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Career makeover

For this disabled job seeker, it’s all about networking

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By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2010

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As an open source Web developer, David Clark is in demand — he gets at least five calls a week from recruiters.

Despite that fact — and his 15 years of experience — Clark has been looking for a permanent job for more than a year since his last position ended when the organization closed because of lack of funding. Although he has no definitive evidence, Clark, who has been doing independent contract work, believes his job search may be hindered by his disability; he has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that can affect speech and movement. He is one of the about 54 million Americans with disabilities, and he feels that he frequently encounters unspoken barriers, such as an employer’s perception of the costs and difficulty of accommodating people with disabilities.

“I am supposed to be considered equally with other candidates, and there is nothing provable or actionable, but I don’t think this is happening,’’ said Clark, who added that he often is called by recruiters who are doing phone screens but have difficulty understanding him, due to his speech, which is impaired by his condition. “I know I can be hard to understand at first, but it does get easier with time and it does get better.’’

Clark requested a Boston Globe Career Makeover, saying that he wanted to know why he was getting so few interviews, despite almost daily calls from recruiters. With a history of working for nonprofit, education, and disability firms, he wanted to know how to parlay that experience to get a job in higher-paying sectors.

“It’s getting extremely frustrating,’’ Clark said. “I know that I’m completely qualified for many jobs that are out there.’’

Career consultant Patricia Hunt Sinacole, president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton, said many of the job placement agencies that are contacting Clark do not have any technical expertise and are just matching resumes to job descriptions. “Because they work mainly on commission, they want a quick sell, and since it’s difficult to initially understand you, they don’t want to move any further to the interviewing stage,’’ Sinacole told Clark.

And with the job search process becoming more electronic, recruiters and employers are relying more on phone screens. “Since one of your challenges is the telephone interview, you first need to sell your experience via e-mail and make it clear that your verbal skills might be a bit challenging to some,’’ Sinacole, a regular contributor to Boston.com, advised Clark. “Ask if it’s possible to do a text chat or e-mail Q and A. Be upfront and say, ‘I have cerebral palsy, which might make it difficult to understand me at first.’ ’’

Although there are disability support employment agencies, most deal with people with very limited work history or specialize in the clerical or service industry. These agencies typically aren’t used to dealing with individuals who have Clark’s level of high-tech proficiency.

Instead, said Sinacole, Clark should rely on his extensive network of connections, which range from small businesses, accessibility advisory councils, technology ventures, management consulting services, and his alma mater, the University of California-Berkeley.

“Ask your colleagues and cohorts to make the introductions for you,’’ she told Clark. “They should explain that your speech becomes a non-issue after talking to you for 15 minutes or a half-hour, but that initially it might be a hurdle.’’

Sinacole said Clark’s ability to get referrals from others in the industry is more important than for other job seekers. “Reach out to people who you’ve worked with before who know your ability and already mastered the ability to communicate with you,’’ Sinacole said.

Clark also needs to ramp up his Boston-area connections, Sinacole said. One problem: He has more than 400 connections on the social networking website LinkedIn, but only a quarter in the New England region.

“Focus on narrowing your relationships,’’ said Sinacole, who also encouraged Clark to check out groups on MeetUp, an online social networking portal that facilitates offline group meetings. With MeetUp groups focused around various programming languages and Web development frameworks, these gatherings could help Clark gain valuable job leads from other programmers and developers.

Finally, said Sinacole, in the current economy, organizations are looking for the “perfect’’ candidate. “When companies are fat and happy, they’re more likely to give people a chance, but it’s a hard, cold world out there,’’ Sinacole said. “Every job seeker has challenges . . . yours are just a different set of challenges, so you need to use every resource you have, whether it’s a pad and pen, iPad, or instant messaging, to get your message across to potential employers.’’

To be considered for a Career Makeover, send an e-mail to careermakeover@globe.com.

DAVID CLARK
Goal: Move from independent contractor to a permanent position in information technology and services.
Problem: Disability is a barrier for employment, because of problematic phone screens by recruiters.

Recommendations from career adviser Patricia Hunt Sinacole:
■ Instead of preliminary phone interviews, sell skills via e-mail first or text chat; be upfront about limitations.
■ Use extensive network of connections for personal introductions to help open doors.
■ Focus on strengthening Boston-area relationships instead of cross-country associations.
■ Use MeetUp groups to make offline affiliations that may develop into job leads.