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Using Job Search Portfolios in an Uncertain Labor Market


As the century winds down on a mixed review, one thing is clear -- the way we work and the way we search for work has changed dramatically. It will take most people longer to find a job, and they'll have to employ creative approaches to either locate or create opportunities for training and employment. Some suggest utilizing electronic job searches, others talk about internships and career fitness. I am currently advocating the use of portfolios.

While I am against using trends to set one's career compass, I do think we all need to consider the significant changes sweeping through the workplace. Today, the threat of lawsuits and the abundance of job seekers have combined to shape new hiring styles. Many employers are experimenting with new ways of recruiting and screening. This includes recruiting via the Internet, computer resume scanning, hiring temporarily through intermediaries (or contract labor), and behavioral interviewing.

Hiring a temporary worker has certain hiring advantages. First, it permits a try-before-you-buy approach. Second, many are pre-screened for the prerequisite skills. Finally, temporary status shields an employer from wrongful dismissal suits. Even when hiring full-time, permanent employees interviewers find that the legal eagles have tied up the reference-checking process. At the same time, many employers are finding it harder and harder to believe the self-advertising statements found in resumes.

When a job seeker offers to share a portfolio during the hiring process, he or she makes the difficult decision easier. That's because a portfolio contains evidence of one's work-abilities (sample letters, memos, news clips, reports, charts, plan sheets, budget print outs, photos, etc). The portfolio provides an alternative to checking references. I believe that the job seekers who supply additional credible information about past performance during the interview will enjoy a more favorable response than those who rely solely on words or resumes.

The recent metamorphosis from permanent, secure jobs to contract or temporary forms of employment parallels the evolution from the resume to the portfolio. The basic resume began as a chronological document listing one's experience in a stair-step fashion. In the ideal life of yesterday, one remained employed in the same occupation or company for 10, 15, or 20+ years, while taking on increasing responsibility, while moving hopefully up the career ladder. In this scenario, a work history could be neatly laid out in reverse chronology by listing job titles, duties, and dates.

Up through the 60s this view of a career permeated our thinking. The greatest sins included a gap in one's employment (read "unemployment") or listing too many places and dates (read "job hopper") on a resume. Thirty years later, periods of unemployment and numerous job changes are considered normative rather than problematic. In an ironic twist, some of today's employers might view working 15 years in the same place as a sign that the job seeker lacks initiative.

As the labor market became less stable over the last 30 years, the functional resume replaced the traditional chronological format. People who changed jobs frequently found that listing different exepriences by groups of skills was superior to listing experiences chronologically. For instance, single parents like Pam Mortillaro often end up following an eclectic career path as they attempt to balance the concurrent responsibilities of family, work, and education. Mortillaro has worked as a classroom assistant, while simultaneously going to school to earn a special education teaching certificate. At times, she has had to quit the classroom job in order to earn more money as a full-time locksmith.

Obviously, her experiences may be misinterpreted if recorded chronologically on a traditional resume. By choosing to organize her work history by skills or functions, all of the experiences related to education come first on her teacher-resume, with the locksmithing listed under the separate category of "Miscellaneous Work Experience." As you can see, this functional resume format more effectively describes Mortillaro's job experiences, and the larger realities which force her to adopt a flexible work pattern.

Today we appear to lead lives which are collections of various forms of work. Charles Handy in his book The Age of Unreason encourages us to view our careers as portfolios of work rather than stair-step, chronological sequences on a career ladder. In the book Jobshift, William Bridges discusses how job titles are becoming obsolete in a work place where employees are often grouped temporarily in teams to complete projects. Teaming, flexible work assignments, short-term projects are replacing over-specialized job titles and rigid departmental hierarchies with their long-term employment histories. Resumes alone, no longer adequately describe one's experiences in this fast-paced, constantly changing, work milieu.

While there is still much value in using traditional job search documents and techniques, effectiveness will increase by supplementing the tried-and-true with new or hybrid approaches. For example, the traditional resume can be shared with more people when it is written in two formats: one for computers scanners and scrreens and the other, more traditional format designed to be read by real, live people. Likewise, it is time to consider supporting the skills in a resume with a portfolio filled with convincing evidence.

Traditionally artists, writers, and designers have used portfolios in the pursuit of temporary or freelance work. Today, more and more people describe their work in freelance terminology, and therefore it behooves us to examine the practical benefits of portfolios for everyone. When this traditional tool is placed in the hands of the non-artist job-seeker, the individual reaps an unconventional advantage during the interview.



In a recent syndicated "Job Talk" column, Joyce Lain Kennedy observes how employers are hiring people who know what performance is all about, who know that doing a job is more important than holding one. She sees this as part of the shift from permanent and full-time workers to independent contractors, temps, consultants, and free-lancers. In an August, 1995 column she writes, "The only job security you can count on is the transportability of your own skills....The new emphasis on skills portability suggests that you must do whatever it takes to keep your qualifications package up to date."(8/13/95)

Using a portfolio in the search for work helps put the job seeker in tune with the new emphasis on portability. Constructing a portfolio requires looking upon a career (or an entire life) as a collection of experiences, which can be grouped and re-ordered to match the changing direction of one's career journey. For example, suppose Jennifer is making the transition from receptionist to voice-mail software trainer. She'll include in her portfolio samples from the computer work e-mail program she installed in her church, evaluations from her volunteer work (where she offers parent training workshops to new immigrants), and the syllabus or flyers for seminars she completed in office technology and voice mail.

The portfolio collection helps one to answer the broad range of questions faced during a career life. When, a person loses or changes jobs he or she begins by asking,

"What do I want to do next?"  
Once we get a job, the question changes to,
"Why should we keep or promote you?"  
And, during the job hunt, one needs to answer the interviewer's questions:
"Tell me about yourself"   or
"Why do you think you're qualified for this job?"

Other times people need to go back to school. This time the questions turn into:
"Why should we grant you credit for your prior learning experience?"   or
"Why should we grant you a scholarship?"  
The more adventuresome may consider starting their own business. The banker will then ask,
"Why should we give you a start-up loan?"  
And, once the doors open for business, a customer will ask,
"Why should I contract with you for services or goods?"

The questions sometimes overlap in tone, and they all demand that we demonstrate our talents and prove that we're a match. A portfolio is an outstanding vehicle for presenting evidence to those who are in a position to hire, select, or fund your potential. The next listing summarizes various ways in which a portfolio can assist in one's career development:

  • City University is an innovative private college serving working adults in the Seattle area. They strive to decentralize the campus to make it easier for working adults to get to classrooms located in different parts of the area as well as online. To further ease the schooling task for working people, various programs now offer credit for previous learning based on submitting a portfolio which summarizes one's expertise and experience. In Canada, the entire Prior Learning Assessment program uses challenge exams as well as portfolios.

  • Often when people lose a job today, they need to consider changing direction or returning to school to get advanced training if they are to find another job that pays as well as the one they lost. The decision of where to go next can be assisted by examining the contents of one's working portfolio. In this process, the individual lays out all the items he or she has collected in personal and professional portfolios. In the next step, artifacts or work samples are grouped by function. One could also grouping artifacts by the categories: Data, People, Things (shorthanded as DPT). Look for concentrations in one or two of these DPT areas. This type of analysis links directly to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles which lists over 20,000 jobs by DPT codes.

  • Once we make a decision about our field of interest, it is helpful to discuss our aspirations with people performing the work we find of interest. This could include interviewing trainers, teachers, or employees. A portfolio helps tell our story and elicit feedback about our decisions and perceptions. We can ask questions such as,
    "Do any of these artifacts reflect skills needed in your line of work?"   or
    "What else might I include in a portfolio if I wanted to enter this field?"

  • A pair of graduates wanted to start up their business. They took the portfolio they developed in their child care classes and added it to their loan application. They walked away with start-up monies to open their own child care center.

  • A salesman selling relaxation gadgets in a high-end consumer store tells his story about taking the electronic massagers and temperature-sensitive foam pillows on trips around the world. He keeps a "pocket" portfolio with pictures of the places he has visited. The pictures draw you in, creating a pleasant association with the product, and as a result, he's selling more than just a pillow. He may earn salesman of the month.

  • Unlike in the past, most people competing for the good jobs have schooled themselves in job hunting techniques. They may have attended a career seminar, read books, sought the services of a career counselor, or intensively studied their target employer. As a result, most final candidates have rehearsed interview questions and researched their employer's need. In this situation, employers have a very difficult time identifying the candidate who really will become the best employee simply based on interview questions alone.

  • As a result, today's interviewee is being asked to demonstrate skills (sometimes before a group of peers). Employers are asking final candidates to prove they can do the job. Interviewees are given simulated tasks to perform. A manager illustrates how she would conduct a staff meeting, a teacher gives a lesson, a service representative is given three simulated phone calls to answer. Portfolios can be used to support these "performance" interviews by referring to items demonstrating past successful performance.

  • As employers shift their focus away from job titles and descriptions and towards projects and outcomes, employee evaluations are changing. Promotions can be more easily secured when the employee provides evidence in a portfolio illustrating contributions at work (log of work hours, awards, thank-you notes, special project print outs.)

  • Software now exists for creating multi-media and online portfolios. In fact, today on the Internet the World Wide Web turns cyberspace into a library of portfolios. If you want to search for work using the ultimate network, the Internet, you are well advised to design a Home Page as a digital portfolio.



    This is a starter list illustrating some of the work samples or artifacts which could be included in a general career portfolio. Look it over for ideas about things you might collect now or wish to start collecting in the future.
    1. Artifacts Pertaining to Formal and Informal Education and Training
      • Brochures describing training events, retreats, workshops, clinics, lecture series
      • Certificate of mastery or completion
      • Charts or lists showing hours or time completed in various areas of study
      • Evidence of participation in vocational competitions
      • Grants, loans, scholarships secured for schooling
      • Licenses
      • Lists of competencies mastered
      • Samples from classes (papers, projects, reports, displays, video or computer samples)
      • Samples from personal studies (notes, binders, products)
      • Syllabi or course descriptions for classes and workshops
      • Standardized or formalized tests
      • Teacher evaluations
      • Transcripts, report cards
    2. Artifacts Demonstrating General Work Performance
      • Attendance records
      • Community service projects
      • Descriptive material about the organization (annual report, brochure, newsletters, articles)
      • Job descriptions
      • Logs, list or charts showing general effort (phone calls received, extra hours worked, overtime, volume of e-mail, case load, transactions completed, sales volumes)
      • Military records, awards, badges
      • Employer evaluations or reviews
      • Examples of problem solving
      • Letters of reference
      • Organization charts showing personnel, procedures, or resources
      • Products showing your leadership qualities (mission statements, agendas, networks)
      • Records showing how your students, clients, or patients did after receiving your services (evidence showing your impact on the lives and performance of other such as test scores, performance improvement data, or employment and promotion)
      • Resumes
      • Samples from (or lists showing) participation in professional organizations, committees, work teams.
      • Surveys showing satisfaction by customers, clients, students, patients, etc.
      • Invitations to share your expertise (letters or agreements asking you to train, mentor, or counsel others, invitations to present at conferences or professional gatherings)
      • Documentation of experience as a consultant. (thank-you letters, products, proposals)
    3. Artifacts About Skills Using Data
      • Communication pieces (memos, reports, or documents, a public service announcement.
      • Writing abilities as demonstrated in actual samples of your writing (articles, proposals, scripts, training materials)
      • Evidence of public speaking (membership in Toastmasters, photograph of you at podium, speech outline, brochure for your presentation, speaker's badge or brochure, blurb from the conference.) Also posters, photos, reviews of actual performances (dance, drama, music, story telling)
      • Data (graphs, charts, tables you helped to produce, testing results)
      • Display or Performance materials (actual objects, or illustrations, or posters from displays)
      • Computer related (data base designed, desktop publishing documents, samples from using the Internet, computer video screen pictures or manuals covers illustrating programs you use)
      • Formal and technical documents as in grant or loan applications (include proposal cover sheet or award letter), technical manual
    4. Artifacts Pertaining To People Skills
      • People and leadership skills (projects or committees you share, projects you initiated, photos of you with important people, mentoring programs, proposals, documents or strategies related to negotiation)
      • Planning Samples (summary of steps, instruments used such as surveys or focus groups)
      • Problem solving illustrated with various artifacts. Use figures or pictures showing improvements in products, services, profits, safety, quality, or time. Include forms and other paper products used to solve problems
      • Employee training packets, interview sheets, motivational activities
    5. Artifacts About Skills, Things, Tools, Equipment
      Any artifact which shows technical skills, equipment, or specialized procedures used in your work:  
      • Paper documents or replicas of actual items including: forms, charts, print outs   (such as medical chart, financial statement or budgets, reports, emergency preparedness plan, marketing plan, customer satisfaction plan, inspection or evaluation sheet, financial or budget plans, spreadsheets, charts, official documents)
      • Performance records (keyboard timing scores, safety records, phone logs, complaint logs, pay stub with hours worked highlighted, any record showing volume, amount, total time, response time, turn-around time, dollars or sales figures, size of customer database, organization chart showing people supervised)
      • Technical directions, manuals, procedure sheets for specialized work, use of equipment, and detailed processes. This could include: sample pages from manuals, illustrations, technical drawings, blueprints or schematics, photos from the workplace, schematics or directions for tools or equipment, operation or procedure sheet
      • Photos, video, slide show, or multi-media presentation showing process or equipment.
      • Actual item which can be handled in various ways: displayed in person one at a time or part of a display you set up

  • UP


    Pam Mortillaro, the mother, teacher, and locksmith mentioned earlier, also served as the editor for my Portfolio Power manuscript. Upon completing her review of the work, Mortillaro noted that she used to feel guilty about working so many different kinds of jobs. She reflected on the fact that during any given day she might do hospital tutoring, special education teaching, locksmithing, or editing. She confided, "I felt uncomfortable with my seemingly piecemeal existence. But, after thinking about my life in portfolio terms, I now take pride in my portfolio of work."

    I also have traveled a checkered occupational path, working in permanent and freelance positions as a wood carver and cabby, union organizer and small business owner, VISTA volunteer and playwright, teacher and consultant. I realize that it is becoming increasingly difficult to plot or plan our careers with any degree of precision or certainty. Like so many others, I'm not always sure what path got me here, nor how I might earn a dollar in the future.

    As I look back I am reminded of an old Yiddish proverb which captures the open-ended quality of our lives today: "When you don't know where you're going, just about any road will get you there."

    I would like to conclude by adapting this proverb for those who may want to consider using a portfolio on their journey: "One can never be certain where our careers will lead today. Therefore, use a portfolio to keep track of where you've been. It just may help you get to where you're going next."

    This article appeared online at CareerMag and was published in the Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, Winter 1996-97.   For more detailed advice, please consult Portfolio Power: The New Way to Showcase All Your Job Skills and Experiences [available online from]   ISBN 1-56079-761-4



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