The economic impact the coronavirus is having on job seekers is potentially crushing.

This a simple reality whether you’ve been laid off, are looking for a part-time retirement job, or are a recent graduate (Congratulations!) on the cusp of launching your career.

It’s a waiting game. Many employers have instituted hiring freezes. Job postings have dropped. But that doesn’t mean you should put the brakes on your search. It’s frustrating, but one move you can make right now is to look around the edges and set-up “informational” interviews.

It’s a back-to-basics job hunting technique that you control. You’re taking action. By having an informal conversation with someone outside your close circle, you bolster your network laying the groundwork for a continuing relationship, and, who knows, it can spark your curiosity about potential positions, or opportunities that weren’t on your radar. (You might not even realize that you’re stuck in a moment, trying to replicate your old job and that’s unlikely.)

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Caitlin Bonney Photo courtesy of Ms. Bonney

For this column, I asked my millennial niece, Caitlin Bonney, 28, a microgrid solution developer at Schneider Electric to share her top advice on how to make the most these interviews, which I will get to shortly. Last year, she graduated from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment with a master of environmental management degree. While she was a student, Caitlin used informational chats to learn what types of roles exist as well as to connect with potential employers. Now, she regularly talks with students, to help them navigate careers in the renewable energy world.

Caitlin called me, after listening to a recent webinar I presented for the New Start Career Network at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She reminded me that my advice wasn’t just for older workers. It applied to someone in their 20s like her as well.

One of the key messages I delivered to the audience of mostly 45+ job seekers was the importance of reaching out to professional contacts and contacts of contacts for just these kinds of conversations. Employers tend to hire people they know, or people who they know, know. The reality is that a candidate with a referral is far more likely to have their résumé read and land an interview. It’s the Holy Grail of a successful job search.

8 tips to get the most from an informational interview

Now, as promised, here are Caitlin’s five tips for navigating a successful informational interview, or informational chat (plus, three from me).

Take the lead in setting up the call. If you have the person’s phone number — either they gave it to you, or it is in their signature on their email, set up a calendar invite via email that says Caitlin to Call Kerry at 111-111-1111. If you just have the person’s email, send a calendar invite with a link to the video chat or meeting platform of your choice. Be ready to have your video camera turned on, but assume video is off unless the other person suggests it.

Keep it short and sweet. Never set a calendar invite for more than 30 minutes. I suggest doing 20 minutes which lends itself to easily be extended another 10 or more. Be able to clearly state what drives you. People do informational interviews for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s to gather information on what jobs and industries are out there, other times it is to get a foot in the door and hopefully a formal interview. No matter what the reason, you should always be able to answer the question: “What drives you?” It might not be directly asked, but you can weave it into the conversation to make you memorable. Framing it in the context of a story is even better.

Do your recon. Utilize the “News” feature of any search engine such as Google or Safari. Search the person’s name under news. This is, of course, in addition to looking at the person’s LinkedIn or personal website. Do the same “News” search for the company — this will reveal more information about the company than can sometimes be gathered online and can provide talking points.

Have a list of questions. What drew them to the industry? What has helped them succeed in their career? Remember you want to learn about their jobs. What do they see as the areas with the most opportunities right now? What skills are in demand? Who else should you talk to about career paths and opportunities in the field?

Follow up. Send an email within four hours of the call. Thank the person for the time, state something that you learned, or that was memorable. If you invite them to connect on LinkedIn, be sure to send a personalized message thanking them for taking the time to talk on the phone. Do follow up with a job posting for their company (if applicable) and ask for their advice on if you might be a good fit. Only send your resume if asked — LinkedIn can serve as your resume if your name is being shared with others.

Remember you’re trying to “connect” with another person, so be excited and confident and enjoy the conversation.

Finally, here are three from me:

Be patient. Setting up an informational interview can take some tenacity. It’s best to narrow the people you want to reach to those at companies where you would one day like to work or who you respect as a leader or innovator.

Focus on them. It’s not about you. This is a hard one, since it’s human nature to want to talk about ourselves. When we’re in job-hunting mode, we’re hard-wired to put on the razzle-dazzle of selling why we would be a great hire.

Listen. You are there to learn about this person, this company, this industry. Trust me, people will have a great impression of you, even if they don’t realize it consciously, if you can show that you’re genuinely passionate about what they do and their career path.

You’re not asking them to hire you, you’re asking them to share their wisdom. Who doesn’t like to do that?


Kerry Hannon and Caitlin Bonney

Kerry Hannon is an expert and strategist on work and jobs, entrepreneurship, personal finance and retirement. Kerry is the author of more than a dozen books, including Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From HomeNever Too Old To Get Rich: The Entrepreneurs Guide To Starting a Business Mid-LifeGreat Jobs for Everyone 50+, and Money Confidence. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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