New Job Hunt, Same Rules

What Color Is Your Parachute author Richard Nelson Bolles expounds on his timeless -- and proven -- advice

The author of job-hunting bible What Color Is Your Parachute? is no stranger to the challenges of looking for work. In 1968, Richard Nelson Bolles was laid off from his post as a pastor in San Francisco because of budget cuts in the Episcopal Church. At a loss about what to do next, the Milwaukee native went to see an executive recruiting firm, which helped him write a résumé and sent him off on an interview.

"The employer I interviewed with told me that the résumé I had paid the firm to do was terrible," recalls Bolles, 76. As luck would have it, the Episcopal Church soon hired him back to serve as a liaison to Episcopal ministers serving on college campuses. Traveling the country, Bolles learned that budget cuts were threatening many of these ministers' jobs, too. But few had a clue how to look for a job. So they asked Bolles to write down what he had learned. He took his tome to a San Francisco copy shop, and 100 copies of What Color Is Your Parachute? first appeared in print in 1970.

Two years later, the book got a real publisher: Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, Calif. And two years after that, in 1974, it began making the best-seller lists. Today it's still the most popular job-searching manual, with 20,000 copies sold every month (see Bolles' site, JobHuntersBible.com, for more information). Now based across the San Francisco Bay in Alamo, Calif., Bolles updates it every year, although periodically he does a major rewrite. The last big overhaul was in 2002.

Even if some of his advice occasionally seems quaintly out of pace with today's post-September-11 world -- Bolles advises job-seekers to knock on doors of potential employers and ask people what it's like to work there -- most of the book's guidance is dead-on.

Recently, Bolles chatted with BusinessWeek Online reporter Eric Wahlgren about finding jobs in today's incredibly tough labor market and about why his advice hasn't changed all that much over the past three decades. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: So how do you go about finding a job in a jobless recovery? Only 21,000 jobs were created in February.

A:

The first thing you have to do is know the rules of the game. Job hunting is a game, whether you like it or not. We've assumed for some time that the solution to finding a job is the Internet. The Internet has obviously increased the ability of people to locate jobs. But sending your résumé out unsolicited and using the Internet doesn't really work even during a good economy. These strategies are miserable failures when you have a sour economy. Forrester Research has found that 10% at best and 4% at worst find a job through the Internet.

The trouble is, 80% of all vacancies that are filled are never advertised. They use their own grapevines within the company. We know that networking is the single most important way of going job hunting. But a person has to know what they're looking for.

Q: How do you know what you're looking for?

A:

You have to be able to state in fresh language what kind of job you're capable of doing. You can't just approach people in your grapevine and say, "Guys, I'm out of work, and if you hear of anything, let me know." They don't want to do your homework for you. You have to define the job for them.

This involves sitting down and doing some inventory on what are called your functional or transferable skills. Your education and previous experience don't lock you into only finding a job in a particular sector of the economy or in a particular job title.

You have to take the blinders off and think, "I'm a person who" and fill in the blank. Not, "I'm a human resources executive," for instance. Rather, think "I'm a person who's good at analyzing things" or "I'm a person who's good at organizing things." Then you look for an organization that needs these skills and interests.

Q: How do you find these outfits?

A:

You have to disregard whether the places you're interested in have known vacancies and approach companies you really like. In a jobless recovery, normally it's the small organizations with 50 or less employees that are the ones that you should concentrate on.

When you approach companies like that -- and when you know enough about interviewing -- you often come as the answer to their prayers. They may have a need for somebody, but they may not have gotten around to putting an ad in the paper.

Q: With all this anxiety about white-collar jobs being outsourced overseas, what advice would you give to someone worried about picking a job or a career that could be easily shipped offshore?

A:

The San Francisco papers have been saying that any job in which the customer has to be touched physically probably won't be outsourced. So I guess you could look for jobs for which there's touch involved, such as a massage therapist.

But seriously, there's no guarantee about tomorrow. In today's culture, we have to think of every job as temporary because we may decide we don't like to do it. Or the employer may decide they don't want to offer that job anymore. None of us can take a job and say, "Oh, this is my permanent vocation here on earth."

How we survive in this new world depends on what our attitude is. It's all back to enthusiasm. If you're willing to spend a weekend doing this homework on yourself -- figuring out your skills and interests -- you will be able to wheel and deal and leap from one job to the next. You will have the self knowledge, which is a passport to a better future.

Q: What if you're lucky enough to have a job but are feeling like you're at a dead end? How do you create new opportunities?

A:

Same thing. You go out talking and doing informational interviewing at places that look the most interesting to you. I know a woman who used to go out on informational interviews every Friday on her lunch hour. She would make a list of companies to target from the yellow pages on Thursday night. She would walk in and say, "I would like to talk to someone who really knows what it's like to work here." No one has a manual for that. They will probably need to talk to you to answer that.

Q: That seems a little hard to do in places like New York and Chicago where no one has any free time. Plus, there's so much security these days, at least in the bigger cities, that it's hard just to stroll into a building a talk to someone without an appointment.

A:

It's uncanny how many people will say "Sure" or "I'll see if there's someone who you can talk to you." It's perfectly true that these monoliths that have 38 floors don't pay off so well. But smaller companies are filled with people who are very interested in taking the time to talk to you.

Q: What do you do if you've been jobless for a while but want to come off as a hot candidate. Aren't companies wary about hiring the unemployed?

A:

That's the kind of myth I've combated for 30 years. Some companies are leery of hiring the unemployed, and others are not. So you really have to develop contacts within the company. You sit down with your grapevine and say "I'm looking for this kind of work. Do you know anybody who works at this company or has worked there in the past?" If you ask different people you know every day, by the end of the week, you'll probably find someone who actually knows somebody at that company.

Ask that person in the company if you can speak to someone who's doing the kind of work that you're actually interested in. I'd rather talk to them rather than to a hiring authority. I'll find out exactly what's required. Then when I actually talk to the person who has the power to hire, I can be introduced by a person who's already in the company. So I have an inside track. You're not coming at them as some unemployed person off the street. If you've done your research, you can approach them as someone who's offering a lot of skills and experience.

Q: How has your advice changed since when you first started writing the book in 1970?

A:

My advice hasn't changed very much in 30 years. When you get right down to it, job hunting is exactly like dating. It's all about human nature. If you go out on a date and you've learned a lot about the person you are dating and you use that information in the conversation, they're flattered to death.

People still like to hire people who are like the people they already have. If you know yourself and you have spent time inventorying your skills, you will greatly increase your mobility in the job market and also greatly increase your chances of finding a job.

Q: Your book has had quite a run.

A:

I pretty much watched my career go through the following stages. In 1970, when the book first came out, I would be introduced as an author. People then would ask me "What did you write?" When I told them the name of the book, they would say "Never heard of it." Five years later, I would be introduced, and people would say, "Oh, you're an author? What did you write?" I would mention the title, and they would say, "Oh, I've heard great things about that book. But I've never read it."

Some years later, I was introduced, and they'd say, "You're the author of that book? I never thought I'd meet you." A few years ago, it was "Oh, my, you're a legend. I'm so pleased to meet you." Now, they say "Oh, I didn't know you're still alive."

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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