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6 Strategies To Make Recruiters Notice Your Hard Skills

Certain skills in a job description are very easy to teach and measure, often in well defined curriculums with established right and wrong answers. For example, take computer programming. Given the opportunity, you can either create working computer code or stare at the screen befuddled. The same with mathematics and engineering. The math is either correct or it isn't. These skills are frequently referred to as the hard skills and included as a laundry list on a job description.

We're going to talk about hard skills in this article, so you can be sure to "check the boxes" that a HR screener or hiring manager may have for the job. But more importantly, we're going to talk about how you can go beyond the typical "bullet list" to stand out from your peers and win the job.

What Are Hard Skills?

I'll start with an example. Most IT resumes have something that look like this, a long bulleted list of specific techologies and programming languages:

For those not in technology, these are the basic skills required to build any commercial webpage.

They can be easily taught (for example, this site on R programming) and easily tested during the course of the interview with a couple of questions or some time at a whiteboard. Speaking more generally, if I can give you a test and you can prove you know the skill with a couple of answers, the skill is probably a hard skill. Math is either right - or wrong. Computers work - or they don't. You either know the law - or we're going to get in serious trouble. Pass / Fail. Along the same lines, if you can show me a credential that credibly certifies you know a skill, it is probably a hard skill.

More importantly, you can also make the argument that it is impossible to actually do the work without some proficiency in these skills, so a candidate that lacks them will be at a significant disadvantage. Or had better learn them mighty quickly after being hired.

On the other hand, we have soft skills, which are often harder to judge. The "correct" answer to a soft skills question often reflects the situation where you are using the skill and the interviewer's own beliefs. For example: "You should be tough and withhold information from someone you're negotiating with! True or False?" doesn't have a clear answer. At best, you're catering to someone's opinion and the "right" answer will vary based on the situation. Hardball negotiating tactics are culturally appropriate for certain settings but can do impressive damage to relationships in others. There is no right answer, this is basically a culture fit question.

Hard skills tricky on a resume at several levels. First, you're generally

The Big Problem With Hard Skills

Ah, you learned to code - in Python, no less! And you earned a certified Fraud Examiner certification. Fantastic. That list of bullets is certainly growing!

Unfortunately, your list of bulleted skills now looks... exactly like every other candidate. All of you are going to the same schools, the same coding camps, the same entry level jobs that teach you an extremely similar set of skills. Which are easily faked, for that matter, just by listing a technology. So, how are we figure out who to interview?

You need to come up with a strategy to stand out.

Winning Strategies To Get Hired For Hard Skills

I've worked in computers and statistical analysis for the past twenty years, which is the ultimate playground for hard skills. Every job interview comes down to a discussion at the white board, showing that you've got the ability to solve their problem. Making things a bit more challenging, I have to compete with people who attended graduate school - listing Master's degrees or Phd's on their resume. On paper, they actually look more impressive than me! So how can you compete with that?

Simple. It's like the old joke - how do you beat Bobbie Fischer? Answer: Play Him in Any Game Except Chess. Competitive strategy for job hunters works very much the same way. Step away from the hard skills and play a broader game.

Here are several ways to put this into practice. Imagine that we're are applying for a computer or engineering position. Most of the people we will be competing with are also engineers - at best, we're going to be even with them. Everyone lists a bunch of skills on their resume, maybe a Github repo or two. So what can we talk about that might set us apart? Here are some winning strategies to set yourself apart for a hard skills focused job:

As you can see, there are a number of ways to position yourself as a unique candidate. Some work for introverts, others are suited for management. Some require flashy "big ticket" accomplishments, others can be done by anyone with a little hustle. Some even work for folks who prefer to work quietly on their own. There's something for everyone here. What's most important is that you find a story to weave all of these hard skills together into a consistent them.

Focus is Key

Once you've found the "theme" (see above) in which to present the hard skills on your resume, you should carefully prune your list of hard skills to keep the reader focused on your messages. Having too many hard skills can easily work against you. This is particularly common on IT resumes: a typical mid-career IT professional can easily fill half a page or more with systems, tools, and languages they have worked with. The reader is left bewildered. You are better off sharing only the skills which are relevant to the job and/or support the unique theme you're using to sell your hard skills as a candidate.

Still in love with all your skills and experience? No worries, you can summarize. Lead off by focusing on the hard skills that are most relevant to the job and close with a summary that groups the balance of your technical experience into a single high level statement. For example:Three years of web development and twenty years of broader development experience.

But wait, you've got experience in multiple areas? No worries, we can extend the bullet to mention those. Something like this. For example: Three years of web development on manufacturing e-commerce sites and twenty years of broader development experience, supporting production management, inventory tracking, forecasting, and general ledger systems for medium-sized manufacturers. Perfect - if you're applying for an e-commerce job with a manufacturer, I'd be silly not to speak with you. And we've skipped listing about thirty obsolete technologies that may not even be installed at that particular customer...

Want more examples of how to set yourself apart on your resume? Check out our guides on career strategy:

Or our insider job guides:
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