How to start a job search when you're out of work and out of ideas

If you lost a dead-end job and lack the skills for the next one, don't give up -- you can get back on the path to employment

Dear Bob ...

I saw your column "When your IT job feels hopelessly stale, what's next?" and couldn't help but identify with "Stuck." I'm in a somewhat similar situation -- I've been working with the same people in the same C programming job for 10 years watching OOP pass me by, and feel hopelessly out-of-date. I used to program because I loved the challenge, but not any more -- now it's just my job.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "When your IT job feels hopelessly stale, what's next?" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

The big difference between me and Stuck, though, is that he still has a job. The company I worked for shut down this summer, and I'm now unemployed. I'm having trouble even finding C job listings, and my low enthusiasm for the search isn't helping any. I'd love to get into some newer technology, but my structured programming mindset doesn't seem to apply very well to OOP; by my salary history I'd be much more expensive than a new grad would be, and by far not as qualified as one.

I suppose this'd be as good a time as any to try out a new career, but I'm pretty stumped as to what it might be. I recently married, and I'd like to change my focus from work more toward family -- we've been talking about starting one. In that context, I think having to deal with the same old routine every day would be great. I sympathize with Stuck's plight -- but at the same time I think I'd like to have his job.

Seriously, though, I've always been fairly handy with futzing with hardware, and with nudging Windows to do my bidding -- might it make sense for me to look elsewhere in IT, maybe in sys admin or QA? Are the certificate courses any good?

I know you're not the Great and Powerful Oz and can't just wave your wand and make my life better, but after just spending a few hours pounding my head on craigslist and CareerBuilder and finding a grand total of one job I thought I could apply for with a straight face, it helps a lot just to be able to talk a bit about what's going on. Thanks for listening.

- Pounding the pavement

Dear Pounding ...

Well, it's too late to suggest that the time to prepare for the next step in your career is while you still have a job. It's always easy to advise, and generally difficult to act on, given that you're already spending a full workday and then some on the one you have -- believe me, I'm not criticizing.

So here you are. A few possibilities occur to me. I have no idea which makes the most sense for you.

The sys admin route certainly seems worth exploring, since you already know and are comfortable with the underlying technology. My concern with it is that sys admin jobs don't generally go anywhere, since they're mostly about problem prevention rather than value creation. I'm not denigrating the value of the role -- far from it. It's that management tends to notice people who add new value more than they notice the maintenance crew. If you do like this direction, I'd encourage you to look for your next position among outsourcing companies rather than among their potential clients. It's better to be part of revenue than to be part of cost, and your job is less likely to be outsourced.

If you do like the idea, a certificate is a handy thing to have. The knowledge is more important, though, so screen your educational opportunities on that basis.

Another possibility: If, in your career, you had much experience managing projects, take advantage of it. Good project managers are always in high demand and short supply. The Project Management Institute is the usually cited source of information and certification, but it's far from the only one. There are quite a few competing methodologies and certifications. PRINCE2 comes to mind, and AIPM; the Goldratt Institute has built a methodology around its Theory of Constraints that looks pretty interesting.

As with systems administration, certifications are particularly useful when dealing with a career change.

Or get into a .Net training program. I suspect that one class in methodology, one in syntax, and one in Scrum and you'd be good to go -- you'd have both programming experience and knowledge of SOA techniques.

More than anything else, as you decide where you're going to solidify new skills, remember that your best avenue for turning them into employment isn't or CareerBuilder. It's the people you've worked with in the past who know that when you get an assignment, you have the habit of success. These are the people who will get you past the screeners and in front of the people who aren't just looking for a sack o' skills -- they're looking for great employees.

- Bob

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