How to Break Into L&D Without Experience

Any job posting you look at has the amount of experience required to be considered a serious candidate. I find this silly, specifically within the L&D sphere. We give a lot of lip service to getting beyond the ‘perceived’ problem that a client might bring, and getting to the root of things.  To find out what is really going on. Do applicants really need three to five years of experience in a similar role? Or do they just need to demonstrate specific behaviours? Even if I think it’s silly, it’s still a factor that exists for applicants that are looking to break into the L&D world.

So, how do you ever get experience when every role requires experience? This self-referential conundrum can be beaten but it takes time and elbow grease. This is my money-back guarantee that you’re going to land your dream job.  If you don’t get the job, I’ll reimburse everything you spent on this article. Even if you don’t get the job right away, it will tip the odds a little more in your favour. 

As you shift your career to L&D you need to demonstrate three elements to help a recruiter and hiring manager get over the experience gap:

  1. Adult Education Foundations
  2. Visual & Audio Design
  3. Technical Skills

Each of these elements needs to be obvious on an application to the point where it over shadows the lack of official experience. This is no easy feat, but this is a short term problem if you put in the time and effort.

Adult Education Foundations

Formal Education

Formal adult education experience is probably the item that takes the longest to check off of the list, but it’s a cheap way to get something on your resume.  You don’t need to have a Master’s degree in Adult Learning or Instructional Design Technology. While those are impressive credentials, I obtained an Adult Education Certificate through a technical college part-time.  It was five courses, one at a time, so it was manageable with my full-time job. It was much easier on the wallet as well. The year and a half that a part-time program takes can give you opportunities to step up some of the other elements on this list. So be patient and use the time.  It’s not slowing you down, it’s building you up. Search for technical colleges in your area or even one that has an online option. I prefer the human element of an in-person session, but online education will come to you wherever you are. This is worth the investment. 

A little step down on the formality scale is LinkedIn Learning, formerly Lynda.com.  I say ‘step down’ only because they aren’t a college or university, which might put an asterisk next to it for a recruiter. Again, I think learning is good, no matter where it comes from but we need to take the recruitment hang-ups into account since they are the gatekeepers. The LinkedIn Learning content is hosted and built by relevant people in the industry. A lot of their education tracks have a certification of sorts and since it’s a LinkedIn property, you are able to easily show your accomplishments to potential employers. You can’t go wrong.  If you don’t currently have access to LinkedIn Learning, you may be able to get it through your employer or even through your library.  

Informal Education

If you want to be taken seriously by employers you need to take the discipline seriously so formal education is a must. That said, it’s not the only way.

There are other ways to establish L&D foundations, but they aren’t as transparent. Still worth it, but an additional step needs to be taken to show off the gained knowledge set. Read a book, attend a webinar, listen to a podcast, follow a blog, take part in a Twitter chat. All of the above.

They each add their own level of value and you’ll find a different experience.  What may be most important, by consuming these less formal and more topical content elements, you’ll be more in tune with the current trends and buzzwords. 

As a rule, buzz words are both dumb and stupid however, they do help you understand what’s happening and help play along in the conversation. 

Design Elements

If you’re building a house carpentry, plumbing, and electrical, can get you 90% there. You won’t get wet when it rains.  The lights turn on when you flip the switch. Everyone would agree, that most of the work has been done on this house. But is it a liveable house? Would you invite friends over for game night?  Nope. And you don’t even know where the couch is going to. You certainly can’t leave the drywall as it is. Paint or wallpaper? I like red. Why don’t we do bright red paint? 

I’ll tell you why we don’t do red paint.  Because red takes two coats of primer. And once you finally admit that you hate it, it takes four more coats of blue paint to cover it up.  Some basic design chops are essential if you want to create material that people can consume while they enjoy them, or at least aren’t distracted by them. 

To create your own substitute experience, you need to create solutions that can get the job done, and look good doing it.

Functional Design

User Experience, or UX, is all about usability.  Have you ever confronted a door that you tried to push until you figured out that it was a pull? Or download a free pdf on your phone to help assemble a piece of furniture, and find the font far too small to read? Any material that we create needs to be accessible by the learners in the environment where they are. Once you’ve got experience under your belt, this will be part of your SME interview process along with a bunch of other stuff. Look into blogs, books, and videos about design. Donald Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday Things is a great resource that will get you into the right headspace. It shows us how we can do it right, when it’s so easy to do it wrong.

Visual Design

Like a spoonful of honey, good visual design makes the medicine go down. This goes way beyond a maximum number of words on a slide. You can’t go wrong by being a UX zealot, but visual design is easy to be indulgent. How do you want it to look? Good? Great? Stunning? Well, how good does it need to look?  If you take the time to get your material to be consistently ‘good,’ you’re already ahead of the pack, and Robin William’s book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book is exactly the resource to get you there.  This is one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read. She helps you see the four core visual design elements everywhere and then guides your hand to apply them.

Audio Design

In the case of elearning and micro learning videos, understanding good audio design can produce a significantly superior product. When it comes to your time and energy, visual design should take a priority, but as you establish a foundation, don’t overlook audio. What conditions are good for recording audio? How do you use a mic? How can you process audio to make it sound ok?

I would lean heavily on blogs and podcasts, specifically about podcasting. It’s a bit meta, but they are the guys that poured time into a passion and you can reap some massive benefits. 

Technical Skills & Practice

You have little to no experience. Not your fault. 

You want to get into an L&D career. It’s a sensible choice. It’s an incredible field with an awesome amount of opportunity.  

For an employer to take a chance to bring you in for an interview, for a recruiter to see your credentials and take the risk of pitching you to the hiring manager, you need to jump off the page. 

The short answer is to build a portfolio.  The only question is ‘how’? You can’t leave it up to chance that they’ll see the bullet points on your resume, nod to themselves and think ‘oh neat, they might have what I’m looking for.’  The only way to eliminate the mystery is to show your work. When I was starting with zero experience, I started a blog and a podcast to explore and discuss L&D concepts and topics. I’m not saying that’s for everyone, but everyone isn’t in the boat you’re in. You need to create your own experience.  No, you don’t have to start a podcast, but you do need to go out of your way to create an online presence and portfolio to establish yourself as a searchable and known entity. If you want to be seen on equal footing with someone that has three years of experience, you need to give them a reason.

Another reason you should start a blog or develop some sort of note-taking system is to force your hand to articulate your thoughts.  If you have to explain why you made a specific choice, you’re able to explain why you made that choice, and why it was better than the other two or three options. 

Find problems, create solutions. It doesn’t have to be a customer service problem.  It can be for guests to use your coffee maker, or to access your internet. Can you imagine if you were the person who succinctly explained how to program a VCR to stop flashing ‘12:00’? I know that’s out of date, but it still might work.

A lot of software have free trials, and there are all sorts of free and open source software packages that can stand in for the name brand versions. You may not get the exact same outcome, but it will go a long way to establish your use of the fundamentals.

As you use these tools, YouTube tutorials will help you understand what’s possible. You may end up creating a portfolio that doesn’t have a single apples-to-apples relationship to the exact problem that a potential employer needs to solve, but you’re building out your toolbox and your skill set. Preparing to solve all sorts of problems. That’s your experience.

So, What’s Your Next Step?

  1. Find a problem
  2. Solve it
  3. Make it look good
  4. Tell the world about it

Lather, rinse, repeat. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, grab a notepad and start brainstorming bite-sized problems. Pick up a couple of books, listen to a podcast or two. Own it and make it happen.

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