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But first…are you experienced?

You can’t get a job without experience. Here’s how to get both.

If you’re just starting out in your IT career, you read lines like these in help-wanted ads and you wince. You sigh. You might even weep a little. You might send your résumé in anyway, but you don’t hold out much hope.

Never do you read an IT help-wanted ad that says no experience necessary. Yet, logic dictates that everybody starts somewhere, and when they start, they have no experience. You wonder how they got started and why no one seems willing to take a chance on newbies. You wonder why no one seems willing to take a chance on you.

There is hope. Companies still need good people and people still need good jobs. You may need to re-think your approach to your job search and adjust your expectations, but even in today’s tougher job market you can find an IT job.

The whys of experience

Employers want to hire people with experience because they run companies, not training facilities. They only have a limited number of staff positions per department, and they want to hire someone who can be productive the first day. This is particularly true today, with so many companies cutting back on staff and trying to get more work done with fewer people.

“On-the-job experience is the priority now,” says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of RHI Consulting, an IT recruitment and placement firm based in Menlo Park, Calif.

“Without experience you might get a lower-level job and work your way up into the job you’d like to have,” says Margaret Shulman, IT director at Jim Beam Brands in Lincolnshire, Ill. She explains why experience plays such a large role in determining who to interview and who to hire: “It proves you can do the work you say you can do.”

Experience, though, doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does. Savvy human-resources directors who hire for IT positions know that what you’ve actually done can count for more than the length of time you’ve held a job. They also know that IT job titles vary widely: One company’s systems analyst might be another company’s network coordinator.

Bottom line: Even if a help-wanted ad specifies a certain length of experience and specifies a particular job title, there can be room for negotiation. If you have relevant work experience for the time period specified, for example, but never had the job title listed in the ad, go ahead and apply for the job. Just make sure to stress in your cover letter and on your résumé that what you’ve done is relevant to the job.

Also, if you’ve held your title for less time than the ad calls for, apply anyway. Your chances depend on the other candidates who apply. Who knows, you may have the most experience of anyone in the candidate pool. Remember that company gamesmanship can play a role in what gets published in job advertisements. When a manager submits a job description that specifies years of experience far beyond what is necessary for a job, a wise human-resources director may go ahead and publish the manager’s request knowing that no such person walks the face of the earth. They also know that if such an IT expert existed, he or she wouldn’t take the job for the salary that’s available.

So after time passes and no perfect candidates have surfaced, the HR director goes back and renegotiates the experience requirements to something more reasonable and realistic. But meanwhile, having only seen the first set of requirements, maybe the prospective applicant has crossed that company off his or her list.

Lee suggests that if you see a job that doesn’t match your experience, you should call the company and see if there is a position that matches your current level of experience. They might have something and they might not, but at least you’ll have a more realistic view of that company as a potential employer.

No experience necessary

Experience also doesn’t always mean that you had high pay while you were doing the job. Especially for entry-level jobs such as PC technicians, many companies acknowledge experience gained in volunteer positions and through low-paying or unpaid internships. All that matters is that you did the job–not that you got paid to do it.

Liz Ryan, founder of WorldWIT, an online networking group for women (and men) in IT and a human-resources consultant based in Boulder, Colo., says internships are wonderful ways to gain experience. She adds that while many IT corporate internships are specifically for high school or college students, there are opportunities for nonstudents as well.

“There are one-year and six-month internship programs. Think of the internship as an extension of their training, as the last semester,” she advises. “Approach a company and craft your own internship if you need to.”

Maureen Jennings, H.R. director at U.S. Robotics in Chicago, agrees with Ryan that internships are useful ways to gain experience. She also points out that volunteer work can be helpful. “If you’re in school, take advantage of internships or co-op programs. If you’re not in school, volunteer a few hours a week if it gets you some experience. Either way is a great way to network.”

Whether it’s an internship, a co-op program, or a volunteer job, you need to make sure that the experience you are gaining is the right experience for the job you want to get. That makes intuitive sense, but it isn’t always easy to find the right opportunity. The organization you approach for a volunteer job might need people to answer phones and stuff envelopes. Make sure they understand what you are after and why–and tell them why they really need your help in that area.

If you’re already working in a company and either want to move into an IT-related job or move up the IT career ladder, volunteering within the company can help you gain important experience. There are some caveats, Ryan warns, such as making sure you are gaining relevant experience and that your supervisor is OK with you taking on extra work.

Don’t expect your internship or volunteer experience to instantly launch you to a great job, either. It may, at best, be the path to an entry-level position. Jennings reports, “Our company would consider people without a lot of IT experience for entry-level positions. We would look for internships, co-op, or volunteer experience. The closer it is to their field and our job opening, the better.”

Marketing your experience

When you go out to market your internship or volunteer experience, make sure you put the right spin on it. Stress the responsibilities you had and the tasks you accomplished. “What matters is the worth and applicability of your experience,” Ryan says.

Make sure your résumé and your interview are spotless performances. “One typo, and I won’t interview,” says Shulman. “Also, the résumé should not be all fluff. What do you actually do? What achievements can you point to?”

Consider putting together a portfolio of your work: reports that you generated, materials or programs that you’ve created, even photographs of the network hubs you’ve designed and constructed. If you can prove you’ve done the work, you’re more likely to get the job.

The role of certifications

Ryan explains that certifications played a more significant role in the hiring process a few years ago during the dot-com frenzy. Today, employers look for direct experience more than certification. That’s not to say that certifications are useless, but they must be pertinent.

For entry-level openings in PC technical jobs, certifications that stress your knowledge of computer basics–such as the CompTIA A+–are valuable. Those seeking help-desk positions should be able to document their knowledge of office applications, particularly Microsoft applications. A Microsoft Office User Specialist (MOUS) certification or one of the office software certifications from Brainbench or another online certification group will suffice.

When it comes time to move up the IT job ladder, more sophisticated certifications will put you ahead of the pack. In fact, continual skill improvement, whether through certification or experience, is a necessity for a long-term career in IT.

There is hope is the mantra IT job seekers should embrace. To be successful today in an IT newbie job hunt requires some out-of-the-box thinking and action. It also requires taking a long-term view of your career. It’s striking to think that you have to work as hard on your career as you do at your job, but that’s a reality no matter how hot the job market might be.

Five not-so-easy pieces

Whether you’re working on your first job in IT or your 50th, experience is paramount. It’s not the only factor involved in getting the job, though. Here are five not-so easy pieces of the IT career puzzle:

o Get the résumé perfect. It’s the first thing a prospective employer sees when you apply for a job, and you don’t want it to be the last. Make sure the résumé is perfect–no typographical or grammatical errors. Go light on the fluff and heavy on the descriptions of what you actually do.

o Reduce your expectations. You may have to start at the bottom, even if you feel you’re worth more. Getting your foot in the door at a good company might be your best move. Shulman says, “If you are going to work for a firm that will teach you how to play a technology role, don’t expect them to pay you a huge salary to train you. We recently had a temp-to-perm employee on the help desk. He was right out of college with no formal training or experience. When we discovered his salary expectation was $40K just because he had a bachelor’s degree, we told the agency to send us someone else.”

o Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. This piece fits right next to the piece about realistic expectations. If you have to start at the bottom or take a job that you feel is beneath your capabilities, then do it. Get in, get to work, and keep your eyes open for other opportunities within the company.

o Make your list, work your list. Make a list of the companies in your area that you would like to work for, then find out if your skills and experience match their needs. If so, send them your résumé and explain specifically why you think it’s a good match. Don’t wait for the company to advertise for help.

o Network, network, network. Get involved in local IT organizations, and sign yourself up for online organizations like WorldWIT. Go public on the online groups by posting a summary of your job qualifications. Ask the members for help finding a job. Tell people that you’re looking for a job and outline what kind of job you’d like to have.

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