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Uncover Your Ideal Job With Informational Interviews

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If you limit yourself to discovering job opportunities on career websites and job boards, you're missing out on the majority of opportunities. These opportunities are tucked away in what's known as the hidden jobs market. In this article, I'll show you a simple technique for potentially accessing those hidden opportunities.

As a bonus, this technique will also help you discover a wide range of jobs and career paths where you could put your skills and experience to good use. You'll also get an insight into what you'd really be doing in a particular job, day-to-day. As such, you'll find out which jobs are ideal for your skills and interests, and which would leave you bored or overwhelmed.

The technique I'll show you is informational interviewing. It's most often used by new college graduates, but it's useful for anyone who is going through a career transition.

Before we dig into what informational interviewing is all about, let's take a look at what you are missing out on if you ignore the hidden jobs market.

What is the Hidden Jobs Market?

Common lore in the world of careers advice is that only around 20-30% of available jobs are advertised. The remaining 70-80% of jobs are filled in other ways. This is the hidden jobs market.

Research bears our these statistics - although the 70% figure is a little misleading. That's because the hidden jobs market includes internal hires.

According to an in-depth study by CareerXRoads, 42% of hires are made internally by promoting or transferring current employees. Obviously, this part of the hidden jobs market is only available to you if you're already working.

Taking the remaining hires as a whole, just under half are made through online job boards, career websites and print advertising. The rest are made in other ways - through the hidden jobs market.

Crunching the numbers, that means that including internal appointments, the hidden jobs market does make up around 70% of jobs. However, if you're looking for a job outside your current company, then the hidden jobs market makes up around 50% of available jobs. That still gives you a lot to play for, especially considering the better odds of finding a job on the hidden jobs market compared with through job adverts. We'll get to those odds in a moment.

Here are the precise figures from CareerXRoads 2013 report for sources of external hires:

With informational interviewing, you'll potentially get referrals from your interviewees. That's not the primary aim of informational interviewing, but if you conduct enough interviews (more than 12), it's a likely outcome.

As you can see above, referrals are the biggest slice of the pie.

What Informational Interviews Will Do for You

Informational interviews are primarily a way of researching your career options. You make contact with people who work in a field you're interested in exploring, and you meet up with them to ask questions about their job.

It's important to view informational interviews as a research strategy rather than as a job search strategy. You've got a good chance of uncovering job opportunities, but that can't be your primary aim. Be clear with yourself that you are using these interviews to explore your career options and find out what your ideal job would be. If you get a job offer, that's a bonus.

There are numerous benefits to informational interviewing. As John Less, author of How to Get a Job You'll Love, explains, by conducting information interviews:

“You will add to your personal knowledge, increase your network, and learn how jobs ‘feel' from the inside.”

Informational interviews give you:

  • Insight into a diverse range of jobs. It's likely that the jobs you discover will be more desirable than those advertised online. That's because desirable jobs are easier to fill, so companies don't necessarily need to advertise to find the right person.
  • An opportunity to grow your professional network. A bigger network means more access to job opportunities, because you've got more eyes keeping a look-out on your behalf. Additionally, every new person you connect with can introduce you to people you can interview.
  • Insight into career paths you never thought of. Informational interviews give you insight into what different jobs actually involve, day-to-day. This helps you discern what you really want from your career.
  • An insider's view of the skills and experience companies are looking for. With this inside knowledge, if you're offered the chance to interview for a job, you'll know what to focus on to make your interviewers want to hire you. This is particularly helpful if you're branching out into a new industry or career path, as all industries have their own jargon. You'll learn what this jargon is during informational interviews. Speaking in the right language identifies you as a good person to hire.
  • A confidence boost. Being on the hunt for work can knock down your self-esteem. Dressing up in smart work clothes and getting out to talk with people in the workplace helps increase your confidence.
  • New skills. Interviewing people is a fantastic skill to develop, and will serve you well whatever job you go for.

Although informational interviews shouldn't primarily be used for job hunting, they are a highly effective strategy for finding a job. Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., of Quintessential Careers, has stated precisely how effective they are: 

"While one out of every 200 resumes (some studies put the number as high as 1,500 resumes) results in a job offer, one out of every 12 informational interviews results in a job offer."

Informational interviews are hard work. But they're the faster route to where you want to be.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting Informational Interviews

Step 1: Choose Your “People Finder” Strategy

To conduct an informational interview, you first need to get meetings with people willing to be interviewed.

You have two options for this, and the option you choose depends on how comfortable you are with cold calling and how much you want to work in a particular industry.

If you're uncomfortable with cold calling, and you're willing to explore a wide-range of job options, then your best bet is to start with friends and family. If this is you, go to Step 1a.

If you're determined to work in particular industry (e.g. fashion, tech, media), then you'll need to have the courage to make cold calls. If this is you, go to Step 1b.

Step 1a: Ask Friends and Family for Interviews

This is a good way of exploring a wide range of career options. Think of which of your family and friends work in jobs you may be interested in, and touch base with them. I'll show you how to do that in the next step.

Step 1b: Hit the Phones

If you've got a clear idea of the career you want, and you just need an insider's view, then you'll need to start making some calls. Browse online for companies you'd like to work for, and get in touch with them via email or phone. Additionally, read newspaper and magazine articles about your industry to get ideas for companies to make contact with.

You'll need a thick skin, as you'll often be turned away. Keep pumping that phone! The effort will pay off in the end.

We've included a cold calling script in our Informational Interviews Cheat Sheet.

Step 2: Ask for An Interview

Once you've made contact, what next?

If you asked your friends and family for help, this step is relatively easy. Your friends and family know you, so you'll have little convincing to do. Drop them a line and ask if they'd be willing to give you a tour of their workplace and answer a few questions about their job. Most people love having someone take an interest in their work.

Hint: Even if a friend or family member is unable to give you a workplace tour, they can help in other ways. Ask for an informational interview in their free time. You'll still learn a great deal.

If you're cold calling or cold emailing, you'll have to lay the groundwork before you ask for an informational interview.

First, before you call, prepare the questions you'll ask if you manage to get an interview (see Step 3). This is because you'll sometimes be given an opportunity on the spot to ask questions over the phone.

When you make the call, the person you're talking to may wonder what you're trying to sell or think you're just trying to get a job.

Break down these barriers by briefly introducing yourself. Explain that you're looking for information and advice about working in a particular industry. Emphasize the fact that you're looking for information, not a job. Also explain that you only want a short interview, and that they can choose a time that suits them. Most people can spare 15 minutes from their schedule.

Hint: For a cold calling script, check out our Informational Interviews Cheat Sheet.

Step 3: Prepare for the Interview

You've got your first informational interview. Great job! Understandably, you'll feel a little nervous. The best way to quell your nerves is to prepare well.

  • Plan your trip. Check out where the company is based, and how long it will take you to get there. Arriving on time shows respect for the person who has agreed to help you.
  • Prepare your questions. This is key. No matter how good you think you are at improvising, you can't turn up and make-it-up-as-you-go. If you're finding out about a career that's completely new to you, do some background research online. This will help you ask the most insightful questions, rather than wasting your short interview just finding out the basics. You can also take a look at our Informational Interviews Cheat Sheet for question ideas.
  • Dress smart. Dress as you would if you were going for a job interview. You want to make the best possible impression.
  • Have a system for remembering what you learn. This could be recording the interview on your smartphone and transcribing it afterwards, or taking notes during the interview.

You're set to go! What should you do during the interview?

Step 4: Conduct the Interview

Here's how to behave during the interview:

  • Respect the interviewee's time. Arrive promptly, and stick to the timeframe you agreed when you arranged the interview.
  • Be polite. Before you start the interview, thank the interviewee for their time. Repeat your thanks at the end of the interview.
  • Introduce yourself. Even though you introduced yourself over the phone, the person you're interviewing is busy and may not remember everything about you. Explain who you are and what you're hoping to get from the interview.
  • Ask your questions. If it helps, take a list of questions with you. You can always deviate from your list if your interviewee says something interesting that you'd like to follow up on.

Finally, whatever you do, don't ask for a job. Be clear with yourself and your interviewee that you're interviewing for information, not to find out about job openings. Focus on their day to day work, and their work goals and projects.

At the end of the interview, thank the interviewee for their time, and conclude with a final question:

"Could you put me in touch with some more people who could give me insights into this industry from another perspective?"

If they're willing to do that, it's helpful to ask if they'd make the introduction on your behalf. They may do this on the phone right away, or they may do it later via email.

Hint: There's a chance the meeting will turn into a job interview. If they want to interview you, explain that you'd like some time to prepare, and give them some dates when you will be available in the near future.

Step 5: Follow Up

When you get home after the interview, send the person a thank you note via email. You can also include a polite reminder asking to be connected with the people they agreed to put you in touch with.

If you want to make this an even more powerful gesture, you can send a thank you card rather than an email.

Remember to keep a record of all your interviews, and the contact details of the people you've interviewed, you never know when this will come in handy in the future.

Have You Tried Informational Interviews?

Informational interviews are an under-used tool. Have you ever conducted an informational interview? Share your experience in the comments, below.

Graphic Credit: Interview designed by Sarah Abraham from the Noun Project.

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