They say variety is the spice of life—but it can be downright poisonous to your career path. Maybe it took you a while to figure out your passion, so you dabbled in this and that. Perhaps you made a few detours in light of the tough job market. Or maybe you’re one of the millions of people juggling distinct part-time gigs rather than one full-time role.
Exploring different options can work in your favor because it broadens your experience and exposes you to a variety of fields. Problem is, when you apply for a position you really want that speaks to your skill set and professional goals, hiring managers might pass you up in favor of candidates who took a more linear route.
Career experts are seeing an increase in jack-of-all-trades job hunters, something they attribute to a couple of different factors. “Because of all the layoffs during the recession, workers were forced to take jobs they didn’t really want that might not have been the best fit,” says Hannah Morgan, career strategist at Career Sherpa. The go-getter spirit of the Millennial generation also comes into play. If Millennials don’t receive promotions as quickly as they’d like, they tend to move on to a more desirable position, says Morgan, even if it’s not exactly on their career trajectory.
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Yet despite all the job hopefuls with generalist backgrounds, employers are increasingly seeking candidates who have specialized expertise. Since there’s no longer an expectation of lifetime employment with a single company, many companies aren't committed to developing and training employees, Morgan says. “They know someone is out there who has the exact skills they want, and it makes their lives easier not to train them," she says.
If your resume features some seemingly unconnected positions, the trick is to weave them together into a cohesive narrative that assures employers you possess the skills they’re after and gets them excited about hiring you. Here are strategies that can help you do just that—so you can transform your job-hopper history from a liability to an advantage.
Spin Your Brand
Take a hard look at where you’ve been career-wise and where you want to go. Then begin painting a picture for hiring managers that explains why your job history actually has been a logical progression, although your path has been circuitous. For example, you had one job in marketing and another in accounting because ultimately you want to manage a company, and you sought experience in both departments to round out your knowledge.
Once you bridge each job to the next, make light of the benefits of having a generalist background. Rather than something to play down, you recast it as a marketable skill. “Let’s say an employer wants someone who comes up to speed quickly,” Morgan says. “A job-hopper has done that.” In your resume and cover letter, brand yourself as someone who makes a fast impact in the workplace.
In addition, “generalists can provide a broad perspective to the business, which can be very valuable,” says Sharlyn Lauby, an author, speaker and president of consulting firm ITM Group. “But organizations still need generalists to produce—so make sure your resume can show specific results, and quantify them whenever possible.” Including a line like, “mastered new operating procedures and increased efficiency by 15% within 3 months,” highlights how you’ve made a speedy, measurable improvement.
Without those details, your resume could send the wrong message. “If you are not specific about your contributions in each role on your resume, some readers may assume the reason you keep moving from job to job is that you aren't succeeding or you don't know what you want to do," says Miriam Salpeter, owner of Keppie Careers. “Instead of just creating a laundry list of the tasks you’ve done in each role, incorporate detailed explanations of skills you used and outline your accomplishments.”
She suggests reading through your resume, and for every item listed, ask yourself, “So what?” Your bullet points should bring to light explicit, ideally quantifiable outcomes that you’ve achieved.
Tie Things Together
Remember that recruiters get dozens of job applications daily, and if they don’t immediately see that you fit the description of the employee they’re looking for, they may move on. “Candidates need to help recruiters help them,” Lauby says. Your resume and cover letter need to make connections that tell the complete story.”
The best way to do that is to tailor your resume and cover letter to fit the job description. Many job hunters simply skim the company’s posting, slightly tweak their resume accordingly and shoot it off to HR. But if you want to set the hiring manager’s mind at ease about your wide-ranging history, don’t gloss over this crucial piece of info. “The job description explains point-blank what the employer is looking for,” Morgan says. “What you talk about on your resume has to match up exactly.”
Of course, we aren’t suggesting that you regurgitate the same language used in the description; instead, include a separate, concrete example from your experience that speaks to each requirement. For instance, Morgan suggests that if the job posting mentions that the candidate must be able to generate new business, one of the bullet points on your resume should touch on a moment when you did precisely that.
The looser the connection, the more creative thinking required on your part—e.g., you developed outreach to a new community or improved customer relations with a key client, leading them to recommend your services to others. “It's possible you have a very similar experience in a different industry,” Morgan says. The goal is to find a common point of intersection between your past and the position you're applying for.
Take Advantage of Your Interview Time
If you have the sense that your work history might be problematic for the employer you’re meeting with, it’s a good idea to address it. “Know what your elephants in the room are,” Morgan says.
When asked about your experience and qualifications, explain how your past jobs have taught you to use the particular skills that the hiring manager is looking for. For example, your tech skills are top-notch because job-hopping forced you to quickly master many programs. Acclimating to different work environments has polished your team-building and collaboration smarts, which helped enhance the business. Clarify that you moved around because you naturally seek challenges and the opportunity to make a measurable impact. “Say, 'I was looking for a greater challenge in the workplace, so I moved on to find that challenge and make an impact more quickly,' ” Morgan suggests.
If the employer directly asks about your short-term track record, it could be a sign that she worries you might jump ship if you join her team. “Emphasize that you contribute your utmost in every job,” Salpeter says. “Then elaborate on the skills you’ll bring to her organization, why you’re so excited about the position and how well prepared you are to contribute on day one.”
Lean In to Social Media
Pay close attention to the summary portion of LinkedIn, where you can clarify your top skills as well as the direction you hope to head in career-wise before employers even get to the actual resume listing your experience. Salpeter suggests phrasing things in a way that sets you up as a challenge-seeker who gets results fast. Eliminate doubt about your commitment to the job by saying something like, “I’ve had the opportunity to use xyz expertise to accomplish [fill in the blank] in various roles over the past several years. Working in different environments kept my skills sharp and allowed me to stay on the cutting-edge. As a result, my employers see that I’m able to accomplish more in a short period of time than many people who have been at the organization long-term. I’m always continuing to learn, and hope to work for a company that will allow me to grow and contribute at increasing levels over time.”
Social media can also help foster the impression of commitment—something that a too-broad background might imply you’re lacking. “Use your Twitter feed or actively participate in a LinkedIn group to demonstrate your professional know-how and interest,” Salpeter says. “Consistently sharing insights, articles and resources with people shows that you’re well informed about the field and you follow it closely.”
Once you put all these techniques in play, hiring managers should be able to clearly understand the rationale behind your all-over-the-map job choices and see how they fit naturally together. You’ll be perceived as perhaps an even more powerful candidate than someone who’s climbed the ladder with laser-like focus.