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posted: 8/18/2013 6:51 AM

Career coach: Intangible skills matter

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  • To help in an interview, show clearly how you can meet that employer's needs.

    To help in an interview, show clearly how you can meet that employer's needs.

By The Washington Post

With the unemployment needle seemingly stuck at a frustratingly high rate around 7.5 percent nationally, many jobseekers may be wondering what it will take to break through the stream of rejection letters. If you're one of the thousands of people still looking for work, what can you do to turn a job opening into a job offer?

The answer is both simple and yet not fully obvious: Show clearly how you can meet that employer's needs, both in terms of your technical skills and your intangible qualities. A general rule is that meeting needed technical skills gets you invited for an interview, but meeting needed intangible qualities gets you the job offer.

Employers ultimately screen applicants according to these needs and not by sharpest resume, most impressive work experience or elite degrees. To be sure, these features can help you stand out. But in themselves, they don't guarantee that you will land the job.

Typically the required technical skills will be spelled out in the recruitment ad or job description, and these are essential. They ensure that you can competently perform key tasks, share information with co-workers, and make necessary decisions. At the same time, don't take for granted your intangible qualities -- attributes such as your ability to put customers at ease, resolve work-related conflicts with minimum drama and anticipate and resolve problems. The needed skills are rarely written down or advertised, but often prove critical to job success.

To understand what intangible qualities are important to an employer, investigate the industry's critical issues and reach out to clients and employees. These sources can reveal internal pressures and pain points, as well as bright spots and pockets of opportunity. Ask: "What are recurring problems in this industry? What skills and qualities, beyond basic qualifications, are needed to be successful? What is happening in the industry or organization that's affecting productivity, clients or customers?"

Thinking broadly about the industry, organization and position can help you pinpoint how your intangible skills and qualities match that employer's needs. For example, suppose that budget cutbacks have required employees to take on additional duties, leaving them less time to deal with customers' complaints. If you are especially skilled at resolving conflicts efficiently, you offer that employer something that most applicants do not. With this knowledge, you can highlight your intangible skills in a way that makes you stand out.

If you don't have any sources from within the organization or industry, leverage your network: Who do you know who might introduce you to someone with this information? Keep in mind that most people appreciate helping others especially when the request is small and from, or through, someone they know. "Could I have five minutes of your time to ask some questions about your company (or industry)?" is generally safe and reasonable as a starter.

Use social media such as LinkedIn and Facebook to identify friends of friends who could answer your questions. Follow Twitter feeds from people in the organization or industry to find out what new developments or problems are trending.

Ultimately, you need to show how your credentials and intangible qualities match what that employer needs. To do this well, you must be curious about all aspects of that employer's needs and prepared to demonstrate how you fill those needs -- via the rsum and before, during and after interviews.

While you may not be the best fit for every opening, thoroughly investigating your target employer and showing how your technical skills and intangible qualities match that employers' needs dramatically improves your chances. Taking this approach for each opening you pursue will ultimately help you succeed.

• Stevens is an associate professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is an expert in workplace issues and her research focuses on recruitment and staffing, decision-making, diversity, and how to deal with difficult co-workers.

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