Spin a Career Change in Your Favor During an Interview

There’s a pervasive and convincing lie circulating through colleges and workplaces everywhere: You get an education in a certain field (formal or otherwise) and then work in that field until you retire or collapse on your desk one day.

Unfortunately, this belief causes a lot of distress for people who desire a career change. They believe they’ve invested their resources in a certain area, and shifting to a new field means starting from scratch. Yes, this process often does mean backtracking at least a bit. But it’s not like you revert to being a newborn. Making a change simply means applying your knowledge and experience to a new area and filling in the gaps as needed.

Thankfully, landing an interview means you succeeded in selling your experience on paper, so you’re well on your way in the career-changing transition process. Now, your job is to help an employer see the value that your experience will bring to the team. Read on to see how you can do exactly that.

Play Up Similar Skills

Here’s the good news about switching careers: It’s not a hard reset. You won't need to work your way up from an entry-level position all over again. During your original career, you gained valuable experience and knowledge that you’ll bring to any new role. Your former field may have more in common with your new industry than you thought.

Before your interview, list out the skills you used in previous jobs that'll be relevant in your new career. Review the job description, and consider where you have applicable experience. During the interview, sell these transferable skills, giving lots of specific examples. Soft skills, in particular, often carry over from one career to the next.

Also, look for ways the two careers have overall similarities. If you’ve managed a construction crew, for instance, you’ll want to put the focus on your management skills (delivering on time, communicating projects, etc.) during interviews (and not on your construction know-how). Or, if you’re moving from retail to food services, you can focus on your strong customer service background.

Know Your Value and Use Examples to Show It

If you’re going to convince a new employer you’re the best candidate for a job, you have to believe in yourself first. When you value yourself, you start to describe your work history and experience in another language. Start by writing out everything you do, in detail. Include all of your tasks and your accomplishments. This will help you to see your experience in a fluid way that can apply to many settings. You weren’t a “customer service representative” - you were someone who “assisted customers with orders, promoted new products and services, and addressed customer complaints professionally.” Learn to spin your past positions in this way, and you’ll find it much easier to explain how your work history lends itself to the transition you’re seeking.

Examples paint a picture of your experience and abilities for an employer, versus answering questions with a hypothetical, “Well in that situation, I think I would...” With a career change, in particular, examples help an employer understand how your experience fits into a new role.

So when asked about working with customers, for example, incorporate an anecdote about your interactions with people from your current or previous jobs, even if those people weren’t customers, per se. Then, explain how you would put that experience to work in your new role.

The skills you used to manage conflict with a co-worker or to explain a difficult concept to management are the same ones you would use with customers, after all. If asked about problem-solving, talk about a time you actually worked through a conundrum, or came up with an innovative solution. Even if the industry was entirely different, the ability to think critically and problem-solve speaks volumes of your competence level. When you provide examples, an employer knows you’ve actually done the things you’re claiming, and that ought to give you a leg up in the interview process.

Don’t Show Up Empty-Handed

Go out of your way to show an employer—literally—that you’re capable of taking on this new role by bringing evidence with you. This might include sample work, training certificates, or a mock grant proposal, marketing plan, or something else that makes your abilities concrete. Are you shifting into a writing-heavy field like communications or journalism? Bring writing samples. It’s OK if you haven’t written a news story; a well-written annual report still demonstrates your mastery of language and ability to weave complex details into a coherent whole.

Are you transitioning from a non-tech field into a job that requires programming? Bring training certificates for those online courses you took. If you didn’t submit a link to an online portfolio before the interview, bring a tablet so you can show the potential employer samples of your work.

If you don’t have the exact “evidence” that an employer is looking for, create it. you can develop samples that demonstrate your abilities. Applying to teach, but have no formal teaching experience? Create a syllabus and lesson plans based on what you plan to do in the role. Eyeing a graphic design job though you boast little real-life experience? Put together some sample products for the company you are applying to. Going after a position that requires lots of public speaking and outreach? Upload some short videos of you delivering a brief but powerful message. Think creatively about how you can show an employer your value based on your past accomplishments.

Get Comfortable With Imperfection

It’s OK to admit you don’t know everything and that you don’t meet every qualification. Very few job candidates meet every single criterion of any given job. It’s okay to acknowledge the gap, but remind your potential employer of some other experience that will help you minimize the gap. And be confident when you answer these hardballs. If you sound afraid of tackling a new role, why would a new boss feel good about hiring you?

Maybe you work as an engineer, but you want to move into a managerial role and you don’t have budget experience, for example. Guess what? Engineering requires some of the same skills as managing departmental numbers. So you can say, “While I do lack budget experience, I’m excited about getting up to speed with that work immediately. Of course, my current role requires exacting attention to detail and the same mathematical proficiency that I will need to manage a budget. So although there will be an initial adjustment, I imagine it’s something I can pick up quickly based on my current skills.”

Prepare for “The Question”

Don’t wait until you’re in front of your interviewer to consider how to explain the reason for your career change, because, make no mistake, you will be asked this weighted question. Plan ahead, and practice your response so you aren’t trying to articulate it aloud for the first time in an important interview.

People make this decision for a wide variety of reasons. Whatever your motivation, leave any associated baggage at home. Again, it’s OK to briefly acknowledge that circumstances are less than perfect. Maybe you were laid off or you arrived at the realization that the field you’ve been working in isn’t one you want to stay in for the rest of your life. Keep it simple, positive, and future-oriented. “I feel like I have done a lot of great work over the past three years in [name of the industry]. But, I’ve reached a point in my life where I feel like it’s time to move on. I’m ready for a different kind of challenge.” From there, you can segue into how you plan to make your current skills and experiences work in your new career.

Try to frame your move as being logical—develop a narrative that conveys why you’re making this career move. Your goal is to convey that you are not flighty, and will not seek to switch careers again. Employers are eager to hire candidates who will stick around.

Put the emphasis again on the qualities that are similar between the roles, and share what makes you feel excited and enthusiastic about your new career. Be careful to avoid being overly negative about your previous career. It's fine to say that an industry is shrinking, or you feel there's a lack of available opportunities, but don't harp on the negative aspects.

Have a Plan for Gaining New Skills

While soft skills can often transfer, you may not have some of the hard skills or job-specific skills needed in the new role. It will likely come up in your interview, so make sure you can address how you'll ramp up and gain this experience, whether by taking a class, finding a mentor, or researching online.

You can also consider implementing plans to gain knowledge and expertise even before you have the job. For instance, if your new field requires a basic knowledge of HTML or the ability to copy edit documents, you can enroll in a class. Then, if it comes up in the interview, you can say you’re already taking a class to improve your knowledge, which will make you seem proactive and invested in your new path.

One cautionary note: It's better to be straightforward about areas where you do not have experience than to be vague or obfuscate. And never, ever be dishonest — that'll only lead to unpleasant revelations when you do get the job. Keep in mind: No job candidate will have all the skills and experience required for a job. So it's fine to have some gaps.

Showcase Your Flexibility

Not everyone deals with change well. Companies will only take a chance on some new to the field if they're confident the candidate can adapt to new workflows, priorities, and responsibilities. During the interview, make it clear that you’re comfortable with change by showcasing moments when you’ve dealt with unexpected adjustments, such as a new boss, changes in your job description, or even just moments when you’ve handled problems on the fly.

Point Out Any Advantages of Your Old Career Path

It could very well be the case that your previous career offers benefits to your new career in the form of insider information or a helpful network of connections. For instance, if you switch from a client-side role to a vendor role, you’ll be able to share insights with your new employer on what exactly clients are looking for. If you’ve moved from content to publicity, you might be able to share a contact list of writers and editors to promote a product, or might have insight into what pitches will be best received.

Your “Irrelevant” Experiences Make You Multi-Dimensional and Interesting

Your “irrelevant” experience can and should be used as a selling point, not as something that would deter an employer from hiring you.

Companies are not looking for people who can only do one thing. They don’t want to talk to a bland cardboard cutout who isn’t willing to take risks and do something a little unconventional. The unique value of your previous odd jobs can make you stand out amongst all the other applicants who played it safe.

Your previous jobs as a part-time dental assistant or a construction worker or a traveling circus performer are only as useless as you allow them to be. Each of your experiences have molded you into the type of worker you are. When approaching a job interview, talk about your jobs, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem, as if they’re something you’re proud of.

Identifying and Selling Your Strengths In An Interview

If you’re struggling to brainstorm your top strengths and skills in the workplace, here are some questions to consider the next time you’re at work:

  • What am I better at than everyone else at this job?

  • When do I feel most in my element?

  • What am I doing every day to help the business?

  • What am I most likely to be praised for?

  • What have I learned while working here?

Don’t assume you have too little to offer to land an opportunity. Don’t spend time looking at all the ways in which your previous jobs are too different or irrelevant. Look for the similarities that make you hirable. Write down as many as you can and think about how you can use them as selling points.

Working in retail teaches you patience. Becoming a freelancer requires time management. Repairing computers requires problem-solving. Design demands creativity. Being a factory worker helps you conquer monotonous, repetitive tasks. Door-to-door sales build thick skin. Being a writer requires discipline and attention to detail. Digging ditches requires mental strength and resilience.

Career pivoting or breaking into the professional world for the first time can be a much less painful process with the right attitude. If you can show an interviewer that you’re a creative force in your professional life and you don’t view your jobs as limitations, but as learning opportunities and tools for self-expression, they’ll be much more interested in working with you.

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