Wide Net vs. Narrow Focus? The Job Hunter’s Dilemma

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Jenny Yerrick Martin at BU in LA eventLast weekend at the Boston University in Los Angeles Graduate Symposium, I gave a presentation on creating a career strategy and getting a job in the entertainment industry. I always enjoy talking to groups about this topic, sharing the experience of my 15+ years as a hiring executive, my 20+ years total in the entertainment industry, and it’s especially satisfying to present to students from my alma mater.

When I speak to students, recent grads, or other newcomers to the entertainment industry, I like to hear what advice they’ve been getting from other sources. One of the students told me he was told (by his parents) to “cast a wide net.”

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You’ve probably heard this nugget – maybe given or gotten it yourself. It sounds good for someone just starting out in a new field. After all, when you don’t have any experience in a field, how can you afford to be picky?  You can’t blame a parent for wanting to get the son or daughter off their payroll and onto someone else’s quickly.

Are you interested in working in the entertainment industry? Check out “Breaking Into the Biz: The Insider’s Guide to Launching an Entertainment Industry Career” for step-by-step guidance on identifying, pursuing, and landing the right first job on the path to your chosen entertainment goal.

In the afternoon, similar guidance was given to the students by a panelist, a TV writer, who told them emphatically to, “Get a job. Any job! It’s better to be on the inside than on the outside, no matter what the job is!” I bristled a bit at the tone. I pictured these students post-graduation panicked, resumes in hand, like they were playing some new version of “Duck Duck Goose,” running around trying to find an empty chair, any empty chair, to sit down in.

This is not, I repeat not, a good way to enter any new field – or conduct any job hunt.

The implication in the “wide net” advice is that when you have no professional experience, you are equally qualified for and capable of doing any entry-level job in your new field, since all entry level positions require no previous professional experience. So, if that is true, the more resumes and cover letters you send out, the more likely you will be to land a job. The quicker you will do so.

However, job hunting is not primarily a numbers game; it’s primarily a marketing game. Career building is about “fit.” If you want to be personally satisfied and professionally successful, you want to follow a path (built job-by-job) that suits your unique qualities and skills. Even from the beginning.

Recruiters and hiring executives don’t know how many resumes you sent out. You don’t hit a magic number and – presto! – you are hired. In fact, they can often tell if they are part of a mass mailing by a resume that looks like it was written for some other job or the generic wording of a cover letter.

I can’t tell you how many cover letters I’ve gotten that reference some other company or interest in a position I am not hiring for. Even if the documents are otherwise well-written and error-free, I won’t contact those candidates.

A job hunt IS a job. How you conduct your job hunt shows me what kind of worker you will be and even how much you want the particular job I am looking to fill. Not enough to customize the letter and proofread it before you send it out?  Pass.

Lesson to take away from that:  Playing the numbers game can hurt your chances of being hired.

Though entry level positions require no previous paid professional experience, the people doing the hiring, if they know what they are doing, are not just randomly looking for a decent-looking resume with the right addressee and right position referenced, they are looking for someone who will be the right fit for the job.

As a newbie to the entertainment industry, you bring with you skills and qualities from the field you were in before you decided entertainment was for you, and even from before you graduated from college. You had jobs while in school. You volunteered. You even had school projects that could demonstrate that you are the right fit for the job.

The example I gave to the BU students was for the job of production assistant on a set. The qualifications are being hard working, personable, calm under pressure, and able to multitask. Most of the BU students had this set of experience because of all the student films they work on, but regardless, other experience in their backgrounds would also demonstrate a fit.

Summers spent working as an elementary school camp counselor show that you are hardworking, personable, calm under pressure and likely an excellent multitasker. Ditto, time waiting tables at a busy restaurant or working the customer service desk at Sears. Volunteer work and school projects described in the right way can also demonstrate a fit for the job.

You are more likely to get hired from sending out five pristine resume / cover letter submissions custom-tailored to the job being filled than sending 50 generic resume / cover letter submissions using a mail merge program.

Yes, there are times when finding a job – any job – is necessary.

You are out of money and/or being unemployed is too much of a drain on your energy and your morale. You have been looking but haven’t landed anything and you are desperate. Ideally you should stick with jobs that seem like the best fit – just find more of them and work your network so those opportunities come to you quicker and your submission makes it to the top of the pile.

Even if you feel you have to “Get a job. Any Job” in order to get paid as soon as possible, that doesn’t make it a numbers game. It is still a marketing game. You must still target your resume and cover letter to each type of job you are applying for. Sounds like a lot of work when you are talking 20, 50 or even 100+ submissions, but there is a technique that can streamline the process.

Categorize the jobs by what type of background or qualifications they are looking for and tailor a resume and cover letter set to each general category. Office jobs in one category, on-set jobs in another, technical jobs in another, etc.  Use the right resume and cover letter set for all jobs within each category and customize the cover letter to make sure the person reviewing it knows you are a careful person and you want the job enough to take the time to do so. You will have a job in no time.

That’s right: The correct answer is wide net AND narrow focus.

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About JennyYM

Jenny Yerrick Martin is a veteran entertainment hiring executive with 20+ years in film, television, and music. She created yourindustryinsider.com to give students, recent grads and others a true picture of the layout of the industry, and how to break in, transition to a new area, or achieve more success on their current path.

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  • Cheryl Hunter

    March 29, 2013 at 9:47 am

    Love the “wide net and narrow focus” idea! That applies to everyone in business, not just people starting out straight out of school. Sounds like this graduate symposium was amazing!

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