Underemployed? How to Go After a Bigger Job

January 15, 2016, 4:47 PM UTC
Person Climbing a Ladder to a Bright Skylight
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Dear Annie: What can you do if you were forced to take a step “down” in rank (title, responsibilities, etc.) during the economic downturn, and you’re now trying to get back to your former level? I left a management job at a big company during a restructuring, with massive layoffs, almost seven years ago. I was lucky enough to find another job pretty quickly, and I think I’ve done some great work here. But it’s a less senior position at a much smaller company, with a modest budget and only 12 people reporting to me. Now that hiring finally seems to be picking up again, I’d like to try to move back up into the kind of role I had before, or maybe even a bigger one. Is that unrealistic? Do you have any suggestions? — Underutilized Asset

Dear Underutilized: It’s not unrealistic at all. “During the recession and all through the jobless recovery, lots of people took a step ‘down,’ either in the same company or at a different one,” observes Penny Locey, a vice president at career coaching and outplacement firm Keystone Associates. “The key to picking up your career where it left off is in how you describe yourself and your experience.”

One thing working in your favor is that most hiring managers are well aware that the downturn derailed plenty of careers, and that many people have yet to get back on their feet. While U.S. unemployment is back down around its 2007 level of about 5%, underemployment — including people working part-time who would rather have full-time jobs — is still hovering at about 14%. The rate is even higher among recent college graduates. According to one recent study, 15% of them are underemployed, a big jump from 9.6% in 2007.

With that in mind, don’t be defensive or apologetic about having spent the past seven years in a less senior job than you want now (especially since you’ve been doing “great work”). Instead, concentrate on what you could bring to a prospective employer. Locey recommends tackling this in three steps:

Pinpoint what specific value you can add. The “experience” section of most resumes gives former titles, but that alone won’t do it, Locey says. “It’s easy to list duties and responsibilities, but the ‘So what?’ is harder,” she notes. “What was different about the job, or the organization, because you were in that role? What do you do differently than other people who have similar backgrounds and titles? To get the attention of a recruiter or a hiring manager, you need to distinguish the value you added from the position you held.”

Many of Locey’s coaching clients find this “really uncomfortable, because we’re all trained to be modest and talk about what our whole team did,” she adds. “But describing exactly what you contributed, and how it fits with the job you’re seeking now, isn’t bragging. It’s just giving employers an idea of situations where you really shine, so they can tell where you’d fit in their company.” Rewrite your resume to reflect not just your titles, but your strengths. Then think of a few examples of your accomplishments that you can talk about in interviews. Says Locey, “Have a story to tell.”

Ask your network and references for feedback. As part of your job search, you’re no doubt getting in touch with people in your network, including former bosses and peers you might want to give as references. While you’re at it, Locey says, find out how they see you. “Try out a few thoughts on what you think your best qualities are,” Locey suggests. “You can say something like, ‘Here are a few things I see as my strengths. Are there any you would add?’”

You might be surprised by what you hear. Locey had one client, an operations executive, who discovered that former colleagues thought of him as “Mr. Fix-It,” Locey says. “He had a reputation as someone who could quickly come up with workable solutions to complex problems that had other managers stumped.” He took that ability for granted, so “he hadn’t been talking about it, either on his resume or in interviews,” says Locey. Once he started, his job search took off.

Be ready to say exactly how your current job has prepared you for a bigger one. The plain fact is that you probably took this role mostly to keep the wolf from the door. But now that you’ve been in it for a while, Locey advises taking a fresh look at what skills you’ve picked up, particularly “what you did to stretch your capabilities beyond what the position requires.” It’s also important to talk about aspects of the job, and the company, that you’ve enjoyed. Says Locey, “Think about specific ways that this experience, and your performance, have helped prepare you to take a step up.”

Since you’re hoping to land a management role at a company that’s bigger than the one where you work now, don’t forget to acknowledge the difference — and even turn it into a plus. Some of Locey’s clients have left huge organizations to join much smaller outfits, including startups, and then had second thoughts. “You can talk about why the opportunity at the smaller company was intriguing to you,” she says. “Then describe some things you’ve missed about being part of a huge enterprise, and say that you’re ready to come back.”

Good luck.

Talkback: Do you think the recession was a major setback to your career? If so, are you now trying to catch up? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.

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