The way back

The way back - The talent wars are yesterday's story. Suddenly, former high-flyers are getting the elbow. If it happens to you - as it befell our four imaginary executives (right) - how should you work your ticket back into a job in a tougher employment m

by MAUREEN RICE
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The talent wars are yesterday's story. Suddenly, former high-flyers are getting the elbow. If it happens to you - as it befell our four imaginary executives (right) - how should you work your ticket back into a job in a tougher employment market? Maureen Rice reports.

Was it only last year that McKinsey was still warning its clients that the talent wars represented their most important business challenge? Skills shortages, the e-business feeding frenzy and the optimistic lexicon of the new economy sent recruiters into overdrive. Now the party's over and we're all waking up with a hangover.

Recruitment advertising in the press is falling at its fastest annual rate since 1992. The market is awash with human fallout from the dot.com crash, the advertising downturn and merger mania. Many companies are reportedly waiting for a clearer picture on the economy before adding to the payroll, with finance, manufacturing, technology and telecoms particularly feeling the squeeze. Marconi and Consignia have warned that they are likely to cull up to 1,000 managers to cope with present markets conditions. Hewlett-Packard has announced 6,000 job cuts and is attempting to sweeten the pill of a hefty salary cut for many of those left behind by offering more holiday in exchange.

How worried should you be? If you suddenly find yourself out of a job or you're desperate to move on, what are your chances?

'At the very top, there is always a demand for good people,' says Stephen Bampfylde, chairman of headhunters Saxton Bampfylde Hever. 'At entry level it's pretty steady, too. Companies have spent the past few years developing sophisticated graduate recruitment schemes, and the bright new entrants in the market will be fine. But the big squeeze is on in the middle ground.

'Two years ago,' he adds, 'everyone was chasing good marketing and development people. Now we're in the downward curve of the business cycle and the demand is for tough finance people, skilled cost-cutters, good operational guys.'

Companies want to invest in experience and proven abilities rather than promise, he believes. 'It's a hard time to be 26. You don't have the track record of the generation above you, and you're competing with the fresher and cheaper new graduates just below.'

But even if your skills match the current demands, it's a buyer's market and you'll have to approach the job-search more strategically and more determinedly than before. About 20% of the professional workforce are actively looking for jobs, while another 60% will be open to offers, according to Donald Macleod, vice-president of headhunter Korn/Ferry International.

John Lees, former chief executive of the Institute of Employment Consultants and now an independent consultant to both recruiters and jobhunters, advocates a multi-disciplinary search strategy. 'You need to respond to ads, produce speculative approaches, use recruitment agents and possibly career coaches, understand how the internet can help, and network,' he says.

Even then, don't expect too much. Many jobs are never advertised, so you have to know how to tap into the hidden job market. This means using your network (so always keep up with your contacts) and looking at vacancies upside-down, explains Lees. 'By the time a job is advertised it's a last resort, and you'll be in competition with lots of other people.' It's better to identify what you really want to do, how you can show you'd be good at it, and where you would like to do it.

'Research that market and company until you identify a challenge it faces that you can help them solve,' adds Lees. 'Then write to the CEO or, in a big corporation, the head of the department you want to work in. Bypass the HR department, where you'll get lost in policy and procedure, and go straight to the decision-maker who has been thinking about that same challenge himself.'

Bypassing HR may work when you're developing a speculative approach, but if responding to a vacancy you'll usually end up among a pile of 300 CVs on the desk of the HR director or headhunter. How to stand out in this crowd is your big challenge. Says Macleod at Korn/Ferry: 'The whole purpose of your CV and covering letter is to get you into pile B. Make sure yours stands up to a 20-second scrutiny.'

If you haven't been to an interview in a while, you could be in for a shock. Ed Furness, 31, recently joined a small management consultancy after three years with Andersen Consulting and nine months with Firesend.co.uk, an online booking and tracking service for express parcels that failed to win third-round funding. His systematic approach to job-seeking, including answering ads, research on the internet and using headhunters got him into a lot of pile Bs. 'The more senior you are, the slower the process gets,' he says. 'That's logical, but frustrating. I don't mind tests, but a lot of recruitment agencies now build in multiple layers of filtration, and many of them serve no greater purpose than to justify their fees. I filled in a lot of basic and generic aptitude tests. You could have got the same information from looking at my CV.'

His advice? Network the headhunters to find one who will take the time to get to know you. 'Headhunters can be very conservative. They try and fit you into pre-conceived slots.'

Lees agrees. 'There are a lot more hurdles, but recruiters aren't always clear about why they're making you jump. Employers often don't identify the key results areas of the job, so they develop a scatter-gun approach to putting recruits through their paces. You can regain some control by identifying the key results and demonstrating how you can achieve them.'

Jane Drysdale, 37, is now director of compensation and benefits at market researchers Taylor Nelson Sofres, a job she was headhunted for. She too believes that jobhunters need to take control. 'I last went through job-search two years ago, after 13 years with my previous employer. I learnt a lot from that experience and this time I was much better prepared.'

First, she drew up her personal job spec. 'I was a consultant and I wanted to get back into a corporation. I missed the follow-through and delivery. I also wanted to work in either HR or compensation. I wanted a shorter commute and a four-day week.'

Far from being inflexible, says Lees, Drysdale had the right attitude.

'Don't start by reacting to what someone else wants. Your first priority is to find out what you want.'

Drysdale had wanted to work flexibly when she was job-searching two years ago. 'I was apologetic. I thought I'd be lucky to find someone who would offer me a senior position and a four-day week.' A meeting with a headhunter changed that. 'He said: 'Don't apologise. Value yourself. Hold out for what you want.' It made me shift my attitude. I was much more confident asking for what I wanted, and that made the interviewers more confident about giving it to me.'

She advises applicants to take equal responsibility for a good interview.

'There's no excuse for not doing your research. Ask questions, and be challenging when it's appropriate. A good interview is a mutual exchange, not an applicant passively reacting to an interviewer.'

This time around, Drysdale found herself in five interviews. 'Three I rejected; one rejected me after a third interview. This job was exactly right.' So she works her four-day week, she's operational again and she's happy.

She knows people who haven't job-searched for a long time, 'and they can feel a bit insulted, being asked to do tests for the interview. They feel that their credentials should speak for themselves. I tell them it's not personal. This is the way it is. Prepare for it, engage with it and enjoy it.'

THE CANDIDATES

Many people have unexpectedly lost their job in the past six months. Who will fare best in getting a new one? MT concocted four CVs to show to top headhunters at Norman Broadbent and Korn/Ferry.

THE DOT.BOMB

After a degree in economics at LSE, Anna, 25, spent 18 months with Ernst & Young before leaving to start up her own fashion accessories e-tailer with a couple of college friends. They made their pounds 5 million last longer than most, but the VC pulled the plug anyway. Now Anna is back on the market with nothing but a liberated laptop to show for it.

'She's an exciting prospect: young, well educated and with a basic grounding in the commercial world - just the kind of person most companies are keen to recruit,' says Jonathan Dancy, MD of Norman Broadbent. 'We'd advise her to go back into consulting, where she has a proven track record, or to maximise her e-business experience and aim for an entry-level position in a technology-driven field. Either way, I'd expect to see her rapidly re-employed.'

At Korn/Ferry, they are more circumspect. She may be young and well educated, but inexperience and failure count against her. 'She's not the kind of person who is typically top of our list. We look for a consistent success over a number of years, which she can't yet demonstrate,' says Chris Matchan, vice-president of the consumer division. 'She could approach venture capitalists, as she has dealt with them in the past and knows how they operate.' Whatever she decides, she's looking at a fairly junior position. 'With relatively little track record to sell, she needs to be able to articulate her strengths precisely to potential employers.'

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THE RETURNER

Sarah, 35, was a very young high-flier (McKinsey consultant at 23, group chief executive of a large publisher by 28). Two years ago, she took a career break to spend time with her young family. Now her children are in junior school and she wants to get back on the ladder, working flexibly if possible.

Matchan at Korn/Ferry finds Sarah appealing. 'She's proved she can hack it in one of the best consulting firms in the world, and she's added to this with a front-line general management job.' But he'd want to know more about the quality of her performance in both roles.

Providing her references check out, Sarah has a number of options, and flexible working shouldn't be a problem. 'She could be the CEO of a smaller business, and she's still of interest to other consulting firms. The latter would enable her to work flexibly, since so much can be done from home these days.'

Broadbent's Dancy also likes her credentials and isn't fazed by the two-year career break. But he advises her to keep schtum about flexible working - at least to start with. 'I'd encourage her to focus on what she really wants to do and where, and think about hours and conditions later. It's still a fact that many corporations are put off by senior people asking about flexibility.'

Once she's clear about the kind of role she wants, 'I'd steer her towards the areas where flexible working is more acceptable, such as IT, publishing, media, financial services and consultancy. She could do well in all of them.'

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THE LATE-CAREER SHOCK

Craig, 54, was a celebrated and award-winning advertising creative in the '80s. In the early '90s, he became creative director of a big agency, a more strategic and managerial role. Two years ago, he got divorced from his third wife and had a triple heart bypass. His agency was recently bought out by US giant Omnicom, and Craig was made redundant as part of its rationalisation programme. The pay-off is keeping his ex-wives in alimony for now, but he cannot afford early retirement.

The good news for Craig is that specialist, highly marketable skills like his more than compensate for age. 'Ageism does exist in the British workforce,' admits Dancy, 'but in Craig's case this is unlikely to be an issue. Really good creative people are rare and there is more demand for his skills than supply can meet.'

He's also likely to have a brilliant network to draw on, adds Dancy. 'People like him always know everyone in their business.' Chris Van Someren, president of global consumer goods at Korn/Ferry, thinks Craig has several options. 'He would be an attractive candidate for another global agency network looking to fill a chief creative spot. Or he could join up with colleagues and/or contacts to form his own boutique firm. He might also be of interest to media companies.'

But Van Someren warns Craig to manage the fallout from his personal life. 'There's nothing more off-putting to employers than messy human responses like desperation, anger and sadness. They undermine confidence and credibility.' He should also prepare a ready answer for questions about his redundancy. 'Abrupt termination after many years of service can leave emotional scars that future employers shy away from.'

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THE CORPORATE LIFER

When Tony, 43, joined Marks & Spencer as a graduate trainee in the early '80s, the company was the undisputed king of the high street. He worked his way up, and had been a regional head for five years when the now ailing retailer made him redundant five weeks ago. With a wife, two kids and a mortgage and pension to support, he needs to get another job fast.

Tony won't find life on the outside easy. 'More than 20 years with one organisation is really too long today,' warns Alison Hill, managing vice-president of Retail at Korn/Ferry.

Dancy is similarly wary. 'Perceptions of this company have changed. It may be unfair, but the status that used to attach to working there has been undermined.'

On the plus side, both Hill and Dancy focus on Tony's invaluable business knowledge, and management and people skills. 'He has a lot to offer, particularly to a smaller, boutique-style retailer,' says Dancy.

It's particularly important for him to network. 'Many M&S employees have moved on in the past few years; they'd be good people to target. They know the value of his experience and will feel confident that he'll work to the high standards that they were all trained in.'

Most headhunters wouldn't put Tony straight into a serious job interview. 'In my experience, all lifers need a period of about three months for mourning and adjustment,' says Dancy. 'Then they can start to focus outwards again.'

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MAKE YOUR CV STAND OUT

Remember that your CV has only one function: to get you an interview. Forget graphics and gimmicks; instead, go for high-quality paper and clean, easy-to-read presentation.

Three pages is your absolute maximum. Two is better.

Sell yourself on the first sheet. Highlight achievements, not responsibilities. Make sure the employer sees the value you can bring to the job, not just your glorious past.

Most job ads contain six to eight hotspots that the company is looking for. Respond to them in your covering letter, highlighting the areas of your CV that back up your claims.

Include your date of birth - if you leave it out you'll appear either old or sensitive about your age. But don't date your degree, or mention the ages of your children.

Give an e-mail address, particularly if you're over 40, or employers may assume you're not computer-literate.

Under 'personal interests' include anything relevant to the application or culture of the company (eg, charity work if you're applying to the Body Shop) and anything you are passionate about.

Don't get lost in the detail of every job you've ever done.

Avoid generic adjectives, everyone is self-motivated, proactive and a team player.

Unless you are fresh out of university, forget about your O-level grades and the fact that you were a prefect at school.

Adapted from How to Get a Job You'll Love by John Lees (McGraw-Hill).

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