By Alice Rush
As a nationally certified career counselor and advisor at University of Phoenix (UOPX), I am often asked, "How do I break into a new career when I don’t have any previous experience in a profession-only education?" or, "How do I get a job when every entry-level job requires experience?" My answer to both questions is, "Find your leverage."
From a career standpoint, leverage refers to the background, skills, experiences and insights you bring as value to a employer. Even if you’ve never worked anywhere, you still have leverage based on your individual life experience.
Maybe your family was in the military, and you traveled the world and developed cultural sensitivity that would be valuable to an international company, for example.
When making a career change, it’s important to consider what makes you unique based on your background. Ask yourself, "What can I leverage as a ‘value add’ in the job market based on the industries or functions I’ve worked in?"
Look at all of your work history, even if it’s babysitting, fast food service or volunteer work at a church. It’s all valuable when considering leverage. Those summer jobs over the years at department stores, for example, gave you retail experience. You learned how to work with diverse personalities while serving the general public. You gained customer service and conflict-resolution skills, all of which can be leveraged to provide value to your next employer regardless of industry.
In career advising, we call these "transferable skills" because they transfer into multiple environments.
Now, let’s say you have a retail background and an information technology (IT) degree. Your customer service experience in retail would provide leverage functionally (you could work in IT support, which requires patience and customer-service skills) or industry-wise (you could work in e-commerce). This way you could leverage your retail experience and your college education in technology.
Other examples of leverage could include a warehouse job, which would give you valuable supply-chain knowledge and experience. You could put this supply-chain knowledge to work in multiple fields, including manufacturing, the food-and-beverage industry and hospitals.
I once had a client who had experience in hospitality, but his degree was in healthcare administration. He felt defeated before starting his job search because, as he said, "I don’t have any experience in healthcare. I don’t know how I’m going to get a job."
His leverage was his hospitality background. Have you noticed the word hospital is within the word hospitality? It’s where you go for people to take care of you. Concierge skills, anybody?
To put it another way, if you were sick, wouldn’t you want to go to a hospital whose patient care experience manager had 10 years experience at a five-star hotel? I know I would. That’s leverage.
So how do you begin understanding your own leverage? I recommend conducting an accomplishment inventory. Take some quiet time away from everyone, and then brainstorm all of your major jobs and personal or volunteer activities over the past 10 years.
After you have a list, write down next to each experience what type of role it most relates to. This is essentially thinking about your leverage from a functional standpoint. What jobs have you had, even if you’re still in school and your only jobs have been as a classroom monitor or crosswalk guard? Maybe you have a passion for control and order, and working as an intern at the local police department could be an interest area of leverage.
What volunteer jobs have you had? Maybe you taught Bible study at church and now you want to tutor.
Let’s also go back to babysitting. Jobs that align to this type of role include being a preschool teacher, working in daycare, being a K-8 teacher and working as a recreation manager. If you took the kids swimming, you could perhaps translate that to being a lifeguard. You get the idea.
Next, think about your industry experience. Which industries could that babysitting job relate to? Early childhood education and social work come to mind, where you could foster children’s growth and development and ensure their safety and well-being.
Your background might relate to something else too. If you’ve worked in-home care or elder care, that experience relates to healthcare, education, human services, hospitality, teaching and tutoring.
Now, think about what skills you have that translate to other career fields. The best way to do this is to take a skills inventory: Think about all the subjects and courses you’ve taken in school. What did you excel in?
If psychology was your favorite class, then you most likely have skills in understanding people, which can translate into sales careers, human resources and recruiting.
If you loved math in school, then problem-solving and critical thinking are probably strong skills you can leverage. In that case, you may want to consider jobs requiring problem-solving skills such as a paid internship in information technology or data analytics.
If you need help identifying the skills you’ve picked up while working in retail, food service or warehouse work, there are online resources where, by typing your job role in the search bar, you will find pages of skills that align with that job and that will relate to other careers you may be pursuing.
If you are tempted to disregard your experience as valuable, think again. According to O*Net OnLine, the skills developed while working in retail include customer and personal service; administration and management; sales and marketing; active listening; service orientation; coordination; critical thinking; performing for or working directly with the public; training and teaching others; making decisions and solving problems; coaching and developing others; resolving conflicts; and negotiating.
Handling complaints, settling disputes and resolving conflicts (or simply negotiating) are all valuable transferable skills.
These exercises will give you a clearer idea of how to tell your story to employers from the perspectives of industry, function and transferable skills.
Understanding your leverage will also provide insight into your personal brand. And, like leverage, that's one more way to stand out in the job market.
Need help building your personal brand? Check out our 5 tips and downloadable step-by-step guide.
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