Thursday, April 24, 2014

What you know, or who you know? Both!

If you're not in the military, and haven't been, but you have been watching the news lately, you might be surprised to learn that the US armed forces don't just pat you on the back and wave you out the door when your service ends. There's actually a rather robust (some might say intrusive) series of classes that are given -- some optional, some mandatory -- to help prepare us for life in the free-for-all world of civilian life. We get counseling on how to prepare a budget, how to look for life insurance, and all sorts of other things.

But for us, the best part was the employment seminar. When we first heard of this, it was explained as, "well, they'll help you write a resume, and show you how to contact job banks, and that sort of thing."

Oh, no. That description does this seminar the gravest of injustices. Yes, we learned about resumes. Remember, we've been in the military, many of us for all of our adult lives. We've never had to so much as read a resume, let alone write one. But there was so much more. We learned about veterans' preferences. We learned about how to talk like a civilian, not like an Airman in civilian clothes. And yes, we learned about job banks, and veteran's assistance bureaus, and how to get a leg up when applying for a federal job.

But the two most valuable things we learned were these two (apparently contradictory) things:

  • It really is as much "who you know" as "what you know"
  • If you don't know "what you know," it doesn't matter "who you know."
So how do we resolve this? This is where Bill comes in. 

Bill Warren is a Transition Facilitator, contracted by the US Department of Labor to run employment workshops for the US military. He proclaims that this is his dream job, and sitting in the room with him for three days, I have no reason to doubt it. 

The first question Bill asked us was, "How many of you have a LinkedIn account?" He went on to explain, with data, charts, and graphs, that most employment decisions were made because someone knew the applicant. Referrals work because the company has already vetted you - through your contact. It might not be a deep investigation, but it's enough to make the difference.

He also told us that just the size of our LinkedIn network can be a factor. If a company wants a sales rep, don't you think they're going to want someone with contacts? Of course they are.

Now, there are lots of websites out there that will tell you how best to use LinkedIn, and I'll leave it to you to find the one that fits with your particular job search. But Susie and I spent a couple of hours that night refining our LinkedIn profiles. (Want to see mine? There's a link to it over on the right!) I looked at my tiny 12-person network, and started adding. All my coworkers. All my friends. Everyone I knew on Facebook. People I hadn't spoken to in years. (Side benefit: I got in touch with some old friends!) And my network grew. It's only about 100 or so now, but it's getting bigger. I'm connected to everyone that my connections are connected to. And I joined groups. I posted some things in the groups. And I found out that LinkedIn works. And that's ME talking, not Bill. I'll explain in a moment.

The second bullet above may seem, well, philosophical, but bear with me. I've spent 20 years in the Air Force. I've been a Cryptologic Linguist (by one name or another) the entire time. That means the Air Force pays me to learn and speak foreign languages, to use that skill to analyze intelligence, and to report that intelligence to the people who need it. How the heck can I do that in the civilian world?

Back to Bill. He reminded us that everything we did was made up of other things. Report intelligence? Writing! Analyze intelligence? Critical thinking! Foreign languages? Communication! No, you can't make things up, but if you're honest, you can find relevant experience everywhere, if you know where to look.

Nearly every job I'd ever done in the Air Force could be taken apart, massaged, and turned into a set of skills appropriate to, well, jobs I'd never even considered. Not just that, but jobs that I should consider, maybe even in completely different fields. New jobs, in new areas, because if ever there were a time to make a new start, this was it.

So I took my old performance reports, and all the things listed that I'd done over the years, and "civilianized" it. I thought about the kind of work I might like to do, and decided that I'd like to write. I targeted a resume, pointing out that my skills make me a great candidate for a position as a technical writer, and posted it on a job board.

Now, for the bit about how I know LinkedIn works. Susie and I started growing our networks in earnest on Thursday.  On Monday, one of Susie's connections passed her info on. Someone else saw her profile. By Wednesday evening, Susie had been offered one independent contractor job, been given a "there's a test you  have to take but it's mostly a formality for you and we can't wait to start working with you," and there's a full time telecommuting position that's still a strong possibility.

I received an offer from one of the groups I'd posted in. An unpaid volunteer opportunity, but, as Bill says, "it gets your foot in the door!" Two other contacts each separately suggested I contact another volunteer group and offered to be references. Oh, and I had an email from a recruiter, who saw my resume on the job board and wanted to know if I was interested in a job in Georgia -- which isn't a LinkedIn story, but it's still cool.

I would never have thought to do any of this if it hadn't been for Bill. His enthusiasm for the course and the information he had to offer, and his obvious caring for us and desire to see us succeed, made the difference.

I don't work for LinkedIn, and neither does Bill. But I'm here to tell you, if you're not starting there, you're missing a trick.

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