Bridging the qualifications gap

With their litany of requirements, job postings, especially ones for higher-level positions, can seem like an impenetrable barrier between you and the perfect opportunity. That’s because few employers are willing to compromise when it comes to what they look for in new hires. They’d rather wait for a candidate who fits the opening exactly than risk a costly mistake. So, what can you do when you know you’re capable of performing a job well, but your skills and experience don’t completely align with its requirements?

The good news is that the candidates who look perfect on paper aren’t always the ones who get offers. By considering yourself from the hiring manager’s perspective, you can begin presenting yourself as an investment rather than a gamble. Here are tips to convince an employer that, despite initial appearances that may suggest otherwise, you truly are the best person for the job.

Reconsider the fit. First, make sure you’re not wasting your time and the hiring manager’s by applying for a job that you have no hope of getting. Do you come close to matching all of the criteria? If the ad indicates that 10 years of experience are required, and you have only three, don’t submit your r?sum?. However, if you have nine years of experience, the firm may be willing to consider your application. Although a small gap between your qualifications and the job requirements may not be a cause for concern, a hiring manager is unlikely to consider you a viable option if the difference is significant. Also keep in mind that some employers will stand firm no matter what and interview only those individuals who meet their criteria exactly.

Find an ally. A referral or introduction from a professional in your network is indispensable if you’re a job candidate who almost fits an opening, because your contact can speak to the hiring manager on your behalf and articulate strengths that may not be apparent from your r?sum? alone. Mine your network to try to locate a contact who can give you entree into the company. Web sites like LinkedIn and Facebook can be especially effective at uncovering valuable links. But be careful about approaching someone you don’t know well. You need to establish trust and credibility with a person before asking him or her to go to bat for you.
Address concerns upfront. Don’t try to hide an apparent shortcoming in your application or during an in-person interview. Instead, acknowledge the concern and then reframe it. For example, if you haven’t held the exact title under discussion, have you successfully performed many of its duties in other roles? Or if you’re obviously overqualified , you might note that you are looking to improve your work/life balance by seeking a slightly less demanding position than those you’ve held in the past.
Reduce risk. Under current conditions, employers may feel like they are going out on a limb by hiring a candidate who doesn’t match their criteria to a T. Consider shortening that limb by finding ways to reduce the hiring manager’s risk. For example, would you be willing to start on a project or contract basis to prove your abilities?

Emphasize concrete benefits. A hiring manager who can clearly envision the benefits you’ll bring is much more likely to look beyond surface shortcomings. Rather than highlighting your abstract strengths, focus on the specific bottom-line contributions you’ve made to previous employers. In your r?sum?, quantify instances where you’ve saved money or time, and expand upon those successes during the interview.

Be honest. Whatever you do, don’t lie or stretch the truth in an attempt to improve your odds. However you may rationalize it, such dishonesty can be easily uncovered, potentially damaging your reputation and your long-term career prospects.

Even under difficult economic conditions , successful organizations take calculated risks. But they won’t take one on you unless you can convince them you’re a smart bet. By addressing your perceived weaknesses openly and assertively, you not only improve your chances of receiving an offer, but also develop a clearer sense of the value you can provide. Even if you don’t end up filling the opening at hand, you’ll be better prepared to pursue the next opportunity — whether you’re a perfect fit for it or not.
Dave Willmer is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multiplatform systems integration to network security and technical support. The company has more than 100 locations worldwide and offers online job search