Experience and That First Professional Job

by Ellen Mehling, Career Development Consultant, METRO

I talk to LIS students and recent graduates regularly, and many lament the difficulty of getting experience, and of landing that first professional job without experience. It’s that classic conundrum challenging new grads in any field: how to get one without the other?

Although it may seem like experience requirements are there just to frustrate those who are new to the profession, they’ve been around for years. If you take a look at hiring from today’s employers’ point of view, it is easier to understand why those requirements are included in job postings.

Experience makes you much more attractive and valuable to employers

09112013_experienceandthatfirst_job.jpgThe first steps of the transition from theory studied in the classroom to practice in real life typically require close supervision and guidance. In today’s “do more with less” work environments, employers prefer applicants who have put that theory into practice (and perhaps made their rookie mistakes) elsewhere before applying.

Hiring can be costly in terms of staff time and effort, and there is sometimes a financial cost too, depending on where the position is posted. Until a position is filled, there is work that is not being done. Employers will want to fill the position with someone who is a good fit as soon as possible, and have that person “up to speed” quickly. They can expect that experienced candidates will be fully productive in a short period of time.

Job descriptions have skill, education, and experience requirements, as discussed in this blog entry about an interesting study of academic librarian job postings. Employers will require the MLS (almost always specifying that it must be from an ALA-accredited program), but that alone is not enough; it is necessary, to be sure, but not by itself sufficient to get you hired. If you graduate with little or no experience, you'll be at a strong disadvantage relative to other candidates. With the slowly-recovering economy and many seasoned information professionals on the job hunt, employers know that if they ask for a certain amount of experience, they'll likely get many applicants who have it.

How to Get Experience

So what is the solution to this dilemma?

Get as much experience as you can, however you can. Do an internship while in school. If your library school program requires an internship, great; if not, do one anyway. Multiple internships are even better. Remember: be creative when looking for internships and other opportunities that offer funding. For example, those in the NYC area may be interested in METRO’s National Digital Stewardship Residency Program and Innovative Internship Program.

Ample opprtunities for gaining experience are available as well. Get a part-time library-related job, and volunteer for professional associations. Opportunities to build your skills through volunteering abound though outlets like I Need a Library Job and Hack Library School

All of these options offer networking opportunities too, which will further improve your chances of job hunting success. If you are entering information into an online application and your years of experience don’t meet the minimum, your application will go no further. If a human being who is in a position to make hiring decisions is reviewing your resume and you’ve been recommended to that person, though, your chances of getting an interview will increase greatly.

Choose the places you get your experience carefully; be clear on what you are hoping to gain and what skills you want to practice, and make sure the experience you’ll be getting is in demand. Think about how you'll describe this experience on your resume and in a job interview.

In today’s workplaces, required skills and experience are subject to frequent change. Keep up on emerging technologies and services: conference attendance is one way to stay current. Even if you can’t attend, sites for recent past conferences (face to face or virtual) can offer some beneficial slides and videos. For example, NISO and Computers in Libraries have compiled resources from their meetings. 

Another interesting program you may want to check out is ACRL’s Residency Interest Group, which is working to expand opportunities for recent grads to begin their professional careers.

What if you have some experience but not quite the amount requested?

In some cases, there may be more flexibility than there seems to be from the job description. What are listed as requirements may in reality be more like preferences, but you won’t be able to tell that from the job posting. Understand that if an employer is willing to consider someone with less than the amount of experience stated in the job posting, that person would have to be a very strong candidate in other respects.

If you meet most of the other requirements, apply! Rather than bringing attention to what you lack, focus what you have to offer. You can mention that you have less than the required years of experience, but don’t dwell on it; move quickly on to your strengths and relevant accomplishments and skills. Do your homework on the employers and their needs and challenges, and be very clear on how you can serve and be of value in ways that are meaningful specifically to them. You’ll need a stellar cover letter and a resume tailored for each position; “one size fits all” documents are not going to dazzle a hiring manager.

Soft skills matter too, such as flexibility, enthusiasm, positivity, being organized and especially being a quick learner. If you can convey the ways in which you served other employers above and beyond the call of duty in the past, a decision-maker may see you as someone to interview, despite a deficit of experience.