Employment Game Part III: Prospecting

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by Featured Guest on September 5, 2011

By Uncle Elmer

Amidst criticism that my previous essays were long on rant and short on practical advice, I am switching up the sequence slightly to provide some useful tips on how to find work. Also, let’s make the distinction that these essays are about marketing your existing skills to find work, not about developing those skills. That is a topic worthy of its own series, and given the feminization of education and the workplace, would be a lively discussion at the Spearhead.

We are putting the cart ahead of the horse here as there a few things you need to get in place before you attempt these moves. Specifically, you need to get your sales package together and implement a continual marketing process so you can handle the interviews that will result from the actions I am about to describe. By “sales package” I mean whatever it takes to make a good impression and leave them with contact information. For some of you guys a clean pair of shoes would be a good place to start. As you grow in sophistication you can add a pair of gabardines and and executive-style hairdo. Part IV of this series will discuss developing your sales narrative, marketing materials, attire, attitude, and presentation skills. Let’s assume for now that you have all that in place and are ready to not completely screw up your interviews.

A couple of things to keep in mind : developing your marketing process is a long-term activity. You need to work it continually for the rest of your days. Get the basics in place and hone the details over time. Secondly, there is the sales cycle, the time lag between prospecting and landing the work. This typically takes many months. With that in mind, you can start looking for work and preparing your marketing materials at the same time. But at the least before you begin, have a business card and capability sheet (often referred to as a “resume”) prepared so if a prospect calls you or you speak to him directly, the interaction flows smoothly and you come off with some level of confidence and professionalism. The interview is the wrong time to begin practicing your salesmanship. When that happens, you will depart feeling like a chump for not having practiced just a little bit, which would have made all the difference.

Let’s also talk about what doesn’t work. No doubt you have seen the occasional “jobs concern” storyline, which has an opening anecdote about some poor individual who has sent out hundreds, nay, thousands of resumes and has not gotten one bite. These stories are often acommpanied by a photo of about 2,000 consternated people standing in line at a “job fair”. Complimenting these essays are useless 10-point lists for finding work, identified by preposterous directives to “demonstrate your social networking skills” or “extend your network through family and friends”. The taglines for these essays often claim the author as a leading employment search expert, though from the uselessness of their information one can discern that they have not actually spent years toiling in a trade or selling their services as a consultant. Their career is selling “career advice” or “personal success coaching”, along with books to sell. The generality of their advice doesn’t help you see through the fog and give you tangible actions that make you fel like you’re climbing out of the pit. Similar to a lot of “get rich in real estate” books.

Look, I’m just your Uncle Elmer and I’m not selling anything. We’re out in the garage looking at an old motor and you just endured Elmer taking an excruciating 4 and half minutes to empty his bladder into the piss jug. He knows you guys are laughing behind his back and elbowing each other to get him to scald your ears with some ribald tales. What he has to say is non-compliant and that’s why you think it’s so entertaining, but there’s a kernel of truth buried cynicism.

And I don’t want to dump my crusty negativity on some of the women “career” bloggers out there but my gut sense is that they are short on actual decades of trench experience. The hard-boiled ladies out there who have actually started and operated businesses don’t seem to be sharing their experiences. Generally you should ignore advice coming from women because it is just part of their nature to talk up insecurity and social pecking orders.

What I have seen lately are essays advising the use of social media and career link websites to look for work. This, in addition to mass resume mailings, is a shotgun approach that only dilutes the effectiveness of your marketing. The lousy feedback coupled with the high volume effort is likely to cause you to question the fulility of it all. Aesop had a fable with the moral “he who has many friends has no friends”. That applies to social media. Most older men (and that’s really who you want to target) don’t use “social media” anyway. My advice for you is to “link out”, and come up with an alternative method for finding prospects that will actually talk to you.

One other caveat. If you are enjoying long-term employment in a stable industry, or have a trade in such high demand that you don’t have to seek out work, what I have to say may be of little use to you. Whatever industry you work in though, an understanding of how the gears turn coupled with some salesmanship and presentation skills can make the difference between stagnation and self-actualization. If you’re in the habit of keeping your head down and waiting for assignments to process you may be headed for extinction.

To find work opporunities, one needs to look for signs of economic activity. Marketing is understanding the money behavior of your target industry. Just as when you are fishing you look for spots in the water where food may be concentrating and likely have fish to catch, to find work you need to spot where the money is concentrating and new work opportunities will be opening up. What I am about to tell you is a few ways, by no means all, on how to identify the money stream. I am hoping some of the readers offer their own tips. For example, I have not made much use of company business profile or industry reports, but think that could be a valuable resource so long as you don’t pay too much for it.

Let’s get started. This is the hard part and I don’t have all the answers. I will relate what has been working for me, a technocrat with many years experience, but the methods will work wherever you are in the food chain. In fact, I am addressing this essay to my 23 yo son Shemp, who is probably like a lot of younger guys on this site; limited job experience, some community college classes, frustration in finding work while observing that young women appear to have all the advantages. This essay was stalled as I tried to counsel him on how to approach a business looking for work with techniques I used 30 years ago. What Shemp tells me about his work search now is that when he shows up at some place, they say “apply online”, which sounds like a brush-off, and sure enough, he was getting no response until recently when he actually got an interview. But he describes the online processing as immensely frustrating, echoing my own experience in the past few years where I entered my data into a company jobsite and promptly got an email saying “while your qualifications are impressive”…

I no longer even attempt that approach but you may want to do it as a background task as long as you don’t put too much hopefulness in the outcome. Sometimes you will get a bite from the oddest fishing attempts and haul in the big one.

The key point for increasing your probability of getting work is that you have to make human contact with a man placed high enough in the target organization to extend you a job. You identify this man through intelligence gathering. Your primary means of gathering information is of course, your local internet. The important thing is to get in front of the guy who is able to give you work. You accomplish this by careful research and targeting, followed by an attempt to contact. Usually this gets ignored. If you develop a continual process and learn from your mistakes, eventually you are going to get a response. When I finally got it in my head that this was the only way, I made the simple goal of “one act of marketing per week”. That’s really not much effort and has paid off well, with about 51 rejections a year yet at least one contract to keep me alive. But even the rejections have expanded my network and increased my salesmanship potential.

The second thing is once you have gotten audience with a contact, you are going to give a him brief narrative of what you do and what you are looking for, while spinning it as “value added” to his business. A tough thing to pull off, all within 30 seconds before handing him your card and offering him your capability sheet, which you will have ready to fork over. The conversation may continue or he will cut you short, it’s his call. Act like a pro and minimize projecting a bullshit image. Here again, practicing a little before jumping into the stream will pay off. Be prepared, be relaxed, and conversational. When you approach him you want him to sense from your style and body language that your pitch will be short and unpressured. A positive aspect of this approach is that he has likely encountered a steady stream of job seekers which causes him to set up defensive walls from the sheer difficulty in turning people down, not to mention employment legalities he has to worry about. When you approach him as a consultant/free agent (even if you are really seeking direct employment) then the conversation is more relaxed and fluid. There will be a freer exchange of industry knowledge and ideas and possibly some new leads for you. Almost always you leave with a “maybe in the future” handshake. If he has a project in the works you have just bumped yourself up into the realm of real candidacy.


Here I have also gotten stuck while writing this essay. In no way can I write out a comprehensive list of techniques that works for everyone in all contexts. What I am about to describe works for me, based on my trade skills and industry. Take it as an example, then do the legwork for your particular situation. The basic theme is this : identify the money and players in your industry, craft an approach, execute it, review your mistakes and successes, then repeat.

For low-experience guys approaching small businesses, you may be able to get owner/proprieter info from your local online municipal data. You also may need to get to the right man through trusted low-level contacts, who often can be helpful in getting you mentioned or passing along your capability sheet. The following methods are really for more experienced guys but still have usefulness to low-end seeker in that they help identify companies that might be hiring. If they have received funding they may be looking for people at various levels. So rather than a shotgun job search approach you will narrow your search to companies that are experiencing growth or new projects. Furthermore, on the low end jobs, if they have advertised it you can be sure they have been deluged with applications. Using the following tactics can help you identify those companies before they get the ad out, giving you a huge leg up on the competition.

Though contract job ads can be a good indicator of activity at a company; even if the prime isn’t listed you can usually find our who it is with a web seatch, then find the players, then get your resume directly to him.

Blind internet search. I actually found my last string of work this way. First I crafted a customizable cover letter, capability sheet printed with professional looking header, and business card. The cover and capability sheet cast me as an independent consultant, ElmerTech Services. Also I had some envelopes printed up with my company name and address because running an envelope through your printer usually ruins it. My home address sounds like it could be a business; if yours sounds a little too suburban you might want to consider a PO box. Now the next thing was to search online for tech companies in my city with google( mytown mytrade careers) or google(mytown mytrade employment opportunities) to find local company job listings. Often these are quite old as they don’t update the sites often. Now this might find you some useful info, but you need to work up the chain a little bit and find who the head tech or engineer is, often listed somewhere else on the site. Look at their “in the news” page or “company history” page and you might find someone. Also you want to drop the “career” search and look for companies doing your trade, like “welding suppliers” or “caterers”, whatever. Anyway, after getting all the envelopes and cards printed up, the first guy I sent one to called me in to talk! But it took months to actually get work out of him. He even sent me a “sorry, we gave it to someone else letter”, then when I was overseas, sent me another one offering me the job.

Publications. Most companies in technical industries will routinely publish “white papers” and journal articles about their topic of expertise, usually some research or product development they have done. The authors of these papers often have their contact information listed. You can send the type of letter I described, or just an email (or even a phone call, if you dare) showing interest or mentioning related work you have done. Again, simply use your search engine to find publications. Very often you will only get a citation or first page, but that may be enough to get some contact data. These journal articles also provide a lot of insight into the work going on at the company, such as existing or new projects. The more you dig the more you will find. Reading the article before talking to them is also great preparation and helps you ask intelligent questions or guide the discussion.

Federal Money Spigots. After I got the job with the tech company the owner gave me quite an education in entrepreneurship. He had been working “SBIR” contracts for a number of years, and every cycle submitted several proposals. SBIR means Small Business Innovation Research, a federal program mandating that a percentage of government research dollars goes to small businesses. He lost the contract I was hired to work on, a real letdown for me after a long dry spell. So I attempted my own SBIR proposal, and damned if I didn’t win. After that I started pursuing SBIRs with a vengeance and wrote proposals for several companies. Turns out it was beginner’s luck and the game is much tighter to win than that. But anyway, for you the point is that the SBIR sites list awards given to companies, and from there, you can get a lead on new business. If they have won a Phase II award, there may be greater need for your services. Check out http://www.dodsbir.net and http://www.dodsbir.net/awards

Now there’s another source that has a lot of this kind of information, known as Federal Business Opportunities, or fedbizopp. This is the central website listing all goods and service contracts for the US government. It lists upcoming contracts to be awarded and how to submit proposals or capability statements to win them. I have written quite a few of these with a lot of feedback but little actual award. Apparently by the time it makes it to fedbizopp, the contract is already “wired” even more than a SBIR. At least with a SBIR you have a chance outside the main proposer, whereas for fedbizopp there is only one, and they usually have the inside scoop. However, it is still a great source of award information. A nice thing about their site is that you can set custom search filters and it will automatically send you emails when new contracts appear for that topic or locality. Take a look at https://www.fbo.gov and set up a “general public” account.

Networking. OK, nothing new as everyone says to do it. But you need to take your business card and put it into action.It takes time, perhaps years to build it up, the same for marketing any product. Try to look like you’re a pro and not some desperate job seeker. Join a local trade group, attend trade shows and seminars, and start talking to people. Keep it low key and do it when you have work. You are seeking industry intelligence, not job openings.

Publish. Getting something in print is a big help. If you are in a technical field you should work towards getting journal publications. If you aren’t at that level, putting together a professional looking website with some of your portfolio work is helpful. You don’t have to be a great writer, just demonstrate your work. Take photos of some of the work you are doing and put it in there. Build it up and polish it over time. Put the URL on your business card. Otherwise reduce your internet footprint and get rid of your facebook and other trash.

This is just a beginning and really only a few methods to start with. What I hope to have impressed upon you is the need to gather your own intelligence and craft an approach that will get you in front of people who can hire you. This can be painful as you will be met with no small amount of rejection, but the few successes you will enjoy provide a sense of vindication and confidence that you can pull in the work no matter the current business climate.

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