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Read Between the (job ad) Lines

by Carolyn Heinze, Contributing Editor

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As many job seekers learn, looking for employment can become a full-time job. With writing resumes, researching companies, networking, flipping through the career sections of newspapers and magazines, and trolling the Internet, one can quickly spend the better part of a day deciding which postings best suit one's needs, goals and qualifications. Applying for every job is both counter-productive and, with all of the resources out there, simply impossible. This necessitates a strategic approach to analyzing the ads.

Pat Goodwin, career coach at Pat Goodwin Associates in Austin, Texas, notes that before job seekers can analyze the advertised positions, they need to have a precise understanding of their skills, areas of expertise and career goals. "If they are clear on their career's direction, they will be more in sync with what they are looking for," she says.

Arguably the most popular resource for job seekers today is the Web. Peter Weddle, HR consultant at Weddle's in Stamford, Conn., and author of the self-published 2009/10 Guide to Employment Sites on the Internet, notes that there are approximately 50,000 Web-based job sites in North America alone. The key to using these resources effectively, he says, is to be a good consumer. "You want to find those four or five sites that best target your profession, craft or trade, your industry, your years of experience and your employment objective," he explains. The more specific your criteria, the more likely you will find the appropriate employment opportunities.

Most Internet postings list job titles only, requiring the viewer to click through for more details. The time-conscious job seeker must be skillful when it comes to interpreting these titles and these titles can be as varied as the companies themselves. "The title will tell you, in most cases, about the seniority of the position," Weddle says. In many instances, it will also detail the job's location. There are also a number of subtleties. For example, if an employer uses bureaucratic language like Legal Secretary 6 or Logistics Specialist Admin Type 2, then you already know something about the organization's culture. "On the other hand, if the title makes an effort to reach out and convey a certain personality, a certain voice for the organization that touches someone in a more human way, that also says something about the culture that may make it an organization where you might have more opportunity to advance yourself."

In Weddle's view, all ads should be designed to provide job seekers with the data they need to make an informed decision. If not or if it is difficult to discern what the position entails, he cautions against applying for that job.

The current economic environment has caused many companies to reduce workforces and corporate structure and this has expanded the available talent pool. "You need to be very focused, and you need to be cognizant of the fact that there are so many people applying for jobs right now that you need to narrow your search to apply for jobs that you are qualified for, and after researching the company, you feel that there is a better than average chance of receiving a call back," Goodwin says. She advises that if you meet at least 70 percent of the requirements, then you should respond to that ad.

Weddle, however, takes a harder line. He believes that employers today are not just looking for qualified people but rather are going to hire the most qualified people, making the fulfillment of the requirements associated with both education and experience that much more crucial. "You're wasting your time if you ignore the requirements," he emphasizes. "In fact, if you don't exceed the requirements, you are probably wasting your time." The trick, he adds, is focusing on a fewer number of jobs for which you have a real competitive advantage.

Goodwin offers a bit of hope, however. "Oftentimes, a company will post an ad and make the qualifications so tough that it's really their wish list," she notes. And, in many cases, employers are not entirely certain on exactly what type of person they want to hire, and through the interview process, their requirements start to change.

Regardless, it is important for job seekers to approach postings from a position of control, and from a mindset that emphasizes career advancement, whether it is in that particular organization or one for which you will work down the road. "We need to be taking responsibility for managing our own careers and finding those positions in which we can excel, because that's the way that we keep our careers moving forward," Weddle says.

Carolyn Heinze ( is a freelance writer/editor.


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