By: Taunee Besson
Negativity is easily spotted by perceptive recruiters.
QUESTION: I have read and re-read your article “Tips to Help Defeat the ‘Pariah Syndrome.'” The suggestions in the article aren’t useful to me. I have reached the conclusion that because I am over 45 years of age, no one will employ me. Isn’t it true that anyone over 45 is brain dead and physically handicapped?
Let me quickly sketch my background and the reason for my pessimism. I’m an engineer with an advanced degree. In October two years ago, my wife of 27 years filed for divorce. The following February, I was fired from my job. My divorce was final in March, which left me broke and in debt. My father died in June and left me an electric razor. Last year, I sent more than 400 resumes to companies, all of which were rejected.
I learned of contract engineering where they don’t pay benefits and other things associated with age. My resume is in front of more than 400 firms, and my name is before 1,000 more. I am versatile and willing to relocate, but no one wants to hire me.
I have enclosed my resume to complete the picture. I am very, very tempted to remove all the dates from my resume and let them guess my age.
It seems that anyone will hire the village idiot because the system will give him a pat on the back. However, anyone smart enough to tie his shoes is shunned like someone with AIDS. I have to eat, too.
Do you know anyone who would hire me?
ANSWER: Recently, I’ve received a number of letters from people over 40 years old who are concerned about age discrimination. In the following circumstances it can be an obstacle, though not an insurmountable barrier:
- Finding positions with Fortune 500 companies. Many large employers want to grow their own experts. They prefer to hire straight from college and train employees themselves. Bringing in engineers from outside may upset their salary scales and cause morale problems.
When these firms move into new areas, however, they may need outside help if their employees don’t have the proper background to excel in new technical applications. Your background may be valuable to them in this case, but only extensive search and networking can uncover such instances.
- Having experience with only one company. These days, many years with one company may give potential employers the feeling you can’t adapt to a new environment. They may see loyalty as a lack of initiative, a stigma difficult to overcome.
- Profiling a career that shows no apparent progression. While people in technical specialties often aren’t interested in managing others, their careers can grow by taking on increasingly sophisticated assignments. If your resume and interviews don’t emphasize advancement, you may be construed as deadwood.
- Specializing In one area. Here we have the proverbial Catch-22. Companies want highly specialized engineers for top-level assignments. Yet engineers and other technical experts may become so focused in their expertise that few firms can use their services. While it’s relatively easy to transfer organizational and people skills, state-of the-art technology demands up-to-date knowledge in a given area.
- Looking for an income that reflects your background and experience. Whether you’ve chosen to become a manager or crack engineer, you’re probably on the high end of the salary continuum at ages 40 to 60. Many companies may feel they can’t afford you.
- If you’ve moved into middle management, the corporate pyramid narrows as you progress. There may be relatively few positions available for someone at your level.
Before assuming age is responsible for your lack of employment, consider some other variables that may figure into your job-search equation.
Attitude. While your letter showcases your acerbic wit, it’s filled with anger. Given what’s happened to you during the past two years, some hostility is understandable. Unfortunately, it’s not productive unless you channel it effectively. If you view potential employers as people who “hire the village idiot,” they may sense your negativity even though you don’t think it shows.
If you’re having trouble putting your situation into perspective and getting on with your life, you have plenty of company. Many people who’ve been through either a divorce, an unwanted employment termination or the death of a loved one have great difficulty dealing with the fallout. They often turn to a friend, therapist or minister to help them through the grief process.
Rather than displace your anger about past injustices on future prospects, try adopting an “I’ll show you” attitude. Get even by finding a better position with a firm that appreciates your contribution.
Being fired from your last position. Have you made peace with this yet? Can you interpret it as a positive event, even though it obviously was painful? Or does it still fill you with anger and contempt? Have you reviewed your situation to determine if you were at least partially responsible? Were you among a number of people laid off, or were you singled out because of poor performance or attitude (according to your management)? What are your references at the firm saying about you?
The reason for your firing and your response to it can have tremendous impact on potential opportunities. Be sure your explanation for leaving matches that of your former employer. If it doesn’t, be prepared to deal effectively with the discrepancies. Do everything you can to portray your departure as a positive event, even if the only plus has been personal growth.
If your last employer is assassinating your character in reference checks, instead use as references colleagues who admire your work. Round out your references with people who know you through professional organizations, volunteer work or hobbies.
Job-search techniques. You say your resume is in front of 400 firms and your name is before 1,000 more. How did these 1,400 companies hear about you? Have you been relying exclusively on mailing resumes, the least effective job-search tool? Companies use them as a screening device by looking for what’s missing instead of what’s there. Resumes usually are forwarded to Human Resources first rather than directly to technical departments. Consequently, the people who do the actual hiring may never get to see your resume because it’s been screened out
Along with using search firms and answering ads, concentrate your time and effort on the best source for job leads: networking. Professional organizations, conventions, former colleagues, college friends and instructors, fellow hobbyists and a variety of other friends, relatives and associates can help you uncover the hidden job market. Employers like to hire people who have been referred to them (preferably for free by individuals whose judgment they trust). The majority of jobs are filled this way.
Resume format. Every resume should start with a summary section tailored specifically for the job at hand. Without one, employers have to guess at the value you have to offer and what makes you a solid candidate. Resumes must be targeted sales tools. Otherwise, they are prime candidates for the round file.
Take a close look at the following excerpt from your resume, which covers your last 21 years of experience. (Names and locations of employers have been omitted.)
2014 to 2015-Senior Engineer
- Designed an Experiment Loop Coolant System bypass, which incorporated rupture discs, for the Thermal Swell Accumulators for the Power Burst Facility (PBF).
- Wrote System Design Document for Experiment Loops at the Advanced Test Reactor (ATR).
- Designed, analyzed and installed several experiment Loop Coolant System modifications for the Severe Fuel Damage Tests at PBF.
- Designed, analyzed and fabricated a new coupon handling system for use in the ATR canal.
- Designed, analyzed and installed an ATR Spent Fuel Cast lid retention system.
- Designed an emergency cooling system for ATR spent fuel, assuming a large canal break.
2004 to 2014-Senior Engineer-Plant Apparatus Division
- Provided technical guidance and review of all phases for design, development, and construction of steam generators, pumps, valves and pressurizers for Navy nuclear power plants.
- Performed finite-element stress and thermal analyses of piping and pressure vessels.
Your resume uses a lot of jargon which relates primarily to projects in nuclear power plants. If you want to be hired in that field, your terminology is good. But if you hope to be considered for other engineering positions, you’ll need to translate your jargon into language other specialties will understand. This will require some research and conversations with experts in other technical disciplines.
In your resume, you’ve listed your education as B.S. Aeronautical Engineering, 1987, M.S. Aerospace Engineering, 1995, and M.S. Astronomy, 2001. For a highly technical position, your degrees are outdated. You’ve probably taken courses since but haven’t mentioned them. If you haven’t continued·your education, find out the hottest new engineering areas and take a few classes in them. This will increase your knowledge and your contacts and help you feel productive again. Who knows, you may discover a new career.
Don’t dismiss consulting or contract work as an employer’s way to weasel out of benefits. Look at it as an opportunity to make more money and pick your own projects. Some former employees really enjoy being their own boss.
Recognize that what happens in your job and your life is up to you. Your current condition can be a maddening predicament perpetrated by others looking to hire village idiots. Or it can be an opportunity to identify and pursue what you really want both personally and professionally. You can be a victim or a champion of the self-fulfilling prophecy. The choice is yours.
Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979, which works with individual and corporate clients in career change; job search; executive, small business and life coaching; college major selection and talent management.
“One of the smartest minds in the career field,” according to Tony Lee (VP of CareerCast Operations at Adicio and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal’s Online Vertical Network), Besson began writing for the Dallas Times Herald in the early 80s. Having read several of her columns, Lee asked her to contribute regular articles to the Journal’s National Business Employment Weekly (NBEW) as well. Since then, she has been a triple award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and Senior Columnist for CareerCast.com, as well as WorkingWoman.com and Oxygen.com. At Lee’s request, Besson authored five editions of NBEW’s Premier Guide to Resumes and three of its Premier Guide to Cover Letters. She has also written articles and/or been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money and Yahoo among others.
Taunee has worked on community nonprofit boards and committees for over 30 years including Girls Inc., Women’s Center of Dallas, Girl Scouts and Dallas Women’s Foundation, The Volunteers of America and Mortarboard, among others. She was a member of the Leadership Dallas in 1987 and Leadership America in 2003.
In 1994, the Dallas Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development chose her as its “Professional of the Year”. Her NBEW columns were selected for the “Ten Best Article Award” in 1990, 1994 and 1997. In 1999, Alpha Gamma Delta, a 200,000 member fraternal organization, named her as one of three “Distinguished Citizens” at its biannual international convention.