Learning to talk the talk


Career clinics and interview coaches are part of a lucrative and growing industry – but how can desperate job hunters be sure they’re getting good value, asks CLAIRE O'MAHONY

WOULD YOU bring your mum to a job interview so she could tell the panel how amazing you were? Or, if asked a particularly tricky question about core competencies would you answer with a knock-knock joke? Of course you wouldn’t (we hope) but, believe it or not, there are people who do such things, according to UK recruitment firm Robert Half.

A couple of weeks ago the firm published a list of interview blunders which it claimed to have come across. As it was a slow news day across much of the English-speaking world, the Half report received a lot more coverage than it otherwise might have.

In addition to the person who brought his mother into the interview and the knock-knock joker, the research also found a job applicant who sang her responses to the questions and another who handcuffed himself to the desk during the interview in order to make an impression. Then there was the poor unfortunate who phoned his mother in the middle of the interview to reassure her that things were going swimmingly – if they were before he made the call, they probably weren’t after it.

While the study was a light-hearted look at the 21st-century interview process, it was published to highlight a business that is both deadly serious and suddenly booming.

Someone looking to find the perfect job, or, more realistically, in these challenging times, any job, has to put in a lot more effort than they may have done when the Celtic Tiger was roaring. It now takes more than donning a sharp suit and arriving at an interview with a CV containing only a handful of exaggerated claims, to get a job.

The competition is strong and likely to grow even more so in the months ahead. Obviously, it can pay to get noticed and in terms of standing out, few people have gone as far as Féilim Mac an Iomaire or “Jobless Paddy”. The marketing graduate recently spent his savings on a “Save Me from Emigration” billboard campaign. The poster attracted the attention of the media and the bookmakers Paddy Power, a company that is no stranger to publicity-seeking marketing wheezes. It saved him from emigration by offering him a job.

While most job hunters will never go to this extreme, they may be tempted to seek out other ways of gaining a competitive edge, by looking to the services of career coaches and trainers.

But do such services offer value for money? The industry is unregulated and rates vary from €60 to €250 and more, so what are they offering, how are they delivering and is it worth the spend?

There are career clinics helping people to prepare for that important interview or to find a new career path. They also claim to come to the aid of those who simply want help dealing with a current work situation (and by situation, we mean problem).

These self-styled career experts come from a variety of backgrounds, including occupational therapy, psychology, media, HR and recruitment.

Natasha Fennell, a director at Stillwater Communications, a consultancy which provides career coaching as one of its services, has seen a sea change at her firm in recent years. She says, five years ago clients were looking to change direction but this is no longer the case. The person who is coming to her now is most frequently in a job where they’re not terribly happy and want to learn how to manage the situation. It may be that cutbacks mean the person is working twice as hard for no extra money and they are too scared to complain.

“What I do is help them look at the options, first outside that job and outside of that sector to see if there’s anything for them and if not, I give them coping mechanisms for the work they’re in at the moment. That could be anything such as a conversation with your senior to discussing ways that you can work with them, not against them. People are afraid to approach their bosses and ask for any flexibility.”

Job preparation, which costs €250 a session, has also become a significant part of the company’s business. There is an initial session of information gathering and after which she works with the client on structuring the information. A mock interview is recorded, with feedback given. Fennell says that people’s biggest problem is wandering into irrelevance.

“I help them communicate their story really effectively so they put forward their absolute best but all done with authenticity,” she says.

Dr Catriona Waters employed Stillwater’s services before a job interview, following a recommendation from a friend. Her preconception was that interviews were either something you were good or bad at and there was nothing that could be done to change that.

“Before, I would have felt ‘what’s the point’. But now I really feel that you can prepare for it and work on it,” she says.

It was clearly a worthwhile investment for her as she got the job. “If you’re going for a job you really want, it’s worth pulling out all the stops,” she says.

Eoghan McDermott is the careers expert at Dublin’s Communications Clinic. He says that clients looking to prepare for a specific job interview make up the majority of his business. But he’s also seeing increasing numbers who have gone through college but are finding that there are no jobs in their chosen spheres, such as education or law, and want to know what to do next. The company does not advertise and business, which according to McDermott is busy, is generated through referrals and repeat business.

While Fennell and McDermott are obviously going to flog themselves and their services hard, it’s not always the right thing for someone to do and there are people who have reservations about their worth.

Obviously a big limitation is that it can’t deliver a skill set to someone who doesn’t have the right qualifications in the first place (although career coaches will advise people as to what steps they might need to take in this respect) and it certainly won’t change the fact that jobs are not exactly plentiful.

Robert Mac Giolla Phádraig, a director with Sigmar Recruitment Consultants, doesn’t see career coaches and clinics as rivals to his business and he has concerns that much of the information given by them is out of date, generic and freely available on the internet.

He does, however, concede that there are a number of people providing a good service in this space. “If it’s helping to motivate people, at least it’s having that positive effect. But the impact overall is not having any effect on the labour market,” he says.

“I’m not dependent on people on the live register to provide my core service, to be very frank, whereas they’re the target for a lot of career clinics. We’re a commercial business and we are a professional service provider,” he says. Employment is demand-driven and his company gets very clear mandates from its clients – employers – and their requirements in terms of vacancies.

“We understand the recruitment process where we add value to the candidate so we measure everything in our business. Broadly speaking, the first thing is that we source candidates, then we would give advice on their CV and how they market themselves before they go for interview. The problem is that we can’t give advice to everyone and the challenge is the group of people who are unemployed, whose skills are not sought,” he continues.

Fennell’s stance is that if you are going for a particular job interview her service is an investment and could be the difference between getting a job or not.

“It might seem like a lot of money at the time but once you walk into your new job and think ‘this is exactly where I wanted to be’ you’ll know it’s worth it,” she says.

But then again she would say that wouldn’t she?