Dear Dr Heather Yaxley

About the author

Heather is a key member of our assessor team. PhD, BSc, PG, RSA, CAM  

Mid-career challenges

In this Dear Dr Heather Yaxley feature, the focus is on mid-career challenges.

Q. After spending a number of years developing my career with one employer, my role has been made redundant. I’m interested in a change of direction, how should I go about this?

A. The best way to change direction is to build on existing areas of expertise. That way you can draw on your previous experience and knowledge, whilst opening up new avenues. I use a tapestry metaphor for careers, encouraging us to identify various threads as a portfolio of specialisations. These may involve knowledge of a particular sector (eg healthcare), experience in a discipline (eg media relations) and/or a reputation in a competency (eg crisis management).

Untangle the various threads from your previous role, decide which  new direction you’d like to take in your career, and ensure your CV/resumé highlights these as strengths.

Q. I’m an experienced communications professional looking for a new opportunity, but have been disappointed at the standard of service from some recruitment agencies. Do you have any advice on how best to decide which ones to approach?

A. The UK recruitment industry is complex, fast-paced, highly competitive and growing. There are almost 36,000 recruitment agencies in the UK helping a million people each year find new permanent jobs. In 2017, more than 800 new agencies were founded each month, and it is predicted that over half of job vacancies in 2018 will be filled by agencies.

I’m currently compiling a list of recruitment agencies and consultants that specialise in the PR and communications field for a research project.

Selecting the best ones to approach will depend on a range of factors. It can be tempting to register with lots of job sites and agencies, but the best advice for mid-career professionals is to develop relationships with a few of the specialist consultancies that recruit for executive positions. Do your research and ask lots of questions about what kind of experience you can expect as a candidate, particularly concerning communication during the recruitment process. Be pro-active and manage your career encounters with recruiters as you would any other professional relationship.

Q. For the past fifteen years, I’ve been working overseas. I’m returning to the UK shortly and looking to take a step back in my career. How can I convince recruiters that I’m a good candidate for more junior roles, despite my age and considerable experience?

A. Although it is illegal for companies to discriminate on the basis of age, it is common to hear claims that applicants have been rejected on the basis of being over-qualified, having too much experience, or expectations that only Millennial “digital immigrants” have social media skills.

One option to overcome such resistance is to have a clear explanation for your decision and emphasise the benefits you offer to the employer. Ensure you are happy to work within any salary range and make this apparent in your application. You may find it easier to secure interim, contract or temporary positions initially and use these to establish your credentials for more permanent roles.

Q. My background is in large London agencies, but I’ve been a stay-at-home dad for five years. I’m keen to pick up my career now my children are in school, what are my options?

A. It can be difficult to find job-share or similar opportunities that offer a flexible work-life balance. However, there is increasing recognition of the need to encourage experienced PR/communications practitioners back into the workforce after career breaks. In fact, some organisations offer “returnship” programmes involving placements with training updates. Recruitment firm, f1, introduced its Back2businessship initiative five years ago. It will shortly be looking for applications from parents for its October 2018 intake, see: for details. It is also possible to combine freelance work with caring and other responsibilities, either through self-employment or virtual agencies.

Q. I’ve heard that recruiters are using technology to screen applications. What does this mean for people like me who took an unconventional route into public relations?

A. Technology is being used increasingly to match candidates automatically with job requirements. Applicant tracking systems (ATS) filter out anyone that doesn’t meet a set of minimum (must-have) or preferred (nice-to-have) parameters.

ATS may also apply statistics, for instance, shortlisting a set percentage of applicants and sending the remainder a standardised rejection response. Candidates may be required to complete online forms linked to the ATS or data may be extracted from a CV/resumé using algorithms. These processes look to improve the efficiency of the recruitment workflow and support compliance with equal opportunity legislation and diversity policies.

To avoid being rejected at an early stage of the process, you need to optimise your application. Look for keywords relating to qualifications, skills and personal characteristics used in the particular job advert, candidate specification or on the recruiting organisation’s website. Feature these in your application. Relate previous experience directly to PR capabilities, highlight relevant achievements and include proven measures of success. You also need to align previous job titles to industry standard terminology and review your LinkedIn and other online presence that may be found by ATS software.