Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Cameron's speech: confused? I am!

Today Conservative leader David Cameron gave a speech on Europe. It was billed as his vision for a better EU with the UK in it, but the reality was somewhat different.

First and foremost this was a speech aimed at placating Tory Eurosceptics and a vague attempt to counter the threat of UKIP. More an exercise in political positioning than a long term vision for the UK.

Secondly, the promise of a referendum in 2017 guarantees a climate of business uncertainty, which threatens the UK's economic recovery. If you were an international company seeking a base in Europe to access the single market, you would now think twice about investing in the UK. That's not good for the country and not good for Yorkshire either.

Thirdly, Mr Cameron contradicted himself numerous times in his speech leading the listener to be confused as to his position. For example, he said "nations must work together to tackle terrorism and organised crime" yet, he proposes that the UK opt out of EU cooperation in this area. Mr Cameron went on to acknowledge that "the single market needs to be governed by a common set of enforceable rules", while also saying "it's a fallacy that the single market requires harmonisation".

In addition, Mr Cameron showed his ignorance of how the EU works when noting that "competitiveness in the single market is so essential that there should be a single market Council". Well actually, there is a Council formation* dedicated to the Single Market called the "Competiveness Council", but the Prime Minister appears not to know this. The contradictions and lack of knowledge in Mr Cameron's speech makes one wonder if anyone in the Tory party understands the EU at all.

The EU is not perfect and needs reform in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century including developing a competitive and sustainable EU economy, tackling climate change and fighting cross-border crime. Mr Cameron did correctly identify the need to improve EU decision making processes so that ordinary Europeans have more of a say. Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament are and have been leading advocates for such reform.

The question is how best can reform be achieved? Should we work together with our EU partners to find common solutions to common problems, or do we stand alone demanding a unilateral renegotiation so the UK can cherry pick its involvement in the EU? What is to stop 27 EU countries demanding the same à la carte approach? Would this end up with the kind of reformed better functioning European Union that Mr Cameron claims to want? I doubt that very much.

* The Council is shorthand for meetings of ministers from the 27 EU countries, so the Health Council is a meeting of the 27 Health Ministers, the Justice and Home Affairs Council is a meeting of 27 Justice Ministers etc etc

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Tips for young job seekers

I have just had the mammoth task of going through 280 (!!) applications for the role of policy assistant to the European Parliament's Youth Intergroup. After reading so many applications and having both recruited and been a job seeker in the last few years, I was inspired to put together some advice and tips that I hope will be useful for young job seekers.

For those who do not know, an Intergroup is a cross party group with a specific interest (rather similar to an All Party Parliamentary Group or APPG at Westminster). I am the ALDE (Liberal) group Vice President of the Youth Intergroup and the other major political groups also have an MEP as President or Vice President (five in total).

Part of the reason the Youth Intergroup received so many applications is we (the five MEPs responsible) decided that in the interests of fairness and transparency, the post should be advertised as widely as possible and all applications screened according to the criteria set. We were thus victims of our own success!

Below is a list of some " do's" and "don'ts" for young job seekers. This list is not intended to be comprehesive, but I think it covers the main areas where I have seen young job seekers make mistakes or not present themselves as well as they could. In a competitive job market, sometimes there is not much to separate one young job seeker from another, so anything that can make you stand out from your competitors is worth doing.

1) DO target your application for the specific role in question

There is a lot of competition for jobs among young people these days, so if you do not demonstrate in both your cover letter and CV why you are suitable for that specific role and what in particular interests you about the role, you will be rejected (I can guarantee this almost 100%).

Of the 280 applications received for the Youth Intergroup role, around 80% failed at this first hurdle, as they made no attempt to understand the work of the Intergroup and did not explain why this particular role was of interest. Many gave very bland motivation like "I am interested in this role because I want to further my career in EU affairs", a statement that could apply to ANY EU related job.

I can tell you from personal experience that it is far far better to do three targeted applications than twenty generic ones. I was job hunting just after the financial crisis hit when there were very few roles in my field, and strong competition for them. I only applied for roles where I felt able to demonstrate my suitability and I did targeted applications for each role. This meant that some weeks, I only did one application. However, 1 in 4 of those applications resulted in me being invited to interview.

Targeting your application means not only highlighting very relevant experience, but also cutting down details of experience that isn't directly relevant. For example, my first full time job was in a hotel, but I then decided hospitality wasn't the industry for me, so on my CV I list only the employer, job title and dates.

2) DO take the time to research the role and the organisation

Using the internet, you can very easily find out a lot of useful information about the organisation, where the role fits in, who your boss and colleagues would be, and sometimes even who used to do the job previously (the website LinkedIn can be very useful in this respect).

If the job advert gives details of a contact person with whom you can speak about the role, do not hesitate to do so. This will this enable you to find out valuable information not found in the job ad or via Internet research, which can help you tailor your application. It also demonstrates your initiative and motivation, so when your application is received, you will already have made yourself known in many cases to one of the people who will conduct interviews for the role.

My experience of doing this is that not only was it always useful, but very few candidates do it. In one case after speaking to someone about a role, I subsequently decided it was not the job for me and didn't apply, thus saving the time I would have spent doing an application.

If there is no contact person, but you know someone who works for the organisation or used to work there, call them or drop them an email to get some inside information.

Doing research can make your application that bit better than other candidates and increase the likelihood it progresses. It is also very useful if you are invited to interview, as a common question is "what do you know about the organisation?".

You are not expected to have detailed knowledge; a good overview would suffice. A senior manager at a glass manufacturer in my region told me he once interviewed a man for a role who knew nothing about the company, other than that it made glass bottles and other containers. He was obviously not hired!

3) DO double or even triple check your application for spelling mistakes, typos and other errors

It sounds harsh, but a very good application may end up in the NO pile because of a couple of silly mistakes. If you have not been able to speak to anyone about the role, then your application is what gives a first impression. Typos, spelling mistakes and doing things like using an incorrect job title e.g. the role is "assistant to the Marketing Director" but you write "Marketing assistant", looks careless and will give a bad first (and probably last) impression.

Take particular care to write the names of the organisation and people correctly. The Youth Intergroup vacancy asked candidates to send applications to Eider Gardiazabal Rubial MEP. Eider is a woman, and it takes only a 10 second Internet search to find that out. However, I saw at least five applications addressed to MR Gardiazabal Rubial!! I don't know anyone who wants to hire someone who can't even be bothered to find out the gender of their future boss....

If possible get another person (friend, colleague, teacher, family member) to look over your application. It may be easier for a third party to spot errors that you could miss, and they may also make useful suggestions that could improve you application.

4) DO mention voluntary work or interests that are relevant to the role

As a young person, you may not have much or even any professional experience in the field in which you would like to work, but you may have done things outside of work that could be relevant.

For example, you want to work in human rights and have no professional experience, but have been involved in your local branch of Amnesty, so mention this in your application. In addition, you may not have had supervisory or budget management experience in a job, but may have had such responsibilities in a voluntary capacity.

5) DO give an explanation if you think you might appear overqualified for a role or you are seeking a career change

I have heard people say "there is no such thing as an overqualified applicant", but I beg to disagree. A recruiter does not want to hire a person who will find the job too easy, get bored and look to move on rather quickly, or who will be frustrated with the role when they know they are capable of more.

However, if this issue is addressed in the job application, then the applicant stands a better chance of progressing. For example, if you are a university graduate and you apply for a non-graduate role, explain why you are interested in the role and where you see it in your career plan. If you don't do this, there is a danger that a recruiter could see it as a stop gap for you until you find something better.

This advice also applies to people who wish to change fields. If you have built up some experience or trained/studied in a particular field and then decided it isn't for you, explain why.

Last year, I considered a graduate with 4 years public sector work experience for a paid internship in my parliamentary office, because he gave a coherent and convincing explanation of why he wanted the role. Had he not done that, I might have had trouble understanding his motivation.

6) DO follow the instructions in the job advert

It might sound obvious, but many job hunters fail to do this. Some job adverts ask only for a covering letter and a CV, some ask you to complete an application form and not to send a CV. Follow these instructions carefully and my advice is not to send additional information that has not been requested.

7) DO check out the job application norms in different countries

If you apply for a job in another country (and remember as EU citizens, we can work in 27 countries!), find out what is standard practice for job applications in that particular country.

For example in France, CVs tends to be concise (often 1 page) and include a photograph, while in Germany applicants send copies of their qualifications and written references for almost every job they have ever done. In the UK, it is unusual to send copies of references, but standard practice to supply names and contact details of referees or simply to write on the CV "references available on request".

8) DO ask for feedback after being an unsuccessful job applicant

Given the volume of applications that can be received for entry level or more junior roles these days, it isn't realistic to ask for feedback unless you had an interview. Feedback may not always be provided, but when it is, it can be very useful (even if it might not be what you wanted to hear...).

1) DON'T apply for roles where you do not meet essential criteria

You will often see jobs advertised that outline essential and desirable criteria (even if not called that specifically). These criteria will relate to what is needed to perform the role. With the number of suitable candidates applying for each role in the current job market, you would literally be wasting your time applying for a job where you fail to meet essential criteria.

For example, I advertised last year for a parliamentary assistant to help me with my work on the legal affairs committee. As I am not a lawyer and have never studied law, an essential criterion I set in the job advert was that the candidate should be a qualified lawyer or have a law degree. This was quite clearly a non-negotiable criterion, yet I had people applying who had never studied law! Of course they immediately went in the NO pile, I did not even read the applications because under no circumstances would those candidates be suitable.

However, if you almost meet criteria, then it may be worth applying. For example, if the job asks for 2 years relevant experience and you have 18 months, it is worth doing an application. Equally, if a role asks for knowledge of using a particular software package or equipment and you have used something very similar, again, probably worth doing an application (highlighting transferable skills of course).

2) DON'T make your application very long and/or go into huge detail on every aspect

This relates to point 1 of the "DOs"; "targeting your application". Your CV should be an overview of what you have done that highlights particularly relevant information for each individual role, not a detailed description of everything you have ever done whether relevant or irrelevant.

If you include too much detail, then you make it more difficult for the recruiter to quickly see if you are suitable for the role because they are wading through (if they have the time), lots of superfluous information. In addition, you will then not have much to expand upon if you are invited to interview.

Among the CVs received for the Youth Intergroup included 3-4 page CVs of people who had been working for less than 5 years. I have 15 years professional experience and my CV only just goes over 2 pages. Also, some applicants had gone into detail about experience that was not at all relevant to the role in their CV and cover letters. Not only is this a bit tiresome to get through for the recruiter, but it does the candidate no favours in respect of showing their suitability and motivation for the role. It almost came across as the candidate having sent an application for the job they want rather than the job on offer.

A good exercise to do is to imagine that the recruiter will in the first instance only have 30 seconds to look at your application. Will they be able to see in 30 seconds that you meet the essential criteria for the role and that you are genuinely interested in it? If not, then re-do your application.

If you are not sure or have been working on your application for so long you don't feel able to assess it objectively, ask another person to help you by giving them the job ad/job description/person specification and your application and ask them if they can see in 30 seconds if you appear to be a good candidate.

3) DON'T lie in your application

While it is fine to "big up" work you've done and try to put it in the best light, never lie because (apart from obviously being morally wrong), if you are found out it can have unpleasant consequences. The internet makes it easier for potential employers to check out job applicants, so you have a greater chance of being found out.

If your lies are found out during the recruitment process, you will obviously go no further, but if you are hired and your dishonesty is discovered later, you can be sacked on the spot (at least under UK employment law; I doubt other countries are much different). If you think it is hard to find a job now, imagine how much harder it will be when you have been sacked for dishonesty from your previous role!!

Some useful links:

UK National Careers Advice service for young people:

Compilation of useful websites for young people by  Princes Youth Business Trust

LinkedIn: (this is the UK version, but LinkedIn exists across Europe and the world)

EURES, the European job mobility portal:

European Union funded Leonardo programme (paid internships in other EU countries for young people) in the UK: