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Changing careers requires contacts, retooling resume


Job hunting is never easy. Even with the right experience and professional contacts, it can take months to land a coveted position.

So imagine the challenges when you're trying to break into a new career. Where do you begin your search? And how do you compete with more qualified candidates?

In this, the last in a series of columns on switching careers, we'll look at how to go after your dream job.

Don't kid yourself: You won't catapult to the top of your new field right away, even if you've made headway at your company.

"If you're making a complete career change, you have to be prepared to do your time at the bottom," said Alexandra Levit, author of They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A 20-Something's Guide to the Business World (Career Press, $14.99), who also writes a blog on

"Ambitious 20-somethings often feel they should be making a difference right away."

Yet employers want to see firm evidence that you're committed to their field - not just following a whim because you're bored.

And there's nothing like doing the least glamorous tasks (sometimes for little or no pay) to prove your devotion.

Here's how to get going:

Develop contacts

It is no secret that the easiest way to get a job is through a personal contact, someone who works in the industry and can clue you in to job openings or vouch for you.

You're probably familiar with networking, but you likely will have to think of a few new resources to change fields completely.

Start with the obvious - ask friends, family and alumni organizations for leads. If that fails, Levit recommends researching names and e-mail addresses on Web sites of companies in the industry.

Reaching out to a stranger might feel awkward. But you're not asking for a job, which can be off-putting when you're just introducing yourself. Instead, you're sending a quick and friendly e-mail asking for advice on how to get into an organization or field - information most people don't mind sharing.

Once you've started to build a relationship, then ask for more help: the names of other professionals to talk to and tips on job openings.

Build experience

You also can use your contacts for insight on how to gain experience.

One of the best ways is to offer to work for free. Are there any freelance projects you could do? Could you come in a few hours every week and shadow an employee?

If you're used to a comfortable salary, it might be a shock to volunteer your labor. Employers, however, will see it as tangible proof of your passion and interest. Once a company grows used to your help, it might hire you.

Retool your resume

Even if you're not offered a job, the experience will be a bonus on your resume, especially because your previous job (or jobs) may not be related to the career you're seeking.

In fact, your resume likely will require some major retooling.

Generally, you'll have to ditch the traditional format - listing your employment in reverse chronological order.

"When HR [human resources] managers do a quick scan of your resume, they will look at job titles," said Karen Hofferber, a senior resume writer for and co-author of The Career Change Resume (McGraw-Hill, $12.95). "If you're a career changer, your job title may not be relevant."

Instead, Hofferber recommends that you start your resume with a brief paragraph stating your career goals.

One career changer who wanted to get into sales opened with a line like this: "A software instructor uniquely qualified for computer-program sales."

Immediately afterward, give a brief career summary or succinct bullet points of your most relevant skills using keywords to attract an employer's eye.

"Keyword terms show you are up to speed on the latest industry lingo and also enables your resume to be found by employers doing an online search," Hofferber said.

You can find examples of common terms by reading job ads.

Finally, round out your resume with your experience and education, making sure to focus on the duties and accomplishments that would be most appealing to a new employer.

All of this may require persistence, fine-tuning and patience.

But for the right job, it's worth it.

Carolyn Bigda writes for Tribune Media Services.

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