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What to Focus on When You Can't Get Job You Want

Staying on target. U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane
Staying on target. U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane

Career coaches say that there are only three major motivators for every single career. There are the jobs based on achievement -- climbing through the ranks, rising to titled success.

There are jobs based on affiliation -- working with the kinds of people you love, surrounding yourself with those compatible co-workers every single day.

And there are jobs based on competencies -- jobs you take because they use and grow the skills and work traits that make you the professional you are.

You might be in one of those jobs right now. 

Then you marry someone in the military.

Obstacles to jobs based on achievement and affiliation

You want a job based on achievement? Not so fast. You may be hoping to promote internally in two months, but the military insists on a PCS move instead.

You want a job based on affiliation? You love working with like-minded, passionate co-workers and you just got the perfect gig? Two steps back. That perfect gig is a two-and-a-half hour drive from where you live.

Go with your professional competencies instead

What about jobs based on your professional competencies? What about a job based on your skills, knowledge, and know-how?

That does work with military life. After all, that part is entirely up to you. Looking for jobs based on cultivating and growing your competencies can be done from anywhere. And it's what Sam started doing years ago.

Sam, an Air Force wife, works in non-profits, preferably those in the arts. "That's what my degree is in," she laughs. "I married at 23, a year after I met my husband. The four years before that, I studied art history and non-profit management."

Sam dreamed of being on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "We live nowhere near the Met," she adds.

Like the rest of us, Sam was forced to start thinking about her career in an out-of-the-box kind of way.

"I couldn't have the job I wanted. I couldn't have the title I wanted. And I couldn't even surround myself with the people I hoped to work with every day," she says. "But I didn't let that stop me."

Sam sat down and plotted out the skills she knew she needed if she wanted to succeed in her field. "Nonprofits are very unique," she explains. "You have to speak the language and know the players to succeed. I had to learn how to do it no matter where we were."

Sam knew she wanted a career. And to do that, she needed to acquire the skills and know-how that make her a nonprofit employee worth hiring.

"Just making yourself OK with the jobs that are there, in whatever small town you're stationed now? That never actually works," she says. "If you just take the jobs that are available where you are, you're never going to get anywhere. You will certainly never build a career."

So every day, Sam goes to work with one clear goal in mind: Building her competencies.

"Even if we are nowhere near my dream job, I can find my dream job someplace else. To be the person they want to hire for that job, though, I need the right resume. It's on me to acquire those skills along the way."

Every time they PCS, Sam looks for a job based on competencies: Those she has, those she needs to develop, and those she wants to acquire one day. Every day, she is busy building her toolbox.

"When the right job comes along, I won't have to say, ‘but I never had the right experience.' I'll be able to say, ‘My resume may be unconventional, but I'm perfect for this job. Let me prove it.'"

Competencies: What are they, after all?

The phrase "building competencies" may sound a little jargonny to you. After all, "competencies" is the epitome of profession HR jargon.

 Fancy name or not, you would recognize them if you saw them. Competencies are those skills you list on your resume that make you sound like you know what you are doing. You read them in job descriptions. You use them in cover letters to explain your experience. They are things like:

-- Interpersonal skills

-- Communication skills

-- Time management

-- Goal setting

-- Technical expertise

-- Conflict management

-- Leadership

-- Strategic thinking

-- Financial analysis

-- Coalition building

Your competencies are the skills, knowledge, and traits you bring to a job that make you someone to hire. If you want to learn more about some of the most basic ones, here is an in-depth analysis of a lot of the ones you will read about most frequently.

For every marketable skill you have, there is a professional competency that goes with it. "In the context of applying for a job, competencies are the things that you tell me that you're good at," says Anna, another Air Force wife. Anna lives in Colorado, where she works in Human Resources for a small community college. "In the context of hiring someone, they are what I'm saying you need."

Anna thinks that when it comes to building a career as a military spouse, focusing on your competencies is the key to success. Sam agrees.

"Because you have to reinvent yourself and your career so often," Sam says, "it's easy to move between fields. If I weren't married to an airman, I know I'd be working only in museums doing fundraising. That would be my niche. I would have never grown to explore other arts and education nonprofits."

Instead, focusing on her competencies has forced Sam to grow as a professional in a way she never would have if she had been able to pursue her dream job the old-fashioned way.

Competencies move from one duty station to another. "The skills I learned in one place I take to another, and every time we move, I have to find a creative way to piece together a job for myself there," she explains. "That means I'm always thinking, OK, how can I use this skill? And that makes me much happier and, I think, my resume much stronger."

Whatever your core competencies are -- be it strategic thinking or financial know-how -- they are more than the skills that get you the job. They are the skills upon which you will build your career.

The military community has long touted the skills-based resume for military spouses, and while that can be a helpful approach, it misses the larger calling: It isn't about focusing your resume on your skill-sets and competencies; it's about focusing your whole career on them.

Focusing on your competencies may be a new way for you to envision your career, but give it a try. What are your core competencies? Where do you think they could take you?

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