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Mastering the Art of the Informational Interview

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If you’re making a mid-life career change and are looking for a job, you need to do more than just respond to job postings listed on web sites, social media or classified ads. Networking and making requests for informational interviews with potential employers are key when making a career change.

Although the statistics vary, it has been widely reported that more than half of all jobs are unadvertised. Duncan Mathison, co-author of the book “Unlock the Hidden Job Market,” recently told The Wall Street Journal that around 50 percent of all jobs are filled without advertising a formal job posting. Other experts surmise from U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics that 70 to 80 percent of all jobs are filled through networking.

When making a midlife career change, it’s important to consider informational interviews, a more specialized form of connecting with potential employers. Richard Nelson Bolles, author of “What Color is Your Parachute,” first coined the phrase “informational interview,” which he describes it as “trying on jobs to see if they fit you.”

“All career planning and job searching is a process of clarification, and the more you know about yourself and what you are seeking, the better you’re going to be at marketing yourself and uncovering opportunities,” says Mary Beth Barritt, assistant director of the University of Vermont’s Career Center. “Informational interviewing is essential to that because it’s a great research and connecting tool.”

What sets informational interviews apart from networking is that you get a snapshot of a particular industry, career or organization, and lets potential co-workers and employers get a feel for what you might offer in the workplace. By removing the stress of a formal job interview, you may find yourself more in an informational interview and able to connect better with potential co-workers.

An informational interview can be quite useful for someone making a midlife career change, Barritt says.

Informational interviews for career change
A person making a mid life career change may have an easier time with informational interviewing than a recent college graduate in their early 20s

“A person making a mid-life career change may have an easier time with informational interviewing than a recent college graduate because the typical 45-year-old has a great many more connections than a 22-year-old,” she explains.

So, how do you go about informational interviews when making a midlife career change? Barritt suggests that you:

Plumb your networks. Think about all the people you’ve come in contact with over your three-, four- or five-plus decades — friends, relatives, former co-workers, neighbors, college alumni – and contact them. Consider any organizations and memberships: religious, school (your children’s and your own), sports, fraternal, volunteer, political, business, academic, professional and social. “There are 11,000 members of the UVM Alumni Association, and 6,000 members in UVM Career Connection on LinkedIn, and within that, various subgroups, from engineering and technology to international development,” Barritt notes. “Right there, you have numerous potential contacts.”

Use LinkedIn to locate potential contacts and set up meetings. You not only can track down former classmates, co-workers and managers, you also can join professional organizations and groups. Once you become established in a group and begin posting comments, it’s easier to contact members or post requests for informational interviews. “LinkedIn is one of the best tools for a mid-career changer,” Barritt says. “Not only do they have the networks and former colleagues to connect with, but they also know how to approach people, how to read situations, how to use business etiquette to ask for time.”

When you do reach out to someone to ask for an informational interview, keep your request short, simple and low-key. “You’re making a request for advice and information, not a job,” Barritt explains. “If there are no openings, and you ask for a job, they might step back. But if you say, ‘I’d like to pick your brain about opportunities in marketing in the Burlington, Vermont, area,’ and you provide a little information about what you’re trying to find out, then they’re more open to your request.” And if you don’t hear from them right away, they may just be busy; politely follow up again, once or twice. After that, it’s probably best to drop your request for an informational interview.

Drop a name. If you have a contact, then use it. “It really helps to say, ‘Joe Smith suggested I give you a call. Is there 30 minutes you have to talk to me about your job?’ ” Barritt explains.

Try to meet in person – either on site at the person’s business or close by, to save time. “If you have the capacity to do it face-to-face, that’s better than on the phone,” she says. “Ask if you can sit down with them for half an hour and buy them a cup of coffee.”

Visit the UVM Career Center’s web page on networking and informational interviewing. The site offers numerous tips as well as sample contact emails, questions, LinkedIn messages and phone calls. Questions such as “What knowledge, skills, abilities and other qualifications are desirable for this job?” and “What do you view as the critical skills for a position in this field?” can solicit useful information.

Don’t forget to follow up with a thank you to both the person whom you interviewed and, if applicable, the contact who sent you. “You can finish your informational interview by asking, ‘May I keep in touch with you?’ That’s the beginning of the networking, so then you can write back, even a year later, and say, ‘I just wanted you to know I’ve taken such-and-such job,’” Barritt explains. “Now there is a collegiality built. You never know when you might be needing to connect with the person again.”