that he had expectations of significant salary growth, then he coupled it with a very high starting salary request. We could have met one or the other of these – but not both.

Nevertheless, Bolles does make some good points. Don’t even bother talking about salary until some form of job offer is on the table, then try to get them to state the first salary number in the negotiation. Use that number (and market research) to state a range for a counteroffer, with your lower number in your range being just inside what you think their potential range is. The end result will be a palatable salary for both you and your employer, because you’re effectively boxing in the higher end of the salary range.

From my perspective, it’s far more important to find a workplace you like than a salary you like. I’d be perfectly happy making $20K less if it meant I would be in a workplace where I was comfortable and happy, because it’s a place where you’ll likely spend half of your waking hours. Don’t undervalue happiness in the workplace – if you’ve found a place that meshes well with you, don’t play hardball with salary negotiation and let that job walk away from you.

Next week, we’ll read chapters eight and nine in What Color Is Your Parachute?, covering finding a place to live and choosing a new career. In my 2008 edition, these appear on pages 139 to 184.

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  1. plonkee says:

    The thing that struck me initially, was that you might earn a great deal more than me. $20K would be a huge paycut for me. Although I guess we’re talking about whether you’re trying to get a $5K rise or a $25K rise.

    When I got my first job out of University, my job application forms and my CV were pretty good. I didn’t find it hard to get first interviews. Getting past that point was much more difficult. I sometimes wonder whether I tried to oversell myself.

  2. Minimum Wage says:

    I have to admit that I sometimes get a “rise” out of reading (or hearing) UK-speak. Now I can show my folks how listening to Pink Floyd really DOES have socially redeeming value.(

  3. plonkee says:

    It took me ages to figure out what you meant. I guess you lot say ‘raise’ instead. ;) .

  4. Laura says:

    I also have trouble agreeing with the more assertive salary negotiation strategy presented. Especially when one is attempting to get that first job out of college it’s harder to position oneself as the “solution” to an employer’s challenges, and thus make salary demands. Even stellar candidates, as in your example, can negotiate their way out of a job by demanding too high a salary.

  5. SJean says:

    I don’t know, 20k a year is a LOT to me and would mean saving significantly less for retirement. The quality of the job would have to be dramatically different.

    Also, i agree that a more middle ground salary negotiation might be better, but I’ve asked for negotiation advice over on the monster.com boards and have been appalled at the standard advice that was given. The regular posters seemed most interested in putting younger employees in their place rather than encouraging them to ask for more. I was told that I was interchangable and shouldn’t negotiate at all, but was able to get 2k more than offered plus a 3k signing bonus. Because, you know, I’m not interchanable.

    Sorry for the rant, pet peeve of mine.

  6. SJean,

    I comment on the Monster Boards a lot, and I agree with you that they give out some pretty generic advice which I generally disagree with. Most of the people there seem to think you should be begging for a job. I on the other hand believe the exact opposite, employers should be happy to get you. Just depends on your perspective I guess.

    I would be careful of taking significantly less money for any job. It’s not a a greed or materialistic thing. It’s the fact that similar jobs should pay similarly. I’m well into six figures, and would probably never take a 20K pay cut to go somewhere. Reason being, employers need to pay industry standard for a job. If they aren’t it probably means the job isn’t what you think it is, or that the position isn’t valued like you want it to be.

    If I could be SURE that the work place was better and the job was the same, then sure, I would make the sacrifice. But it is next to impossible to know those things before working somewhere.

  7. sunshine says:

    I have found that money does make certain things better. My current position is a second run for me and I’m getting almost double my salary (60K vs. 37K) and the $ makes a good amount of strees bearable. I will admit that I’ve matured a good deal (I was fresh out of college when I started a mangerial position). I initially turned this job re-offer down at 52K (when I was making 27K at the time) because I didn’t want to deal with the imagined hassles. I did some serious soul-searching and had to determine what I could and could not put up with and also how much my increased levels of stress would be worth financially.

    60K sealed the deal and I am so happy I made the decision. I am very happy with my job. Would I work here if I was financially independent? No, but I’m not FI yet, so that’s not an issue.

    I guess what I am incogently (real word?) trying
    to say is that the money may be worth it, at least for a short amount of time.

  8. Debbie M says:

    I’m jealous of people with good contacts. Except for my first job working with my dad and years 2-4 of working at summer camp, I’ve never gotten a job via contacts. This means I mostly get jobs where they need a lot of people all at once, where there’s very high turnover, or where virtually no one has done that exact job before so they have to settle for someone with potential.

    Most of my friends are programmers, and I would hate that job. Some are engineers, and my mom’s a nurse. I like academia, especially the social and natural sciences and education.

    I’ve started joining professional societies and going to conferences to make myself known, but so far when people find out I’m still looking for a job in their field, their eyes glaze over because I am not someone they can talk to already to get new perspectives on their concerns.

    I need to volunteer more, so they can see me in action, but I’m still looking for a local organization. So far I’ve only found national and state-wide organizations with very few members from my area. And I don’t want to move away to get my next job.

  9. Amy says:

    I strongly disagree with your advice to be humble. Sure, don’t be arrogant or rude, but I think it’s really important to remember that you’re essentially offering something that you’re asking an employer to pay five figures or more for over the course of a year. I think the best way to look at the first interview is a conversation where the two of you will mutually discover whether or not there’s a potential fit between their needs and your skills.

    So far as salary goes, I think the best way to look at things is to consider total compensation. What are you getting out of the job? Are the benefits stellar? Are the hours flexible? Has the company invested significant resources in making the work environment comfortable and welcoming? (I once made a pro/con chart where I valued the presence of huge windows with a fantastic view in the office at $1000/year in salary.) Are there strong opportunities for on-the-job learning or upward mobility? Are the hours shorter?

    Bottom line is that your total compensation should reflect your value to the company. A lesser compensation package suggests that you’re not as valuable to them as you might be to another employer, and that’s not a recipe for happiness in a job.

  10. rebecca says:

    I suppose this advice is okay for the corporate world.
    All my jobs have been in government positions (schools/libraries) where there is no salary negotiation — all salaries on an a set scale that is public record.
    Also the advice on asking questions at the interview/engaging in conversation wouldn’t work either if you want a government job. The interview panel (I currently work for a city dept.) has a set of questions they must ask each candidate, and they are not allowed to deviate from their script.
    It’s all in the name of accountability and making sure there is no evidence of favoritism or discrimination, but it makes for some pretty dull interviews.

  11. Chad says:

    I think there are a couple of key questions about the 20k less.
    how frugal are you living?
    How quickly/ slowly will this get you to be financial independent?

    I find that if you don’t have a long term plan, getting the 20k more per year will just turn into expenses as your standard of living grows (with new cars/clothes/eating out) until it meets that 20k extra.

    Again if you are struggling to meet ends then salary negotiation is always the sticky point in the job interview since doing it well means that you have breathing room while just saying ok means you have to keep struggling.

    On the plus side as long as your job is in somewhat of a demand you can get a good jump in pay by switching locations and using your experience as a plus. Just be careful about getting into golden handcuffs. (the case where you are paid more than the average for your skills since if you get laid off you are looking at a drop in pay and lifestyle)

  12. miguel says:

    I switched jobs a little while ago, and even though the offer was less than I expected. I didn’t even bother to counter offer, I just took it because. 1) The position has a huge potential for growth. It’s at a company that is an industry leader and is growing, while my old company was effectively dieing a slow death. 2) I’d save about 200 a month on gas, and parking compared to my old job. So I’d have lower costs just getting to work.

    After making the change, I find myself much much happier and having more cash in my pockets.

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