Monday, October 4, 2010

How can I get a job with no experience?

Ahhhh, fall. A lovely time of year when football season starts, the weather gets cooler, and everyone's sending out their resumes after either taking a summer break or finishing up their degree during summer semester. A couple of months ago, I got a great question from Caitlin, and I'd like to a) apologize for taking so long to get to this, and b) answer it in some semi-coherent way (which is why it took me so long to get to the question).

Caitlin asked:

I have a bit of a personal dilemma involving my job search... I have no architectural experience!
It puts me at a huge disadvantage... I just graduated, no honors or awards to speak of, and a handful of odd-jobs (I only included a couple on my resume itself, I was laughed at by a job fair recruiter once for putting "bartender" on my resume). Any personal connections I've utilized have lead nowhere, which I feel is also a disadvantage.

Caitlin's ultimate question is how to respond to a potential interviewer regarding her lack of experience. That's a great question, and here's the short answer to it: honestly and eloquently.

It does depend on why you haven't gotten an architectural job during college. When I went job hunting (back in the halcyon days of 2000, when the economy was awesome and our money wasn't on fire), I didn't have any real working-at-an-architectural-firm experience. The closest I had was working for one summer in the design & construction department of a resort/nature preserve almost an hour form my hometown, and i worked a couple of summers and Christmases at a local hospital in the medical records department. If someone had asked me why I didn't have any actual firm experience, I would have answered them thus: I was told that all the nearby firms were of poor quality, and all the good firms (in Atlanta) were a 90-minute commute for me. And that was the truth--family friends who had met and worked with architects in our nearby area (within 45 minutes of my hometown) universally panned the local architects as hacks who didn't know how to put a house together, and no one would recommend working with any of the few that were nearby. The firms that might be worth working at, in Atlanta, were at least a 90-minute commute each way for me, living in rural Georgia as I did in college. Furthermore, trying to live in Atlanta or anywhere closer to Atlanta to shorten the drive would have been cost-prohibitive in the mid- to late-1990s. Therefore, I worked a job closer to home that would allow me to be challenged in an unusual way and still learn something. Given the fact that I was now interested in working on healthcare architecture, it would appear that my experience at the hospital might have weighed just as well in my favor as would have working in a firm.

So the truth generally works, as long as it's a reasonable truth. For example, if you just graduated or graduated in the past year, it might be reasonable to say that you haven't worked at a firm because no one has been hiring in the past 12-24 months in your area, so you worked wherever you could, be it bartending, waiting tables, mowing lawns, answering phones for a nonprofit, whatever. (And don't let anyone laugh at you for any job experience--work is work, and you learn something useful in every job that you can use in architecture.)

But let me step back and address Caitlin's bigger concern, that having no experience can hurt you. It really depends on the firm and the economic climate. For example, if you just graduated in the past couple of years, firms likely weren't hiring during the time in which a) you would know enough about architecture to be worth hiring and b) your work hours would count towards IDP. In that case, it's hard to hold your lack of architectural experience against you. Furthermore, there are firms that in whole or in part don't mind taking on interns that have no experience. One of the partners at the firm for which I work prefers taking on fairly inexperienced interns because they tend to have lots of enthusiasm and are willing to work like crazy (within some reason, of course) in order to learn about their profession, plus he and his managers don't have to untrain them of bad habits and practices that they might have picked up at a lesser firm. Also, interns with less experience are cheaper to hire, so it can be worth a firm's time to spend the time to train you because, depending on the project and its schedule, it may still be cheaper than hiring someone with five years' experience. So while not having a lot of experience can feel like a disadvantage, it can be an advantage at certain firms. Ultimately, in a down economy or during the long, slow recovery thereof, a lack of experience isn't exactly a deal breaker, again depending on the firm.

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