Julia McWilliams, by no means a household name, was born in California in 1912 and graduated from Smith College in 1934. Then she moved to New York City, worked as a typist and wrote advertising copy for W. & J. Sloane, then a major home furnishings reseller. By 1942, the United States had entered World War II, and Julia put her career on hold. She wanted to enlist; but both the WACs and the WAVEs put limits on the heights of enlistees, and they disqualified a 6-foot-2-inch Julia.
Undaunted, she signed on with the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA. Toward the war’s end, she was posted to China and Ceylon, serving as Chief of the OSS Registry.
So far, then, Julia had worked as a typist, as a copywriter and, depending on one’s willingness to romanticize her wartime career, as a secret agent. In Ceylon, she met the man she would marry and whose name she would take, Paul Cushing Child.
As Julia Child our heroine suddenly becomes recognizable. She had changed jobs again, going on to a whole new career as a TV personality and author of best-selling cookbooks.
Julia died in 2004, but her image lives on, and she is remembered today as something of a force of nature. On live-to-videotape TV, she rolled with the punches, a glass of wine in hand and potential disasters – like the chicken that slipped from platter to studio floor – met with cheerful insouciance.
In today’s job market, a change in career is not always voluntary, but it has become common. In Julia’s day, people were likely to stay in a career for their entire working lives. The average worker today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, changes careers three times.
Job Interview Challenges
While career change may not be rare, it is still something that an interviewer will question. Why are you making this move? What went wrong? Are you changing because you are desperate, or are you driven by a heartfelt desire?
Applicants should be well prepared for this line of questioning, bearing some key topics in mind.
Take a close look at the requirements of a new job in light of the skills you applied in the past. If specific skills apply, emphasize them by all means, but remember that general skills are often transferable from job to job. Managerial and organizational skills are of value anywhere. Effective communication always has a place.
For Julia, typing was the skill she transferred from advertising to espionage. She started her OSS career as a typist of index cards. In time, superiors noticed her education and intelligence, leading them to assign her to more responsible positions. Even a minor skill can open doors.
Eliminate the Negative
If your explanation focuses on the things you hated about your past career, interviewers will be all too ready to share your negativity. At that point, you have increased the odds that they’ll take a skeptical view of your alleged enthusiasm for this new career. You don’t have to paint a picture of the past that’s overly rosy, but emphasize the positives of your new career, not the frustrations of your old job.
Here lies the secret of Julia’s success. When she left the OSS, she and Paul moved to France. She fell in love with French food, studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu and started teaching cooking in her Paris apartment. Her career change was motivated by the very forces emphasized by career guides. Find something that you love to do. Then find a way to make money doing it.
It sounds so simple, but it’s no easy task in real life.
The point is not that an applicant must wait for divine inspiration before submitting a resume. Instead, try to communicate genuine enthusiasm. Julia’s enthusiasm was entirely sincere, but not everyone is lucky enough to be in that position. Some of us must learn to act the part.
Choice, Not Compulsion
If you can’t quite sell your interviewer that you are driven by an irresistible passion for your new career, you still have to make it clear that you are here by conscious choice.
Here, you may want to acknowledge a negative aspect of a previous job, but tread carefully. When Julia applied to the OSS, she explained that she was leaving her job as a typist because, by that time, she had “typed over 10,000 little white cards,” according to her personnel file. She was ready for something new. That makes for an easily understood motive, and she did so without disparaging her old boss or her previous workplace.
The idea that you are making a conscious choice applies to both the new field and the new company. Be sure to demonstrate familiarity with current industry events. You know about important recent developments and are versed in the forces that are shaping the field.
In order to convince an interviewer, however, be prepared to add concrete evidence of your sincerity.
Julia covered this base when she applied to the OSS. At the time, she had a “good reading knowledge” of French, but she let the OSS know that she was taking private French lessons three times a week. Adding that to her resume made her commitment concrete.
Apply the same reasoning to the company itself. You applied because you knew what that company was all about. You knew its strengths and weaknesses. You understood its culture. You are here because this is where you want to be, and you expect to make a valuable contribution. Be prepared to elaborate on those contributions. Be as specific as you can.
In addition, be prepared to deal with differences between your past life and your present ambitions. If you worked at a large firm, will you thrive at a small one? If you were in a back-office role and rarely saw the light of day, how will you fare in a very customer-focused position?
The key is the ability to see through employers’ eyes. If you were the interviewer, what would worry you about this career-changing candidate?
Accentuate the Positive
Employers can be wary of applicants who are changing careers, and that attitude can influence the applicants themselves, making them too defensive about their choices. It’s easy to forget that there is a positive side to changing careers.
Career change requires flexibility and, since you’ve established that your change is a deliberate one, it takes courage. After all, you would not be changing careers unless you had thought long and hard about the move. Your presence in the interview, even your willingness to plunge once more into the job market, speaks to your commitment to this new opportunity.
These qualities are all rather abstract, and abstractions don’t resonate with interviewers. As part of interview preparation, an applicant should find ways to tie those qualities to specific situations. Turn the abstract into the concrete and interviewers will take notice.
In the face of a potentially skeptical interviewer, don’t ignore the positive side of the very qualities that led you to a career change – and this interview – in the first place.
Paul Freiberger is the author of When Can You Start? How to Ace the Interview and Win the Job (Career Upshift Productions, 2013). He is also the President of Shimmering Resumes, a career counseling and resume writing company in Northern California. For more information, please visit www.ShimmeringResumes.com.