Q. I am an engineer with over 14 years of experience and was laid off a year ago. Since then I have been studying computer programming as a career change. I decided not to go back to school, but instead educate myself.
Any advice on how I should tailor my resume or cover letter so potential employers overlook the fact that I don't have a computer science degree?
A. Losing a job with 14 years of experience is a difficult position, and assessing where you are in your career and what you want to do next needs to become the focus. Many people, when put in this position, choose to go away from their old career rather than go to a new career. I don’t know if that is why you chose to try to make a career change to computer programming, or if this is something you have been interested in pursuing. If this has been a long term interest, I encourage you to continue to study and to look at educational institutions where you can gain credentials to make you more employable. The Division of Employment and Training (DET), often referred to as the unemployment office, can offer information and financial support for specific training or coursework.
I would also encourage you to reconsider your engineering career. You have 14 years invested in an engineering career, which has hit a rough patch, as have many functions and industries. If you can utilize your engineering skills and continue to develop and utilize your new programming skills, you may find a career change easier to make. You may also decide a career change is not your short term goal. It may be a longer term goal which can be made easier to reach.
Looking for a job in computer programming without credentials and experience will prove more difficult than a job search for an engineering position with 14 years experience. In this competitive economy, potential employers aren't going to overlook anything, unless they like everything else they see about a candidate’s background. Writing great cover letters and resumes is all about highlighting your strengths and minimizing your "weaknesses". Resumes of anyone who has been working should start with a summary of the skills they can offer a new employer. You will need to make it easy for a hiring manager to see what you can do for their company, division or department. These lead statement needs to compel the reader to keep going. The same is true for cover letters. Avoid clichés and highlight the greatest value you can offer.
If you are being evaluated on paper, your candidacy is not as strong as being evaluated in person first or at least at the same time your resume is screened. Revisit the network you have developed over your career, and communicate in person, if at all possible, with your contacts to see who they may be able to introduce you to. If they can make a call on your behalf, even better. If you can’t meet in person, make phone calls. You can confirm information and offer thanks via email, but you build the best relationships with more personal contacts.
So, consider the options you have to gain credentials, think about trying to continue with your previous career for a while longer and really tap into your network to get you where you want to be.