Photos by Getty Images (US), Inc.

On Purple Squirrels and Unicorns

Employers are looking for job applicants who stand out from the rest. Here are three ways to position yourself in the job market as that rare candidate—one with distinctive qualities that employers value.

By Peter Weddle

Recruiters have a name for those they consider the best candidates: purple squirrels. Investors have a name for companies that rapidly become business success stories: unicorns. Both creatures are rare and highly valued—and that's exactly how you want to be seen as a job candidate.

In today's job market, being qualified isn't enough. There are just too many competitors who can meet the stated requirements for an opening and too many candidates who look alike on paper. The trick to being successful is to stand out from the herd—to look like a rare and valuable creature.

How can you do that? Adopt these three characteristics and emphasize them on your resume. Just remember that adopting is as important as emphasizing. To be seen as a purple squirrel or a unicorn, you have to act like one.

While a range of characteristics are ascribed to rare and valuable candidates, three are particularly important in today's job market.

Be a work in progress. Regardless of the academic degree you hold and the years of experience you have, act as if you still have much to learn in your field. The pace at which knowledge is advancing is so rapid now that the half-life of your expertise is measured in months, not years.

Employers understand that employees can become obsolete almost overnight. As a consequence, they value those rare candidates who take responsibility for keeping their skills and knowledge up to date.

Demonstrate your commitment by enrolling in relevant academic courses or training programs, even while you are actively looking for a job. Make sure to feature your ongoing professional development on your resume.

Be a thought leader. Employers are facing unprecedented competition in both domestic and international markets. They believe the only way they can come out on top is to employ workers who bring innovation and creativity to work with them every day. They want people who can think outside the box—or, even better, who can find a different box altogether.

Employers understand that employees can become obsolete almost overnight. As a consequence, they value those rare candidates who take responsibility for keeping their skills and knowledge up to date.

Employers look for candidates who remain active in their fields, even while they are looking for a job. Invest your time online by participating in one or more relevant forums devoted to exploring new ideas in your field or solving occupational challenges. (ASAE’s Collaborate (membership required) is a good place to start in the association sector, for example.) On your resume, highlight your commitment to continuous improvement and innovation.

Be a person of talent. Your talent is not your field of work or even your area of expertise. It is your innate capacity for excellence. For example, your talent might be the ability to disaggregate complex tasks so they can be more effectively accomplished or the ability to communicate complex ideas so that they are clear to laypeople.

Employers are desperate for this kind of talent, but they have a hard time finding it—largely because so few people actually know what their talent is or how to work with it. Employers look for individuals who showcase their talents, even while they are looking for a job. Find a way to keep your talent engaged (in volunteer organizations or your professional society, for example) and then outline that experience on your resume.

Today's job market is a crowded place where it can be challenging to stand out. You can rise above the competition by acting like and positioning yourself as a rare and valuable candidate—a purple squirrel or unicorn.

Peter Weddle is a leading job search expert and syndicated columnist. He is executive director of TA Tech—the Association for Talent Acquisition Solutions. This article originally appeared in his email newsletter, Weddle’s, on September 3, 2015.

Job Search