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Career Advice from the Locals: Variety Leads to Sustainability

Ask just about anyone over the age of 35 about their career story and you may want to pull up a chair.  Unlike just a generation ago, few Americans work a single job or even work in one single industry for their entire career.  In fact, a recent study shows that Americans have spent an average of 4.4 years at their current job.   The same study showed that American men work an average of 11.4 jobs during their career, while American women work 10.7 jobs.  Rather than preparing for a career of a lifetime, it seems more appropriate for young professionals to prepare for a myriad of jobs and careers over the course of their lifetime.  This likely means that resumes, interviews and especially, transferrable skills will continue to be consistent topics of conversation for American workers.  This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Duane Grafton of Deep Gap, NC.  I’m lucky there was a chair nearby when I asked Duane to share his career story.

ImageDuane Grafton and his wife, Irene, live in the small town of Deep Gap, NC, just 10 miles outside the college town of Boone, NC.  At over 3,000 feet of elevation in the prolific Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, you might not expect to meet an organic farmer here.  But that’s just what Duane describes himself as.  Actually, according to Duane, his job changes everyday.  “I’m a realtor at Century 21 in Boone.  I live and work at my farm, Bridle Creek Farms.  I board horses.  I buy and sell horses on a small scale.  I process pork.  I raise chickens and sell eggs.  I grow organic vegetables.  And of course, I’m Dad.”  As expected, Duane’s career story is even more long-winded than his job title.

Duane has seemingly done it all.  Duane served in the US Navy as a deep-sea diver before attending the College of Charleston.  After college, he sold insurance at Prudential, then investments at Wachovia before beginning his first entrepreneurial venture.  “I was a bingo promoter.”  Duane organized Bingo games 3 nights per week at a local roller skate arena.  “It sounds wacky, but I made a lot of money very quickly.  People couldn’t believe it.  It was a real success.”  After that, Duane opened a quick-lube business.  “I was a grease monkey,” Duane exclaimed with a smile.  Next, Duane bounced back into insurance sales before getting into the construction business.

It took hardship to lead Duane from being a salesman and entrepreneur on the South Carolina coast to realtor and farmer in the mountains of North Carolina.  In February 2008, the bank foreclosed on the Graftons’ Charleston, SC home.  “I went from making $5,000 per week to pawning my stuff when the economy tanked.”  Duane used this hardship as an opportunity to catapult himself into the next phase of his career.  “I was sick of city life, sick of the muggings, the car jackings and just the spirit of the city.  The mountains were calling me.”  Duane had camped in the high country of North Carolina for 20 years.  In 2009, the Graftons picked up and moved to the mountains of Boone, NC with their 2 sons.

“At the time the economy was tanking, so finding employment was quite challenging.”  Duane used his experience in sales and construction to string together some handyman work and construction projects.  Irene worked as a personal banker at Bank of America, a job she still holds today.  Eventually, Duane used his extensive sales experience to land a job as manager at Carolina West Wireless.  “It’s that job that afforded us our new home in Deep Gap. “  Only 17 months removed from their foreclosure, they bought their new home and the accompanying farm, Bridle Creek Farms.  “Everyone told me it would take 5-10 years to get another mortgage after the foreclosure. “  Instead, the Graftons got creative with borrowing and used private financing to make it happen.  “If you have drive and you can think, you can make stuff happen.”  And make stuff happen, he sure did.

IMAGE_9_18012013130611Today, the Grafton’s are back on their feet and thriving.  Duane and his wife sell organic vegetables, herbs, plants, pork and eggs every Saturday at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market in Boone, NC.  The Grafton’s first started selling at the market in 2011.  In 2012, they doubled their 2011 sales.   They hope to increase sales yet again in 2013.  “Everything in life is day to day.  The stock market, gas prices, sales, even relationships change all the time. “  Borrowing a phrase from his investment sales background, Duane says, “I just try to keep everything track-trending up.”  Working in real estate affords Duane the flexibility he needs to tend to the farm, pick up his sons from school and explore new opportunities as they arise.

At the market, Duane can be observed eagerly engaging passersby, telling stories and laughing boisterously.  You could easily confuse Duane’s approach to a deal for tomato plants and collard greens as if he were managing an investment portfolio or a retirement fund.  “I’m always wheeling and dealing, using organic vegetables to make new friends in the community.”  Without his past experiences in a variety of industries, Duane is convinced he wouldn’t be successful in his current roles of farmer and real estate agent.  Despite his storied career, Duane hopes that this will be his final venture.  “I love it up here in the High Country.  There’s a truly unique community of farmers here.  Everyone shares tips and resources. Everyone knows that if we look out for each other, everyone will benefit.”

Duane offered his advice for people looking for a career change. “Consider the many facets of what you’re doing.  If you’re a plumber and you get tired of fixing leaky faucets, you can get into plumbing design, consulting or get into water management supply sales.  If you’re working in fast food, consider the skills you are building.  You can open your own restaurant or you can be a supplier for restaurants because you understand what their needs are.  There are so many businesses connected to restaurants that don’t require you to flip burgers.  Be creative.”  Duane also encourages people to ask for help.  “When I came to the High Country, I was no expert in farming.  It was the local farmers who helped me get started.  It’s amazing how much people are willing to do for you when you just ask for help.”

According to Duane, it’s his creativity and breadth of experience that got him to where he is today.   “I can find you the perfect home for your family, then set you up with everything you need for your own vegetable garden.  When you’re hungry, I can provide you with free-range eggs and bacon for breakfast and pork loin and potatoes for dinner.”  Rest assured that Duane will do it all with the business acumen of an investment broker, the discipline of a Navy man and the creativity of an entrepreneur.

IMAGE_1_16012013201305Visit Bridle Creek Farms on Facebook or meet Duane and Irene in person at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market every Saturday from 8am – 12pm.  You can visit Bridle Creek Farms during the 2013 High Country Farm Tour on August 3rd and 4th.  During the tour Duane will be hosting guest chef Charlie from Boone Saloon.  Guests can enjoy tasty treats prepared using organic ingredients from the farm.  Guests can also spend time with the horses, sheep and pigs and learn about organic farming.  Tickets for the 2013 High Country Farm Tour cost $25 per car.  Proceeds will be used to strengthen the local food system and educate the public about sustainable farming.  For tickets and more information, visit farmtour.brwia.org.

Written by Chris Hegg, Graduate Assistant for Career Counseling at Appalachian State University.  Follow this blog by clicking “Follow HappyCareer” above or follow Chris on Twitter @TheChrisHegg

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Don’t Just Stand Around at the Job Fair, Stand Out.

Career fairs and internship fairs are regularly held in most cities and on most college campuses across the country.  These events offer professionals, students and alumni with excellent opportunities to network and land jobs.  However, be forewarned that career fairs are not among the community’s best-kept secrets.  Expect that hundreds of your friends, colleagues, roommates and classmates will be at the fair, vying for the same jobs and internships.  Therefore, recruiters will certainly not remember every candidate they encounter.  Rest assured, with a bit of planning and a little strategy, you can stand out from the crowd.

Crowd Image

During a recent career fair, I had the opportunity to speak with several employers and recruiters.  I asked each of them the same question: “What career fair advice do you have for students and professionals?”  Below are the 6 most common points of advice that employers and recruiters shared with me.

1.  Know what you are looking for.  Are you looking for a full-time job, a part-time job or an internship?  When can you start?  If it’s an internship you are seeking, how many hours are you required to work in order to receive college credit?  If you aren’t prepared to answer these basic questions, you may quickly lose the recruiter’s attention.  Also, be prepared to tell employers what you are bringing to the table – important skills, relevant experience and noteworthy accomplishments.

2.  Do your homework.  A simple Google search should provide you with the basics about organizations at the fair. You should know the organization’s industry, geographic location, key products/services and industry trends. Read over the job descriptions before arriving at the fair.  You can often find the appropriate job descriptions by visiting a recruiting organization’s website.  Are you ready to take the research to the next level? Consider speaking with someone who works for the organization prior to attending the fair.  One excellent way to identify a contact is to search your LinkedIn connections for contacts within the organization.  Does one of your friends, classmates or colleagues have a connection from the organization?  Politely ask them for an introduction.

3. Don’t just ask questions, ask powerful questions.  Recruiters will hear the question, “What does your organization do?” at least 200 times during the fair.  A powerful question will help you stand out from the pack.  For instance, “I see that your company sells cameras to professional photographers.  Given the recent growth in the compact point and shoot camera market, what is the biggest challenge that your salespeople are facing?”  This question demonstrates that you have knowledge about both the organization and the industry, and will help you engage the recruiter in a more meaningful and memorable conversation.

4.  Dress to impress!  No doubt about it, employers and recruiters will size you up based on your attire.  I think your ripped jeans, fuzzy boots and tattoos are cool, but recruiters may be less than impressed. “Business formal” attire is best, but at a minimum, follow “business casual” guidelines.  Don’t cramp your fancy shirt and tie combo with rain jackets and backpacks.  If you wear a jacket or a backpack to the fair, find a safe place to stow them before engaging employers.

5.  Bring copies of your resume.  A polished resume will help you stand out from other job seekers.  Since recruiters are likely talking to dozens or perhaps hundreds of candidates, it will be near impossible for them to remember every candidate that they speak with.  By handing recruiters your resume, you ensure that they have your credentials and your contact information handy when they get back to the office.

6.  Follow up.  Given the sheer number of conversations that recruiters have with candidates, it is unreasonable to think that recruiters will remember you.  While at the fair, request business cards and contact information from recruiters.  After the fair, send a professional email to recruiters.  Thank them for their time, express your interest in working for the organization and politely ask for the opportunity to continue the conversation via a future meeting or telephone conversation.

Not sure where to get started with your job search? A local career fair is a fantastic place to start.  Just don’t get lost in the shuffle.  A little preparation and pre-event homework will go a long way in helping you stand out from the crowds at the next career fair.

Employers Say “No Thanks” To Unprepared Candidates

interview6Over the holidays I had the opportunity to speak with my good friends, Melissa and Dallas Hartwig, owners of Whole9.  Whole9, founded in 2009, is a community focused on health, fitness, balance and sanity, all built on a foundation of real food and healthy nutritional habits.  The Hartwigs are recognized health and nutrition gurus, but rest assured, they also know a thing or two about job interviews.  After undergoing a busy year which included the publishing of their New York Times bestselling book, It Starts With Food, Melissa and Dallas recently went through the process of recruiting and hiring an operations manager to support their rapidly growing business.  They were kind enough to share with me some stories about the hiring process.  Within those stories are a handful of valuable lessons for job seekers.

Melissa and Dallas were alarmed by the large number of amateur mistakes made by candidates throughout the interview process.  These mistakes included resume typos, generic cover letters, candidates arriving late for interviews, and candidates who dressed too casually for a interviews.  They were amazed by the overall lack of preparedness and professionalism of many of the candidates—most of whom didn’t even make it past the resume submission stage.  Dallas quipped, “Why would I hire someone to run my entire business, when they cannot show up to a job interview on time, or take the time to dress professionally?”

The lesson here: do not miss the easy stuff.  No matter how qualified you are, if you are late for an interview or turn off the interviewer with casual attire, you might never get the chance to discuss your impressive collection of experience.  Do your research. No generic cover letters.  Arrive early to the interview.  Dress professionally.  Do not blow the “easy stuff.”

There is a silver lining here.  Melissa and Dallas did find a home-run candidate whom they soon hired.  What separated this candidate from the pack?  According to Melissa, “The candidate had a the best response to the single most important question.”  Melissa asked the candidate, “Why are you the best candidate for this job?”  The winning candidate’s response blew Melissa away.  “The candidate had prepared and rehearsed an impressive list of 9 reasons why her skills and experience were a perfect fit for my company. Tying in the ‘9’ from our business name showed she was thinking about our branding just as much as we were.”

Over recent months, many employers and recruiters have reported the very same thing – the vast majority of candidates are not effectively answering that “million dollar” question.  The lesson here:  be prepared to tell employers why you are the right person for the job.  Many college students who I advise report being uncomfortable “bragging” about themselves to an interviewer.  My advice: be honest and be proud.  Don’t stress about sounding arrogant.

Melissa remarked, “If you don’t tell me why you’re so great, how in the world will I find out?”   The fact is, interviewers will not know how awesome you are unless you tell them.  So tell interviewers about your relevant experience, and what unique skills that you will bring to the company.  If you don’t tell them, who will?  Since this is a question that you will almost certainly encounter in the interview process, you must be prepared.  Practice selling yourself.   Be honest.  Be proud. 

Melissa continued to boast about her newly hired operations manager.  “It was quite clear that the candidate extensively researched our company and our industry.” According to Melissa, some candidates did not demonstrate even basic knowledge of her business. Melissa explained, “We have a extensive online presence, complete with weekly blogs and daily social media posts.  If a candidate bothered to simply visit our website, they could have discovered just about every detail of our business.”  Employers aren’t simply looking for someone who is qualified to perform the job tasks.

Employers are looking for someone who is going to be a good fit for the company and its organizational culture.  If you can’t hold an intelligent conversation about the company and the industry, it’s going to be awful challenging to sell yourself as a good fit.  Doing some research about the company also helps demonstrate to the interviewer that you are truly interested in the position.  Before the interview, try doing a quick exercise with a friend: Describe the company that you are interviewing with, its products, its main competitors and two current issues in the industry.  If you do not feel comfortable with your description, you will likely need more research or more practice.  The bottom line: Do your homework.

Think an impressive resume packed with relevant experience and skills is enough to get you the job?  Melissa and Dallas strongly disagree.  Melissa says, “If a candidate hasn’t prepared for the interview, we’re going to notice—and that will certainly play into our decision.”  Remember that the interview process is, in fact, a competition between you and several other candidates.   In today’s job market your competition may be a few dozen candidates or several hundred candidates.  If you don’t take the time to prepare, another candidate likely will – and you’re likely to hear the words, “No, thanks” from the employer.  An impressive resume, a well-written cover letter and a professional outfit will get you a seat at the interview table.  Once you’re at the table, it’s your preparation and confidence that will be on display.  So, get started on your homework… and iron your pants.

Interested in nutrition, fitness, and a healthy lifestyle?  Visit Whole9 at whole9life.com, or check out their New York Times bestselling book, It Starts With Food.

Whole9

6 Steps Toward Career Happiness in 2013

Happy-new-year-2013Rest assured, this is not an article about weight loss or quitting smoking.  No resolutions here, I promise.  However, the changing of the calendar is an opportune time to consider changes to your career.  For those of you who felt like 2012 was mundane, boring, frustrating or downright lousy, have you thought about how your job played a role in your happiness, or the lack thereof?  For those of you who are graduating college in May 2013, do you have an employment plan for May, June and July yet?  If you would like to realize some positive change in 2013, I encourage you to take action starting today – not next week, not next month.  If you do not get started right away, you’ll be a prime candidate to be get caught saying something silly like, “Wow, it’s October already, where did the year go?”  Here are 6 steps to get you started on the path to a happy career in 2013:

1. Reflect on 2012.  George Santayana once famously said, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”  If you don’t keep a regular journal, there’s no better time to start than now.  Not interested in keeping a regular journal?  That’s fine, but I recommend that you take some time now to capture your thoughts about the past year.  If you fail to reflect on what happened in 2012, how can you possibly expect 2013 to be any different?  Simply pick up a old notebook, start a new Word document on your computer, or start typing away on your iPad.  However you do it, reflecting is critical.  As you write, consider answering the following questions: What was the most rewarding professional experience I had in 2012?  What things didn’t go how I had hoped at work in 2012? Do I truly enjoy my job?  What do I love about my job?  Do I dread going to work each morning?  Why?  Do I feel exhausted, frustrated or distraught on my way home from work? What can I do differently this year?  Aside from winning the lottery, what would my ideal 2013 look like?

2. Call your best friend.  Or call your mom, your brother or your neighbor – really anybody who knows you well.  Share with them your reflections on 2012 and your dreams for 2013.  Ask them for advice, connections or help.  Believe it or not, the best networking opportunities are normally acquired from those that you are closest with.  You might be surprised by the wealth of connections that your friends and family have, but you’ll never find out unless you ask.  If your friends are employed, chances are they’ve gone through their own career change.  Their advice may prove helpful.  Another thought: your next career may actually be within your current organization.  Consider talking to your boss, co-workers and the human resources department about potential opportunities within your organization.

3. Do one thing TODAY.  Then write down three things that you can do THIS WEEK.  Many people dream about making career changes, but the disconnect is often where the rubber meets the road.  Get some momentum by starting today.  Can you make one networking phone call or or write one email today?  Can you update your resume today?  Consider creating or updating your LinkedIn profile.  Challenge yourself to find two employment ads that interest you.  Consider looking up a college program you’re interested in and take some notes.  The key is to get the ball rolling today.

4. Carve out some time.  You’re probably quite busy.  Most of us are.  There are 168 hours per week, every week.  Start by carving out 2 hours per week to dedicate to your career change – the other 166 hours are yours.  For many of you, this means that you’ll have to cut out 2 hours from other commitments.  If you own a TV, an X-Box, or have a Facebook account, you know right where to start.  If you find it too hard to set aside two hours per week to devote to career happiness, perhaps you’re not truly ready for a change.  If work really and truly is a four-letter word, I suspect that you’ll find the time.

5. Get some professional advice.  The career search and the job search are both quite challenging processes filled with an assortment of obstacles and roadblocks.  The good news is, there are plenty of books and blogs that are packed with professional career advice.  I’m personally a big fan of Nicholas Lore’s “The Career Pathfinder.”  For college students and recent grads, I often recommend “From College to Career” by Lindsey Pollak.  Signing up for career blogs is a great way to get a steady flow of useful career information.  I enjoy careerealism.com and careerrocketeer.com.  If you’re a college student, consider contacting the career services center on your campus.  Most career centers also provide support for alumni.  These folks are specifically trained to support your career search and are often well connected with local employers.  Best of all, their advice is free.  Take advantage of it.

6. Set some deadlines.  Please do not treat your career change like a chore on the “Honey-Do List”.  Think about how long some chores like “Repaint the fence” and “Clean out the garage” have stayed on that list.  No disrespect to your fence, but your career change will have a bigger impact on your life.  So give this process the attention it deserves.  Try breaking your career change into smaller steps, then set realistic deadlines for each step.  A small step like “Update Resume by Friday” or “Write One Cover Letter by Next Thursday” is easier to accomplish than a multifaceted task like “Get a New Job by March.”  Deadlines are key.  Without a firm deadline, would you have ever renewed your driver’s license or gotten your car inspected?  Without deadlines for your career change, you’re much more likely to be reading next December’s blog post: “Six Steps to Finally Get Started on Your Career Change in 2014″.

Cheers to a happy 2013!

-Chris

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