Raise your hand if you’ve ever applied for a job for which you felt underqualified. According to local survey data from Robert Halfs' Local Office, there should be 81% of us with our arms in the air, says Regional Vice President Tyler Dion.
If you’re among that majority, use your other hand to pat yourself on the back, because it’s a smart career strategy. The data also show that 66% of Seattle employees have been offered a position when they were underqualified.
The reason an employer might go with someone who doesn’t match all the job requirements doesn’t always come down to market scarcity.
“We have hired a lot of career changers,” says Lisa Semerdjian, senior recruitment specialist at Seattle startup Textio. “There is something special about the hunger for personal reinvention they bring. That hunger reveals both an appetite for risk and the genuine openness that is required to learn in a new environment.”
“Businesses are recognizing that they get greater productivity and loyalty from employees who thrive in their workplace environment, and a big part of that falls back on the soft skills employees can bring to the organization,” Dion says, adding that a poor fit with corporate culture can result in a costly hiring mistake.
Job seekers would do well, then, to emphasize soft skills when they don’t have all the hard skills the position requires. Dion points out that the cover letter is a great place to highlight communication skills, leadership abilities, adaptability and the ability to multitask.
Semerdjian has a tip to help with this: “The language used in the job post is usually intentional and describes the company culture. Examine the language used to describe those skills and echo that back in your resume and cover letter.”
We can’t forget about keywords. Addie Swartz, CEO and founder of reacHIRE, a company that assists women returning to work after a career break, suggests filling gaps on a resume by looking for what might not be the obvious one-to-one fit. “Recognize what you’ve been doing well, either through volunteer projects or recent work experience, and retrofit that in such a way to meet the skills, needs and keywords requested in the job description,” Swartz says.
Dion echoes this sentiment. “Consider what parts of the job description you don’t fulfill. Are there other skills or experience that relate to the position that you can play up? Why are you still a fit?”
You never know exactly what an employer may be looking for, he adds.
“Managers can usually train up workers on the technical needs for a role. It’s harder to find a candidate who matches the organizational culture and has the right soft skills,” Dion says.
This perspective highlights a benefit of balancing soft skills and technical skills in the workplace overall: Young professionals need more senior mentors to help them navigate.
“They need leaders to show them how to manage difficult situations, handle themselves in a stressful meeting and reflect the client’s perspective,” Swartz says. “If professionals with significant work-life experience become extinct in the business world, nobody grows and nobody wins.”
Once you progress to the interview stage, “think back to those initial words you gathered for your resume and cover letter and be intentional about bringing them up in the interview,” says Semerdjian. She also encourages candidates to discuss side projects and volunteer work.
“It not only demonstrates your transferable skills, but it also shows you’re passionate, driven, and willing to spend your free time learning the field,” she says.
Another way to impress is to sign up for an online course, as it demonstrates ambition and resourcefulness. “Candidates should stress in the interview that they’re open to learning new ways of working — to upskilling and reskilling, or possibly even obtaining online certification,” says Swartz.
Finally, never underestimate the power of a good attitude. Come armed with questions that show curiosity, and that you’re interested in the role and company. “Enthusiasm and passion go a long way,” Semerdjian says.