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The very nature of expat life, particularly for trailing spouses, is often one where there is a great deal of insecurity and where finding a job is very difficult. Often you are being immersed into a previously unknown culture, and while your partner has a good package, relocation benefits, your own search for employment often only begins when you are in this new environment. Lack of language skills in the host employment market often seem to hold people back – without B1/B2 or higher level of German proficiency, there seem to be seldom chances, and jobs coming up that suit your specialisation being few and far between. You should remember that even if you are an English native speaker, you do not have a divine right to that English-speaking job that just popped up online, since many non-native English speakers also have a mastery of the English language.
With hiring managers being deluged with CVs and covering letters, as well as online recruiting profiles, these two documents are the core of your application – and they can give away a lot more than you think about you, so it is absolutely essential that you get it right. While fancy presentation might be eye-catching, remember of course that your CV might only be viewed on-screen or printed out in black and white – so think about making sure that it also looks good in these formats. From my previous experience of having to look through a lot of CVs and covering letters for a position my employer advertised (we received 160+ applications for a single position), here are a number of pitfalls to avoid:
“Authorisation denied” – many adverts will indicate about the place of work (i.e. where your office will be) and whether there is travel involved. If you are a non-EU citizen, it is essential that you qualify how you are authorised to work in Austria – as well as perhaps explaining how you are entitled to travel for business to various countries. A typically overlooked pitfall is that there might be travel to non-Schengen European countries at short notice – e.g. the UK and Ireland, and the company might not be so accommodating if there are visas required for your travel that might interfere with your ability to travel at short notice. Many employers make it clear from the advert for an open vacancy that they are unwilling to do the legwork for you in ensuring your eligibility to work in Austria, which is understandable as it involves time and expenditure from their side and in many instances there is a degree of risk entailed.
“Mind the gaps” – any unexplained gaps in your professional experience are likely to be scrutinised. There is no shame in writing that you had an extended job search, or a certain period was used for preparation for relocation, or that you have been on maternity leave – but you shouldn’t wait until asked. If you have gaps in your CV, there are strong chances that the prospective employer will not wish to check up with you about the reason for them only at an interview. Similarly, make sure your CV is really up-to-date – using one even from last year (even the tail-end of the year) gives the impression that you are slap-dash or that you do not want to invest enough time in the process of looking for a new job. Be very carefully about “timestamping” – the filename you give to your CV and covering letter, especially if they involve a date can give more away than you think – for this reason, create the PDF version of your CV for each application you send off.
“Know the job” – a lot of applications come across as being purely speculative, and show that the applicant is applying for a job, any job. Such applications might range from the generic, “I am writing to apply for the position of __________________ at ___________…” to listing all the general skills that are perceived useful for any job you might apply for. The problem here is that you don’t give the impression of the skills that you have that are directly relevant to the position that you are applying for. Your CV and covering letter should be specifically tailored for the very job you are applying for (although avoid just verbatim quoting the text in the job advert). Similarly, before you apply, check that you understand the job title – nowadays not all job titles with the word “Secretary” in them are secretarial jobs. There are likely to be administrative duties involved in many positions featuring the word secretary in the job title, but there are massive differences in the scope and roles of positions between say Secretary General, Executive Secretary and Private Secretary. Before you make any start on your application be sure to have really read the application – often it will give away more about the job than might be apparent, especially the skill set required.
“How much is it worth?” – job adverts in Austria are now required to contain information about their remuneration – whether it be in terms of a pay scale, or to at least quote a minimum salary offered – as a guide in the latter instance, the minimum wage will apply to someone applying for the job with the minimum required experience and educational background. If the salary quoted is the annual gross, then unless you are working for an international organisation this will be split across 14 months (the 13th and 14th months’ salaries are paid often as an extra full month’s salary in May and November or as extra ½ salaries each quarter). Candidates are advised to consult a “Brutto/Netto Rechner” – which converts your gross salary into your net salary. If you have hitherto worked for an international agency it is particularly worth your while checking out about salaries and how they work, if you are applying for a job with a local company employing under Austrian employment law. You may want to think twice about applying if the salary range does not tie-in with your expectations – although bear in mind that salaries in Austria might be lower than in your home market.
Soft(ware) skills – job adverts list an ever expanding list of software packages, and the chances are that if specific items within an office package (e.g. MS Access or MS Excel within MS Office) are listed, then they are skills that you are expected to have prior to starting the job. Others may be trained on the job – e.g. in-house systems used, and proprietary solutions. Many candidates think that listing “MS Office” among their software skills is sufficient. It might be taken for granted that you can use MS Word, MS Excel and MS PowerPoint, but by omitting a specific knowledge of MS Access, you might be giving the impression that you do not know anything about the package. Some employers are even known to test applicants on their knowledge of specific packages if they want to be sure of getting the right candidate.
“Gone in 60 seconds” – a job application needs time – not least because you will need to tailor your application. Within hours of posting an advert, employers frequently receive numerous applications, but the problem with most, if not all of these “first out of the starting blocks” applications submitted are that they tend to be generic and speculative and not tailored to the job. Unless the deadline for submission of applications is the same day and there is no way you can rewrite your CV and covering letter by the close of business, you have to make the time to work on your application. And remember you have to apply in the way that the employer wants you to – many will not consider applications made in any other fashion.
“All present and correct” – if there are requests about how applications are to be submitted, then stick to the requirements set out – to the letter. Ensure that you submit everything they require – some organisations will ask you to upload your CV and covering letter – make sure you do not forget either document if required. If you are asked to e-mail your application, remember that your application will also be judged on your cover e-mail – your cover e-mail should not be a verbatim copy of your covering letter.
“As you can see from my CV…” is one of the most badly-received remarks you can include in a cover letter. It condescends that the hiring manager is unable to discern from your CV what you are wanting to say. They might not see from your CV as they might choose to bin your application. Similarly focus on what you would bring to the company, rather than how the company can do something for you.
“The only way is up!” – in general it is presumed that people are looking for a position that is in some way an advancement for their career. Your previous experience will indicate the level that you are at, and therefore your application will probably indicate what you are looking for (in this respect probably only your most recent couple of jobs are really of interest to the company you apply to). The person reading your application will think of whether your profile fits in terms of what you have done, and the areas you have worked in. If you are over-experienced for a job, but currently not in employment they might consider that you are “wanting a job, any job” or that you are taking a position until something better comes along. Expectations nowadays are not that candidates anticipate staying in the same position forever, or even within the same company, but at the same time the employer wants to see the intended progression – either in terms of the job being a step up for you, or that your application is not simply because you’ll do anything until a better opportunity comes along. If you are a “Quereinsteiger” i.e. someone whose background is in another sector, you have to be prepared to explain from the outset why you are seeking employment in a different sector – otherwise your application risks being lost among the ream of speculative applications.
“How long is a piece of string?” One of the biggest issues seems to be the length of a CV and the covering letter. You are dealing with busy people who do not have the time necessarily to run through a 5 page CV or a multipage covering letter – to be on the safe side – 1 page for the covering letter and 2 pages for the CV. Think of it this way with the CV, many companies print double sided – so your CV should fit on a single sheet of paper. Have your references “available upon request” (many positions do not ask for references any longer – and are happy to request them if they need them rather than expecting you to supply them all in chronological order), and really prune back all the old jobs that you did – if they are curious about what you did in 1986-88, they’ll ask you – just as many of the jobs we do today didn’t exist when we were at school, many of the jobs done back in the 20th century are no longer of direct relevance to the jobs you apply for now. Listing your responsibilities for that job you left 20 years ago will not be make or break in whether they think you are a good fit for a job (although if anything they might think you are trying to fill space). Nowadays it is not necessarily the case that the academic qualification you hold is the panacea that unlocks your career opportunities – in Austria there is now growing recognition of more vocationally-relevant Fachhochschule (FH) degrees rather than just having a traditional university degree.
After a while in the job market your degree classification becomes irrelevant – I submitted an academic transcript on one application only because the application requested proof of a completed degree in a field relevant to the job. But if you are new to the job market and your professional experience section in your CV is “too short” – e.g. as a recent graduate, with little experience of the professional world, then you should expand on the skills you have that are relevant to the job description, and highlight your academic qualifications – in this regard things have moved on in terms of how you spend your summer vacations – gone are the days of working as a barman in the local bar – you’ve got to try to get internships that show your interest in trying to establish an idea of what you want to do. Think carefully about every thing you have done and how it demonstrates a progression in what you have done – if you have come from an unconventional pathway (e.g. relocating from overseas to follow a partner from your host nation) you might have to show the way you have tried to ensure your ongoing development – e.g. through distance learning opportunities to ensure that you are still progressing even while you might have a language barrier to overcome.
Last but not least, and this is a frequent reason for rejections, if you are currently in a job, it could be that your period of notice and availability to start a new job could prove the major issue if there is a concrete expectation regarding the starting date. While it is obviously far nicer to be in the position to look for a new job while still being employed, unless you really know what your notice period is, you might automatically rule yourself out if a company has a fixed starting point for the new hire, as there is often little room for flexibility, give or take a few days. Without saying to your line manager “I’m thinking of looking for another job, what is my notice period?” (an approach we’d not advise!) you should be able to establish your notice period from your contract or letter of employment. Also bear in mind that the recruitment process can be quite a long one – you might not hear back for a couple of weeks, there could be a couple of weeks between the first and second interview, and suddenly nearly a quarter has gone. In particular, July and August are very quiet times with many staff away on annual leave, and so you might find the summer a very quiet period, with little response.
This post was originally posted back in the summer of 2014 on vienna-expats.at – and has been republished with a few nips and tucks. Readers might also like to read our Working in Vienna Forum.