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Marketing Yourself to Employers

You may not be looking for a career in sales, but as a job-seeker, you must invariably market your skills and abilities.

By John K. Borchardt

Job hunting is a sales process. You are trying to sell your knowledge, abilities and problem-solving skills to employers. Despite the help of mentors, networking contacts and recruiters, you are your own primary sales force. You can benefit from approaching your job hunt the same way successful marketers sell consumer products. They define their product, describe the benefits it provides, determine the market for these benefits, develop a marketing plan and utilize effective marketing channels and materials before closing the sale.

Define the Product

Just as successful marketers develop a clear, succinct definition of the consumer product they are selling, you need a brief, intriguing description of yourself. Tailor this description to the type of job you are looking for. You can use it as a summary statement near the top of your resume or in the first paragraph of your cover letter. This statement can also be the basis of your answer to the common interview request, "Tell me about yourself."

Describe the Benefits

Just as people buy products to accomplish tasks, such as a detergent to launder their clothes, companies look for new employees who can solve problems while working amicably with co-workers. Your resume and cover letter should provide examples of past accomplishments and detail your education sufficiently to persuade the employer that you can do this. Preparing concise anecdotes to use in your cover letter and during your employment interview can persuade the employer that you are an excellent problem solver with the skills the employer needs.

Ted Faleski, a sales manager with Shell Chemical Co. in Houston, notes, "Successful salespeople sell benefits, not features." Your features are your education: your engineering major, the electives you took, your extracurricular activities, and your summer and part-time employment; as features they are nice but, following Faleski's advice, you have to explain how they can benefit employers. This can be done by emphasizing the problem-solving skills your education, activities and previous employment have given you.

Advanced engineering and computer courses can be particularly valuable in this respect. You can tailor your resume and cover letter to a particular industry or company by citing problem-solving skills you've gained in these courses and relating short anecdotes illustrating that you can apply these advanced skills. Problem-solving examples from cooperative education jobs and other employment can be more powerful than examples from your education. Briefly cite these in your resume as accomplishments. Turn these examples into anecdotes and use them in your cover letter and during your interview.

Suppose you are studying chemical engineering and you've learned of a potential employer that is designing and building a polymer plant using a new gas phase process. You could translate a skill into an accomplishment in your cover letter to that company by writing, "In my advanced thermodynamics course, I learned how to solve heat transfer problems that could be very useful in designing gas phase polymerization plants." Tailored to the company's needs, this statement can persuade the employer that you are one of the chemical engineers they should interview.

Timothy Haft, author of Trashproof Resumes, notes that employers read your resume to learn about your skills. You need to answer the question, "What can you do for the employer?" and you must answer it quickly. Many employers skim resumes rapidly. If nothing catches their interest right away, they seldom read the entire resume. Put information most relevant to the job opening toward the top of your resume, advises Haft, who has reviewed more than 5,000 resumes. He also suggests that you omit information not relevant to the job opening. People can, however, list unrelated jobs to show that they worked their way through school and have a strong work ethic, says Haft. This information should be placed near the end of the resume.

Employers are also looking for evidence of your character and interpersonal skills. Your studies, extracurricular activities and jobs can be sources of examples. In addition to problem-solving skills, the employer is looking for evidence that you can work well on teams and cooperate with others. Providing a relevant anecdote in your cover letter can give you the edge you need over other applicants. For example, you could relate a situation in which you demonstrated outstanding interpersonal skills or determination that resulted in accomplishing a goal.

Determine Your Market

This means deciding what kind of company you want to work for and what type of position you want. It means analyzing your skills to determine what sort of employer can best use them and analyzing your career ambitions. For example, deciding you want a programming position with a software company is a career decision that enables you to target your job hunt.

Successful marketers often target a single product to more than one market. When doing so, they develop different marketing materials and sales plans for each market. You can do the same by looking for more than one type of position. For example, there are many positions for programmers in companies that are not software firms but write their own software or heavily modify commercial software to meet their internal information processing needs. The work is often less hectic in these companies than in software firms that are continually rushing new products and updates to market. If family life or recreational activities are important to a software engineer, he or she may wish to consider working for one of these firms rather than a start-up software firm that demands 70-hour work weeks.

Networking and information interviews can aid you in identifying additional industries and companies where your skills could be valuable to prospective employers.

Develop Your Marketing Plan

Having determined your market, you need to tailor your marketing materials: your resume, cover letter and your interview discussion. For example, a software engineer who wants the excitement of working in a start-up software company can tailor her resume and cover letter to emphasize her skills using networking to access information and resources as well as her technical abilities. The ability to find novel ways of getting things done could be a real asset at an understaffed, cash-short start-up company. Emphasizing this in her resume and cover letter without neglecting her technical skills and accomplishments could win her an employment interview.

Now you need to learn about your prospective customers—specific companies that can benefit from your skills and abilities. By researching each company, you can further customize your resume and cover letters to target each prospective employer. Information sources include company Web pages, corporate directories, information interviews and networking contacts.

Your professors may be able to suggest employers for you to target, and may have former students working for these companies who can be useful networking contacts. Some college placement offices keep records of where former students have gone to work. An electrical engineer, for example, could identify employers to target by knowing where previous electrical engineering graduates have found employment.

Effective Marketing Channels

Using effective marketing channels means getting your resume and cover letter into the hands of individuals who make hiring decisions. Try to identify these individuals at each company and mail your resume and cover letter directly to them. Companies often store resumes and cover letters in computer databases that can be considered marketing channels the employers access when they need to fill a position. Online job databanks are a similar marketing channel.

For your resume and cover letter to be effective in these marketing channels, they must contain keywords that will be useful search terms when an employer searches the resume database for someone with your skills and training. For a software engineer, the word "engineer," the brand names of sophisticated software she has mastered, computer languages she can program and brands of workstations she has used would all be useful search terms.

Your Marketing Materials

Like product advertisements, your marketing materials (your resume and cover letter) must quickly seize the buyer's interest. This means they must be visually attractive and begin with statements that will intrigue prospective employers. Marketers often rely on advertising agencies to prepare advertising materials. Analogous to this, some engineers and information technology professionals have their resumes prepared by a professional resume writer. For nearly all students, however, careful preparation followed by input from mentors and peers suffices to prepare an attractive, effective resume.

Be sure your resume and cover letter are examples of your writing abilities at their best. After all, few potential customers are impressed by a poorly worded or unattractive advertisement. Harold M. Messmer, author of Job Hunting for Dummies and CEO of the temporary help firm Robert Half International in Menlo Park, Calif., comments, "When searching for a new position, writing is a critical talent that will separate the finalists from the also-rans."

Technical recruiter David Jensen, principal of Search Masters International in Sedona, Ariz., agrees. He says, "Resumes from thousands of competent scientists and engineers are overlooked because they lack 'punch.'"

To give your resume "punch," avoid the passive voice whenever possible. Excessive use of the passive voice makes the writing dull and detracts from the applicant's image as a dynamic individual. Poor writing also includes overly long sentences, incorrect spelling and punctuation, and typographical errors. Once you have identified prospective employers and prepared first drafts of your marketing materials, you're ready to begin your marketing campaign.

Determine Your Employer's Needs

A good salesperson finds out what the customer wants before trying to sell anything. Once you have a list of prospective employers or a target industry identified, consider what skills, abilities and experience they need in new engineers they hire. For example, it might not matter to a software company whether engineers they hire are willing to work outdoors in remote locations, but it certainly would to an oil company hiring field engineers. Reading trade magazines, talking to faculty members and conducting information interviews can help you determine what qualities different industries are looking for in the engineers they hire.

Of course, when you read a job-opening advertisement, be it a placement office posting, a job opening on a Web site or a newspaper advertisement, you can find out what qualities a particular company seeks. Tailor your resume and letter to demonstrate that you meet the employer's needs, and don't underestimate the importance of the cover letter. Messmer advises, "Cover letters should be more than just wrapping paper for your resume. They should set you apart from other candidates by providing a sense of how you think and your eagerness to work for a specific organization. Most of all, they should give readers a compelling reason to want to see you that embraces both your qualifications and the vitality you can bring to a job."

When you receive an invitation for an on-site interview, you can narrow your focus to that particular company's open position and its hiring needs. Before your visit, ask your host or the hiring authority if the company can send you a specific job description. This should include the key responsibilities of that position in addition to the necessary skills and experience required. Reading the job description carefully can help you prepare relevant anecdotes about your accomplishments and how they meet the employer's needs.

During the interview, "your success in obtaining a job offer depends significantly on the quality of your questions and how you ask them," notes Richard Fein, director of placement at the University of Massachusetts School of Management in Amherst. The interview is an opportunity to learn more about the employer's needs so you can present yourself to your best advantage. While some of your questions can be general ones regarding the company's strategic direction, the best ones will be those that help you learn more about the specific job opening. Of course, you have to be able to think fast and determine how to use this information to present yourself in the best possible way.

Don't wait until the interview to begin learning about the employer. Read about the company on its Web site and in its annual report. By doing a search on the Internet, you can locate articles about the company published in newspapers and business magazines.

Close the Sale

Good sales personnel know they need to close discussions with prospective customers by asking for the sale. Do the same with each person who interviews you. At the close of your conversation, reiterate your interest in the position and state your willingness to provide any additional information needed. Your initiative and enthusiasm will impress the employer's personnel.

John K. Borchardt works in industry as a chemical engineer and is adjunct professor of chemistry in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Oklahoma. His book Career Management for Scientists and Engineers is scheduled for publication in April 2000 by the Oxford University Press.

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