What can you do for me? Getting specific.

See that question in the headline: what can you do for me?

If you’re looking to change jobs (even within the organization you’re currently with), or looking to land one in a different organization, that’s the question you have to answer.

If you’re on one of the career ladders, that’s a pretty easy question to answer. What you’ve been doing applies directly to what you will be doing: if you were (let’s say) a senior analyst, moving up to team leader of the analysts seems to follow nicely — intermediate analyst to senior analyst even more so.

If you’re looking for a change of pace, you’ll have to draw out more the connections. Not everyone will do that for you — and in this era where far too many résumés hit the inbox of either a computer program or an intermediary, you can’t assume that anyone or anything capable of digging implications out will ever see what you write.

Here’s an example from a résumé/cover letter, to show you what I mean (looking to join a not-for-profit with a communications bent to my participation):

  • I can explain complex situations: I taught philosophy to 9-12 year olds
  • I can produce on demand: I write 3,000-4,000 words/day for various outlets
  • I can get the support of top people: I was a CEO, a Board Chair, and an executive coach

These are more helpful than the rest of the résumé, filled with sales numbers, project delivery results, people managed, revenue streams, and the like. Not that those don’t matter (they do) but here I’m drawing out the pieces for the initial reader.

Did you notice, by the way, how a career that includes many different elements all got applied to this one situation?

I’m trying to create a role, but in most cases you’d be going after one that exists — in which case those bullets should use the words the job poster or job description would use.

Now why does this matter? In a word, unemployment.

George Friedman, the head of Stratfor, published an article today about his observations in Spain of unemployment and lack of business going on. In that country, a little over half of all young people not in school are unemployed — and about a quarter of the population as a whole.

That ratio — 2:1 — is “normal”. Right now, in Canada, youth unemployment is about 15 per cent (with the national average at about 7.5 per cent). Unemployment in the statistics, to go further, only counts those actually drawing benefits as “unemployed” — use up your weeks of EI and officially you “found something” when they stop paying you. Underemployment — people scraping by with a little work here and there, but no real position — probably almost doubles the numbers we see in the news (whereas in Spain the benefits continue and thus people keep getting counted).

So, even if you’re just looking for a bit of work to get by, answering the question “what can you do for me?” still matters. (So, too, if you decide to put up your shingle as a contractor/consultant doing that job — in that case, you have to ask it in terms of getting clients.)

Now the advice generally given to the unemployed or those who don’t seem to be moving up is “get some more education”. That can be the right answer. It can also be a complete waste of time, energy and money.

What will you learn that augments the “what can you do for me” question? Can you articulate it as an answer in a bullet list (beyond “I keep improving myself: my latest course is x”)?

If you can, great! Go get the learning done, and reap the reward.

If you can’t, or you’re not sure, it may not be the right answer, at least not here and not now.

The society around you is undergoing a rapid set of changes. Many of the long-held beliefs about careers are in flux. Far more pathways to success than you may think are closing, even as new ones open.

In a time of transition like this, you have to be able to express the things you can contribute clearly, just to be heard. Probably, you’ll find yourself having to do so in situations where more of your background doesn’t help than you’d like.

But it’s the challenge of our time. Master it, and your security level goes up sharply.

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