Fast Track: Help desk - I'm in a Catch 22 situation

Work dilemmas solved by experts
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I graduated six years ago with a B.A. Hons in History. Initially, I worked as a PA to the managing director of a manufacturing company in Milan. However, I moved back to Britain to work as a Project Manager for an Italian food development company.

I no longer want to work in the food sector and have been looking for alternative employment. I have no set idea about what I want to do instead, and have applied to a range of areas such as conferencing, retailing and Italian language reference work.

As yet I have been unsuccessful, despite often reaching second and third interviews. The reason often given is that I don't have the relevant experience.

I find myself in a Catch 22 situation where I am not fulfilling my potential in a traditional secretarial/PA role, and yet lack the experience to move up to the next level. What advice can you offer me?

Martin Hall, Executive Director of The British Institute of Retailing:

You're not in a Catch 22 situation at all, but rather a muddle of your own making. Your basic problem is that you really haven't sorted out what you want to do. At 28 years of age, you should have a clear idea of the career path you wish to follow. At the moment, you're vacillating horribly - anything from conferencing to retailing and Italian language reference work. No wonder prospective employers are giving you the brush off, telling you they don't feel you're committed enough. They're right.

Decide once and for all on the career path you wish to follow and commit to it with everything you've got. You'll be amazed by the speed at which you are offered an interesting position once employers see that sparkle of real determination in your eye. With a degree, fluent Italian and knowledge of the Italian food industry, I am sure a number of top retailers would be interested in your talents.

Diana Lomax, Director of Human Resources, Miller Freeman UK Ltd (Organisers of exhibitions and conferences):

You have successfully reached the advanced interview stage, so you must be creating the right impression. This is a good base to work from. As you have applied to a range of areas, including conferencing, you may need to be more specific in your approach and demonstrate a thorough understanding of the role you are applying for. In a large organisation like Miller Freeman, we look for candidates who know what to expect and can demonstrate the skills needed - even if these are gained in a different environment. Web sites, financial newspapers, trade magazines and associations like ABCO (Association of British Professional Conference Organisers) are good sources of information.

Although you may not have the relevant work experience, if you know what you want to do, why you want to do it and what applicable skills you can offer, you can present a strong case to any potential employer.

Angela Baron, Policy Adviser, Institute of Personnel and Development:

Your problem is not lack of experience - it's deciding what you want. Sit down and ask yourself a couple of hard-hitting questions. What don't you like about working in the food sector? Why are you dissatisfied about working as a PA? What kind of new role do you want? Do you have the relevant qualifications, or will you need extra training?

It might be useful to read a good book on career management, or get some advice from an independent career counsellor. Don't set your sights too high and expect to enter a new sector at a high level. You may have to take a cut in pay or lower-status position to get a foot on the ladder. Our research shows recruiters consider relevant experience crucial, so look in the food, leisure or catering sectors.

Target your applications closely and think about how to sell your skills in an interview. You must already have at least some of the experience employers want, otherwise you wouldn't be making it to second interviews.

Compiled by Carmen Fielding

l If you have a work problem and want expert advice, write to Carmen Fielding, Fast Track, Features, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail