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Lesson for Recruiters: Take a Chance on Nontraditional Candidates

A panel of job seekers talks about career transformation

A group of people sitting on stools at a conference.
​Panelists speaking at Indeed Interactive 2019.

​AUSTIN, Texas—"If they'd just give me a chance" is a refrain common to job seekers everywhere, but especially for nontraditional candidates making a career transition between two disparate industries or occupations.   

Recruiters often don't take the time to get to know the stories of candidates whose work experiences, education and skills don't fit inside preconceived parameters.

"We hear a lot these days about storytelling and employer brand helping to sell the company by getting people to identify with it," said J.T. O'Donnell, founder and CEO of career management site Work It Daily, based in Hampton, N.H. "Storytelling creates a connection. But think about it from the other side: Does a resume tell a story? That's the big challenge job seekers are facing."

Speakers at Indeed Interactive 2019, a conference for recruiting professionals held May 13-15, shared their experiences transitioning from one career to another and urged talent acquisition professionals to be more open-minded when reviewing resumes so they don't miss out on enthusiastic, diverse hires.

For example, Kevin Fitzpatrick was an assembly line worker with General Motors for 10 years. The automaker was the main employer in his hometown of Flint, Mich., for decades, but plants started closing in the 2000s.

"I saw the writing on the wall," he said. After being transferred a few times and told he would probably have to relocate out of state to stay employed with the company, Fitzpatrick began researching new careers.

"Everything I found was in health care," he said. "I come from a line of nurses—my grandmother and mother were nurses, aunts, sister-in-law. I thought I could do that. So I took a buyout and went to school for nursing."

He's now been a registered nurse for nine years at Hurley Medical Center in Flint.

"One of the hardest things for job seekers is identifying transferable skills, regardless of the occupation, and figuring out how to sell that match to recruiters," O'Donnell said.

Fitzpatrick found that working on an assembly line and adhering to a precise process prepared him for the work he encountered in the hospital emergency room. Humor—another attribute that served him well during the monotony of line work—has helped him and his colleagues cope with the unpredictable and difficult situations that come through the door at Hurley.  

Lauren Rigney, a licensed mental health counselor in New York City, used to coach Division 1 college basketball. A former athlete and psychology major, she realized one day that she wanted to be a counselor.

"I thought becoming a counselor would be an obvious transfer, but no one else saw it," she said. "The transferable skills of coaching and motivating didn't come across in a resume as much as I wished. Coaching taught me how to be in the presence of a person [and] help them reach the goals they set for themselves. I learned how to use different teaching concepts, how to relate to people, and sit with them one-on-one when they're having a hard time."

Carrie Browde graduated with a degree in literature and "got a weird part-time job doing children's birthday parties" costumed as a fairy. She eventually took on a variety of operations duties at an entertainment company for small children.

"I loved it, but after a while I realized there was no more room to grow," she said.

But Browde was going through a crisis of confidence. "I was terrified to leave, because I didn't think of myself as someone with skills outside of children's entertainment," she said.

After being hired at Looker as the software company's receptionist, she realized that her customer-facing experience aligned well with her new role. But more importantly, she was hired for her culture fit.

"I can't say enough about the fact that someone took a chance on me and saw my skills for what they were, even if they didn't match up perfectly with what was wanted," she said. "A person can be trained on technical skills, but culture fit is untrainable."

She advised companies to have a clear image of what they are hiring for culturally and take that into account. "Give more weight to someone who is on brand, who gets your message, who wants to work for you and not your competitor," she said.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based neurotechnology company Inscopix took a chance on Vay Cao, a former academic researcher in neuroscience, when it hired her for a sales manager position. "I was one of those Ph.D. holders who are super passionate, really want to innovate and discover new things, but there are not enough faculty jobs out there," she said.

She started sending applications for jobs in the corporate world, although she felt like her academic background stigmatized her as being overqualified and that her profile didn't match anything outside academia and research. But her resume didn't explicitly reflect who she was or what she could bring to the table.

"Research-trained academics have had to spend many years figuring out solutions to problems with little guidance," she said. "If you give one of these people a chance, you will find that they tend to be tenacious, persistent and not afraid of new challenges. They learn quickly how to translate their knowledge to other people and how to figure out a process. Every single organization has processes that need to be created and problems that need to be solved and could benefit from someone with a data-driven mindset."

Rigney said that hiring someone with a nontraditional background will bring a diverse perspective to the organization. "If someone is leaving one career for another, they are bringing a lot of excitement and energy to that new career," she said.

The panelists agreed that people in career transition will, if given an opportunity, be loyal and committed employees.

[SHRM members-only platform: SHRM Connect]

Tips for Recruiters

O'Donnell encouraged recruiters to give applicants a chance to tell their stories by asking for cover letters, or by using prerecorded video interviews or short questionnaires with essay-question prompts. Pay attention to people who have articulated how they connect to the company's mission, she said.

Browde said that employers need to change the way they think about diversity. "We think about racial and gender diversity, but there's also socioeconomic diversity and age diversity. Broaden your concept of what diversity means," she said.   

Rigney advised HR to make changes to the hiring process. "Designate a percentage of the resumes you pull for career changers or other nontraditional candidates. If it's not built into the processes, people tend to go toward their bias and continue to hire as before."


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