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'Parachute' author still tending the grapevine

Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC

Many years ago I faced a major career decision. I could stay at my job as a reporter for a major fashion newspaper where I made a good salary and had job security, or move on to a publication where I could expand my journalism horizons.

About this time I came across a book called "What Color is Your Parachute?" by Richard Nelson Bolles. The book helped me visualize my dream job and that turned out to be a financial reporter for United Press International, a struggling news service that offered me a 20 percent pay cut and little job security.

My editor at the time thought I was nuts for even considering the move and so did most of my friends and family. But I turned in my resignation and took the plunge. Looking back, it was the best decision I ever made in my career and I have Mr. Bolles to thank for it.

In my column, I often suggest job hunters pick up a copy of Bolles book, first published in 1970, and recently I got to wondering how he would look at the job market today and what advice he’d offer.

Well, nearing his 80th birthday, Bolles was more than willing to let me pick his brain.

The following is part one of my conversation with the bestselling author. The second part, where Bolles talks about the importance of enthusiasm during the interview process will be published Feb. 19.

Job-hunting can be one of the most demoralizing things a person ever takes on. Is there any way to make it less daunting?

The problem is there’s a real parallel between sex and job-hunting, but no one realizes it. People think they are born with knowing how to do things when they really need to learn more. You don’t know enough naturally to do a job hunt well. There’s a discipline that has to be learned. You need to know your Plan B when luck runs out.

I can’t think of a human activity that is more researched than the job hunt. It’s amazing what we know. There are 15 methods of job hunting. If a person uses one method they tend to get discouraged and quit in two months. If they use two to three methods they tend to stay at it longer. The research is so thorough; knowing which method of job-hunting works and which don’t makes a big difference to people. You need to be putting energy in methods that work the best.

I know the best method. The best method has proven to be when a job hunter takes time to sit down and do some really hard work on figuring out who they are and what they have to offer.

The novice comes into job market assuming they need information but [thinking] they need information about the job market itself — the hot jobs, where employers are desperate to find people. That’s not as important as figuring out which employers can offer you a job that fits your gifts and experience.

How important is the resume? How important is networking?

Everything depends on the employer when it comes to the resume. There are employers that hate them and employers that love them.

A human relations director of one of the largest corporations in California recently told me: “I haven’t read a resume in I can’t tell you how many years because it’s so easy to lie on them.”

There are a huge number of lies on resumes, much worse today than in the 1970s, particularly about education and experience.

I think a resume is an important thing to leave behind after you’ve been to a company. You have to use your contacts, not the resume, to get into a company. If you want to work at Bechtel Corp., I would ask everyone I know if they know anyone at Bechtel. Chances are someone will say yes and they can give you an introduction over there.

Then, when I got there I’d I leave my resume because I know I probably didn’t initially meet with the decision maker. At big companies hiring is probably done by committee. So with the resume they’ll have something to show everyone.

The resume is poison for many employees if they send it on ahead. One resume out of 1,470 leads to a job.

The preferred way to get your name into a company that interests you is through your contacts and (finding) someone you know that knows someone there. You can do a lot of research on a company but if you don’t have a contact it won’t work.

Contacts, contacts, contacts. They can be social networks, friends, and family. Anybody that’s pleasant to you and that you’ve been pleasant to.

In a small company this is a no-brainer. You go to the owner.

In a corporation, you have to use your networks. Well, I don’t like to call them networks. I like to call them grapevines, like [in the song by] Marvin Gaye.

You’ve heard people in checkout lines in supermarket strike up conversations. Why not ask, “Do you know any one at this or that corporation?” You have to have the chutzpah to ask the person if they happen to know someone.

A cold call to a large corporation? I don’t recommend it. They don’t want to be bothered. They typically want the HR person to be the person looking for an applicant. Sometimes you’ll be able to get through, but most times you’re talking to someone who is very busy and all they have on their mind is how to get rid of you the fastest.

How do you go about choosing an employer?

I know a woman in San Francisco that picked a street she liked the best, slowly progressed down the street, went into shops, law offices, for a quick interview to find out what each company does. By the time she was finished she had three job offers.

It’s like trying on a suit of clothing before you buy. You say, “The truth is, I really like the looks of this place. What do you do?” They will either say, I’m too busy, come back later, or they’ll ask you to sit down and tell you on the spot what it is they do and ask you what you do.

If they ask you what you’re doing, you say, “I’m doing a survey to find out where my particular skills and talents can best be used.” If they say, Are you looking for a job? Say no.

Also, go through the Yellow Pages. First go to the index and underline any topic or field or industry that you like, then go back and circle your top 10, five or three. Then go see what organizations are listed under those topics. In a large city this works very well. You can get names of companies or organization then you try to use contacts to get your foot in the door.

Next week: The importance of enthusiasm.