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How to Assess Candidates Without Relevant Work Histories

Most view it as a standard catch-22 – you need experience to get a job, but how do you learn the skills needed if you can’t get hired due to lack of said experience? As a hiring manager or recruiter looking to tap into the next generation of workers, it’s hard to know how to accurately assess a candidate’s competency and fit when there is little (or no) work history to research.

As a resume writer and a career coach, I get asked two questions often. One is from the job seeker and one is from HR folks:

  • How do I apply for a job with no work experience?
  • How do I assess a candidate who has no work experience?

When asked, I provide the same answer to both audiences – the qualifications listed on the job description are not the only way to gauge value. Looking at the total picture — instead of just one element — can make the difference between wanting a job or a candidate and actually finding the right fit.

Transferrable skills

Everyone has skills they’ve learned throughout their life (personally and professionally) and they are categorized as “employability skills” and “skills earned that can be applied in another setting”. This is where recruiters can get the information they need from a candidate’s background to determine the appropriate fit and where job seekers can prove their value.

Tips for Job Seekers:

  • Define your skillset. What transferable skills do you have that may be applied to another job? Read the job description, identify relevant skills and then adjust your resume to feature those quantifiable results. You may be surprised at the strengths and relatable skills you have that fit the position you’re hoping to land. 
  • If you’ve just graduated or are in school, what courses or projects have you completed that are relevant to your future goals?
  • If you’re thinking about a career change, get proactive and prepare for what’s next right now.  Do some research and find out what you need to learn, what additional qualifications you may need, and who can help you understand what you need to do to be able to make such a move. 

Tips for HR:

When you don’t see the job title you’re tracking anywhere on the resume, you don’t have to automatically put candidates in the “no” pile. Look beyond the titles and industries for value and potential.

  • The summary section may articulate which strengths are applicable to the position. You may find mention of the individual’s situation (i.e. was in hospitality and is now transferring career into customer service while going back to school). It may be spelled out for you right in the resume, making it easy to understand where job seekers are coming from and what their goals are.
  • On the resume under each position, look for key responsibilities that apply to the position you’re hoping to fill. Are there accomplishments that speak to the main three transferable skills categories: communication, organization of information and operations? If so, it’s possible that the candidate could effectively use those skills and leverage them in a different capacity.
  • If you’re assessing a candidate in a career change, you can look for those who have put forth additional efforts to stand out. They may have started their plan months (or years) ago – that alone is very telling to their character. 

Volunteering, job shadowing, affiliations and community involvement 

Reading between the lines can help to hone in on experiences that can translate into value for an organization. Here are three areas to look at when considering a candidate or developing a resume:

Associations and affiliations

Look for groups with a related product or service. If the target company sells mobile devices, being affiliated with a telecommunications association or a digital product group can show initiative to gain significant knowledge of the product or service. There are local, national and global associations, or even LinkedIn or Facebook groups that demonstrate this level of commitment.

Industry non-profits

Candidates who have volunteered in the industry to bulk up skills and gain industry experience are showing their commitment to bringing value to your organization. For example, if your company is in health services, look for candidates who have volunteered or job shadowed at a hospital. Job seekers can target organizations through sites like Idealist.org, Volunteermatch.org, or Angellist.co, and contact them to pitch your skills and expertise.

Being active in charities or foundations

There are a myriad of skills people can gain through their work with charities and foundations. If your company hosts fundraisers or charity events, candidates that have attended or volunteered at your events will likely be active participants once they join the organization. For job seekers, getting involved in a target company’s philanthropy efforts shows you are investing in the mission and vision of the organization.

Tips for jobseekers:

You have the job description and have researched the company – use that knowledge to your advantage by participating in these types of activities to gain experience and exposure. Remember to place this information in prime real estate on your resume so the reader can easily find this crucial information, especially if you have no other relevant experience to showcase.

Tips for HR:

Look beyond the titles and see what else the candidate has to offer. Not having business experience or education doesn’t mean the candidate is unworthy of an interview. What has the individual done to gain skills and experience? Being active in affiliations and non-profits often equates to highly-sought-after business skills.

Professional Development

Taking classes or courses can bulk up a resume and add value to what the candidate has to offer.

Tips for job seekers:

Check Google, career centers, online webinars, YouTube, and even the local library. There’s also Massive Open Online Courses which are free and allow you to participate from any location. Check out your access to WIA (Workforce Investment Act) – this can be a huge advantage for unemployed individuals looking to ramp up their training. To find out if you qualify, go to servicelocator.org and connect with your local One-Stop Center for more information.

There’s also always the option of interning, which can fill the gap between education/acquired skills and real-world experience. Be sure to take note of everything you learned and accomplished, adding to your resume front and center!

Tips for HR:

If you see a candidate who is investing in themselves, they are more likely to be adaptable and resilient. This is typically a person who will take initiative and deliver critical thinking. Instead of looking for skills and experiences beyond the definitive skills, look for more sought-after traits that are considered highly-valuable.


This basic method for connecting to an organization is useful for any level candidate and should be used to build social relationships and to give and get value. More than 70% of job landings are in some part due to networking.

There are a variety of professional associations and networking groups that host free workshops and seminars – an excellent resource for in-person networking.

Tips for job seekers:

Connect with people who are already where you want to be by reaching out to individuals in that line of work or in the prospective company. You can find a local professional associations by searching Google or LinkedIn Groups, or even check Meetup.com for groups near you and identify someone who has the “career story” you are trying to build for yourself. Ask them for their advice!

You can also tap into peer support by connecting and brainstorming with those you already know and trust. This can help provide comfort during tough times and increase the joy of victories. Getting help is enormously effective in keeping the train on the track and moving forward.

The hidden job market exists and is a useful tool in a job search. Perhaps a friend, former colleague or new contact tells you about an opening, refers you to the company or calls you directly for an interview. A lot of times this happens before the job is even posted online, eliminating heavy competition (if you have any competition at all!).

Lastly, remember that when you help others through networking, you become empowered, energized, and positive.

Tips for HR:

One way to go about finding candidates is to approach it from an internal networking standpoint. When HR professionals build social relationships within their own organizations, they benefit from the ultimate recruiting solution – the internal referral. First, think about who you know already. Put feelers out, then tell people around you about the open position. This form of networking can enable HR to identify passionate potential candidates and give them a chance to get a foot in the door before the position gets posted externally.

Remember to include your digital networking market. Some tactics for finding candidates include:

  • Find new groups and associations – Look at LinkedIn to see if there’s professional associations or profiles that match the job you are sourcing. There may be some postings as well as comments from people in or interested in the industry.
  • Reach out to industry thought leaders – These people tend to have a lot of connections, as well as mentees they can recommend. 
  • Connect with passive candidates (people who may be satisfied or happily employed) – Initiate a quality interaction with people who fit the job profile you’re trying to fill. These types of relationships can deliver insight into people who may be looking for a career change, have the relatable skills, or elicit the passion for the role you are trying to fill.

Key Resume Sections

There are a few other sections on a resume that can shine a light on certain aspects of a candidate’s background that can be applied to the open position. Sometimes these “extras” can hold more weight than experience. This includes:

  • Technical skills– Perhaps the candidate has listed a technology that hasn’t been introduced in the organization yet, but shows the ability to learn and use technology. This may come in handy if the organization is planning to move into using this type of tech. Job seekers should try to highlight only the most relevant tools, software, and programs based on the jobs you are applying for to make yourself the most relevant.
  • Patents and publications– Depending on the field, having patent applications or materials/presentations can differentiate a candidate from the competition.
  • Digital visibility – Blogging, answering questions, asking questions, posting insightful and relevant articles – this is a behind the scenes approach to ramping up an online presence and when done correctly, can showcase the candidate as a digital thought leader.
  • Awards and Professional Recognition – Itemizing corporate awards, honors and endorsements is a way for individuals to highlight their successes, as well as a place for hiring managers to look for excellence in achievement. For example, receiving a peer award can prove that a candidate gets along with and is respected by their team – a skill sought after by many organizations.

Final Tip: Staying Positive

A job search can be draining and frustrating – the biggest challenge can be to maintain motivation, whether you are the job seeker or the person sourcing, interviewing and hiring. Hiring managers and recruiters would be wise to remember how stressful this process can be and make an extra effort to keep candidates informed of your process and their place in it.

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About Mildred Blankson

I am a Human Resource Professional with a Masters Degree in Human Resource Management. I have several years of experience in Human Resources and i hope this blog will be a great resource in helping you find the perfect job or candidate that you seek.

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