How older IT pros can crack the 'hidden job market'

Recent studies are demolishing negative stereotypes about workers over 50. But where do older IT workers find jobs? The 'hidden job market' holds a mother lode of opportunities.

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Did you know that baby boomers are getting jobs with better pay, status, and working conditions than prior generations of older workers?

According to a Nov. 30, 2016, Wall Street Journal article titled “Five Myths About Landing a Good Job Later in Life,” recent studies are demolishing many of the negative stereotypes about workers over 50, for example:

  • The 55-and-older crowd is now the only age group with a rising labor-force participation rate, despite age discrimination, which remains a problem.
  • About 40% of people who retire take a break and then return to work, typically within two years.
  • Since 1995, the number of people age 65 or older working full time has more than tripled.

This WSJ article — chock full of statistics and research — should, at the very least, conjure a smile from anybody approaching 50. We’re not doomed after all! 

How do those older codgers connect with jobs?

Hidden job market help wanted sign Donald Burns

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t address one key question, namely, “How do you find work when you’re over 50?”

  • Job boards? No! Hardly anybody in the 50-plus group will find a job via job boards such as Monster, Indeed or LinkedIn. Nada. Zilch. Highly unlikely.
  • Recruiters? Maybe, maybe not. This strategy, used alone, robs you of any control of your job search. Recruiters don’t work for you; they work for the companies that hire them.
  • Personal connections? Yes! Personal connections are your best bet — especially if you’ve built a robust, long-term network in a silo such as banking or healthcare.
  • Hidden job market? Yes! Even without a strong network, you can achieve success in the “hidden job market” (HJM), which holds the mother lode of career opportunities.

What is the hidden job market?

The hidden job market consists of (1) all jobs that change hands without being advertised and (2) jobs that are advertised but given to insiders. In a minute, I will show you an nine-step process that will transform you into an insider.

  • Good news: In the HJM — unlike job boards such as LinkedIn and Monster — you need not be a perfect match to win the job. Age and college degree are negotiable.
  • Great advice: Lou Adler, author of The Essential Guide for Hiring and Getting Hired and several books on the HJM and related topics, says “job seekers should spend 80% of their time looking for keys that open the back doors of target companies.”
  • More great advice: Don Asher, another HJM expert, and the author of Cracking The Hidden Job Market, says, “You get a job by talking to people. You get a job because you got in front of somebody, and that person decided to put you on the payroll.”
  • Mix and match: You can cherry-pick elements of the HJM and combine those elements with other search strategies. For example: HJM (70%), job boards (10%) and calls to recruiters (20%).
  • Consulting option: IT consulting follows the same process as an HJM search. IT professionals have a natural advantage because IT skills are highly marketable. If you’ve been unemployed for a long time, your best option might be to “hang your shingle” and find consulting gigs.

Introduction to an HJM search

Since 2007, I’ve helped more than 1,500 people with all the various aspects of hidden-market searches, resumes, personal branding, search plans, goal-setting, interview coaching — you name it. After 1,500 projects, I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.

  • You can do this: Do not be intimidated by the nine steps. You can do this if you are highly motivated and possess a marketable skill.
  • Don’t give up: An HJM search requires extra time, patience and effort, but don’t give up, because the HJM holds the mother lode of opportunities. The worst alternative is long-term unemployment, which surely happens when you waste too much time with job boards (for example, uploading your resume to black holes).
  • Hire a coach if you get stuck! If you’re not sure about any or the nine steps, hire a coach to walk you through an HJM search. After the coach guides you through one or two searches, you’ll be confident enough to go solo, initiate your own searches and take charge of your career.

The nine-step checklist

1. Marketing brand: What problem can you solve exceptionally well? What are you known for? People hire specialists, not “jacks of all trades,” so you must build your reputation around one talent. Maybe you can do many things well but — for purposes of an HJM search — you must present yourself as a specialist.

2. Job target (the “FIT” approach): To identify the right job to pursue, you must decide your function, industry and title (FIT). For example: Your function and industry might be “IT project management in the healthcare sector” and your target title might be “project manager” or “project management office director.”

Comment 1: Don’t confuse “job openings” — listings that appear on job boards — with “FIT,” which describes a type of job.

Comment 2: Do Step 1 and Step 2 seem a bit simplistic? They might, but pay close attention to them! In my experience, most people can’t nail down their marketing brand and FIT — they “think” they know, but they answer my brand-and-fit questions by babbling. If you can’t figure your marketing brand and career goal, just hire a coach and let an outsider objectively assess your situation.

3. Search plan: Define your geographic boundary — for example, city or state. Even if you do all your work online, start your search as close to home as possible, because meeting people face to face will be easier.   

4. Company research: Define your basic criteria: company size, revenue, product, and number of employees. Use an online directory — such as D&B or Hoovers — to compile a list of target companies within your area. Next, start your detective work: Google your target companies to discover news, competitors, problems and opportunities — you’ll weave this info into an email message (Step 7).

5. People research: Here’s where you become your own recruiter. Build a list of names, email addresses and phone numbers of your target companies. As a rule of thumb, search for company managers who are two levels above your job target (FIT).

Search Google and LinkedIn for basic contact info and — if those don’t work — try one of the online, fee-based resources. For example, Data.com provides hard-to-find names, titles, email addresses and phone numbers. Ideally, build and maintain a steady reservoir of 100 contacts.

6. Draft a butt-kicking resume (a.k.a. your “personal advertisement”): For a hidden-market search, your resume must work much harder than an ordinary, corporate-drone resume. You must make an immediate and positive impact.  

Example: Here’s a resume headline for a sales executive who specializes in affiliate sales for software companies: “How to double your sales and pay your sales force for free.” How can any hiring manager not want to interview this person? If you don’t know how to write that type of resume, hire a coach to help you. 

7. Draft a “sales letter:” Based on your company research (Step 4), show why your target company should hire you. Show how you will boost sales, save time, save money, beat a competitor or accelerate a process. If you don’t know how to write a “sales letter” email, hire a coach (or a commercial writer) to help you.

8. Contact your prospects: At this point, you possess a contact list, a high-impact resume and a sales letter (email). Now you are ready to engage your first contact, so send an email and follow up with a phone call.

In Step 8, we enter the sales domain. You can do it! Are you willing to contact strangers and pitch yourself? Just focus on the upside. If you’ve worked as a salesperson or a consultant, this step will come naturally. If you’ve never had to sell anything, then hire somebody to coach you.

9. Voicemail scripts: Busy people don’t want to be bothered by you, but they do listen to their voicemail. In Step 5, you obtained your contact’s phone number so — after you send the sales email — start leaving voicemail messages. Persist without being obnoxious. Follow a schedule and vary the content of your messages.

Eventually, I promise, you will break through. So be ready when the prospect eventually answers the phone. One time — after several voicemails — my target surprised me by answering his phone! I was so shocked, I bungled the call — mentally, I had planned to leave another voicemail.

Additional benefits of an HJM search

Jump into the HJM pool and test the waters. They might feel chilly at first, but you will adjust. When I visited my distant relatives in Ireland, they told me, “There are no strangers — only friends we haven’t met yet.”

After completing an HJM search, you will acquire basic survival skills for the modern economy. I predict you’ll experience surging pride, confidence and personal liberation.

You’ll never fear unemployment again, because now you know how to take charge of your career and act as your own recruiter. Meanwhile, I wish you the very best of luck in your career and your search! 

Video: how to do HJM searches Donald Burns

Video: An HJM job search overview

To watch a two minute YouTube video in which I discuss how to conduct a hidden job market search, click here.

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