Career Doctor: Getting the Needed Skills

By Katherine Spencer Lee | June 2008


I graduated from college recently with a degree in database technology. I’m currently unemployed and seeking a career as a database administrator. I’ve applied for several IT positions for which I feel I’m qualified, but the responses all say that I have the necessary skills, but not the experience. What can I do? I need experience to get a job in the IT field, but I need an IT job to get the experience.

Katherine Spencer Lee responds:
If you’re like most college graduates entering the IT field, you want to turn your hard-earned degree into a rewarding position. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to entirely avoid the familiar catch-22 of  "needing experience to get experience." But there are several ways to prevent it from delaying the launch of your career for too long. These strategies apply not only to recent graduates, but also to those entering IT from a different field or simply switching specialties.

Keep It Real
Some entry-level job candidates try to get around the experience dilemma by fabricating or exaggerating their on-the-job experience. Resist this temptation. Employers routinely perform background and reference checks on prospective employees and even a minor embellishment can disqualify you.

Dishonesty can be damaging even if you don¿t get caught. Being honest about your qualifications is a necessary step toward developing more realistic expectations and matching yourself with a position that truly fits you. Instead of stretching the truth, tailor your resume and cover letter to the specific requirements of each job.

Internships and Volunteering
Many companies provide internships that may lead to full-time job offers. When considering an internship, don’t hesitate to ask the employer about its track record of hiring former interns. While you should look for assignments that match your areas of interest, don’t discount the value of simply getting your foot in the door with a reputable employer.

Volunteer opportunities are often overlooked by IT job candidates, but they can be an excellent way to gain the hands-on experience employers want. Your database skills might be of great use to large nonprofit organizations and educational institutions, but even an opportunity less tailor-made to your specialty may be a valuable investment.          

Also consider registering with an IT staffing firm for project-based or part-time work. You may not receive as many assignments as more experienced professionals, but the ones you do secure can still be valuable. A staffing firm may also provide free career guidance and training opportunities and other essential benefits for recent graduates.

Start Building Your Network
An effective way to circumvent the experience trap is also one of the most important activities for long-term career growth: building your network. As a recent graduate, you probably have at least the foundations of a network in place. Start building it by getting in touch with former classmates who’ve entered the workforce (in IT as well as other fields) along with former instructors.

You never know where you’ll find someone who can provide a recommendation that gets you past an employer’s stated experience requirements. Expand your contact base by participating in IT-related conferences and seminars. Join your university’s alumni association, which may host career fairs and networking events where you can connect with past graduates.

Don’t Stop Learning
Although your difficulty may appear to stem entirely from a lack of experience, the decision to offer a candidate an interview isn’t usually so simple. Most hiring decisions are based on a multitude of factors rather than a single strength or weakness. Even if skills are your main strength, it wouldn’t hurt to bolster them with some additional training.

More education may feel like the last thing you want to pursue right now, but broadening your skills can open up more opportunities. A relevant certification, while no guarantee of an offer, may tip the scales in your favor with some employers. More importantly, additional training and education can help you establish the habit of continuous learning, essential fuel for IT success.

Your Dream Job Can Wait
Your database technology degree suggests that you may already have a career path at least partially mapped out. That’s admirable, but it might be more important for you to get started in the IT field than to find a position that perfectly matches the one you’ve envisioned. Considering a wider range of positions isn’t about lowering your standards - it’s about letting go of unrealistic expectations that can hinder your career.

An initially less attractive position might ultimately hold a wealth of advancement opportunities. A help desk job, for example, may not take direct advantage of your expertise, but at the right employer, it can put you within reach of a wide range of more rewarding positions, including some that do draw upon your degree.

Very few successful IT professionals could have predicted their career paths at the outset, and many of them spent years in the field before discovering the specialty they enjoyed the most. If you approach your career strategically, honestly and patiently, you may soon achieve a position much like the one you’ve imagined. But as long as you remain open to other possibilities, you might also find yourself headed in an even more rewarding direction.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia

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