Friday, March 2, 2012

Can a 29 year-old state school grad get hired as an assistant?

Howard writes: I'm 29, late to the game in LA, having graduated college (+1 year of grad school) into the recession. I've been here almost 2 years and have a few industry jobs under my belt - I was an assistant to some independent film producers, though really it was supposed to be an internship, but they lost money on their last film and couldn't afford to pay a real assistant, and they didn't want anyone to know they were poor. I was rolling calls, making huge agency contacts, putting together cast, directors, crew lists, setting up casting sessions, filming auditions, uploading/distributing them, writing script coverage, doing cast research and tech support, hiring more interns, just everything. 

After 7 months, I was borderline homeless with no pay in sight, so they hooked me up with a job in post that came and went. Before that, I had 2 years as a HR admin assistant in my home state, a year at the Apple store, I won several awards running my university's film committee, ran the entertainment section of the school newspaper, and, coming out of prep school, I had a perfect verbal and writing SAT and was accepted to several top tier universities with some merit scholarships, but had to settle for the free state school ride. In my spare time I travel to film festivals, from SXSW to TIFF, write freelance film coverage, and volunteer with film organizations. Clearly, I'm competent and I love film.

I want to be an office PA/assistant in TV or Film, a real paid one, and not a single job I apply to will even bother with me for an interview. My hunch is that they are not impressed with my college, and I see many postings say "Graduate from top college ideal." I tend to win every job I get in the room to apply for, but I can't even get into the room anymore. Other than dropping an additional $125K and losing 2 more years to even have the opportunity to interview for entry level jobs I've been capable of doing successfully for a decade, do you have any advice? Other than lie on my resume? I'm a few years older than I'd like to be, but I'm hardly 50. I worked in HR and fielded resumes from applicants who wanted to work in my free full-time PA position, including students from top tier schools, so I have a feeling my cover letter and resume are in line with appropriate expectations, but maybe not. Or is 29 the new 50?

I'm sorry you've been having so much trouble. I don't think it has anything to do with your age; it's just a really competitive market and there are a lot more applicants than there are jobs. Many of these applicants also probably have better personal connections than you do, and I know it's hard to compete with that.

A 35 year-old exec could feel awkward having a 55 year old assistant, unless this assistant was a career assistant/secretary who had no aspirations of doing anything else (usually only studio presidents, heads of agencies, etc., have assistants like this.) But 29 is not old. One of my best friends is a 32 year old assistant because he had an entire marketing career before coming to LA. And he's definitely not the only one.

The only way this age thing might hold you back is if you're giving off a vibe of "I'm too old for this" and you act like doing assistant work is beneath you. If you seem to have a chip on your shoulder, you won't be hired. But it's rare that people would want an inexperienced 22 year old over someone with as much experience as you do. Try your best to come off as eager and not annoyed/desperate.

As for your college - sure, some people who went to USC and Harvard won't be impressed by a state school far from LA - but I know plenty of people who went to state schools and non-film schools who got jobs in the industry. The "top college" thing is new to me. I don't think this is what's keeping you back - and even if it was, there's not much you can do about it except go get an MFA from USC (and that's financially crazy for you).

I know you were just trying to show me that you're a smart person, but I would also be wary of talking about your SAT scores, prep school accolades or student film experiences. That stuff was 10 years ago - you need to move on. Only talk about your professional experiences. I doubt you would bring this stuff up in interviews, but I thought it was worth mentioning because I have met a few people who continue to talk about college exploits long after they should.

Other than that, just keep trying to meet as many people as you can, and apply to anything you can get your hands on. Tell everyone you know that you're looking for a job, and remind them every few weeks that you're still looking. Also, asking for specific things can be helpful - I found that asking people "do you know anyone at an agency" yielded me better results than saying "let me know if you hear of jobs." You also might get a non-industry job for a while just so you can feel financially secure until the good industry job comes along. I've had friends who really enjoyed working at the Apple store. I myself found a tutoring job on Craigslist that has been great. Sometimes if your plan isn't working out, you need to try a new plan for a while.

Skip the cover letter (unless the job posting asks for one) and use a succinct cover email when you apply. Also make sure your resume looks good, clean, etc. Keep it down to one page. If you still have a non-LA cell phone number, include your address so people immediately know you're local. I don't think you need to lie - but you can spin things and make things sound more impressive. For example, don't say your independent film assistant job was unpaid. Also, use parallel structure when listing the duties of your jobs.
Hang in there - good luck!


Eitan Loewenstein said...

Amanda is right. I'm a 31 year old office PA and I only started PAing last year. At my last two jobs I was actually one of the younger ones. I've worked with 34 year old PAs and 32 year old PAs. But I've also met 28 year old executives.

Age doesn't matter. It's about experience, connections and skill. The middle one is probably the biggest one in your situation.

Applying for these jobs is an uphill battle at best as there are rarely openings. Cold calling production offices is a major shot in the dark.

Your best bet is to try to befriend writers and producers. It's terrible advice but that's how I ended up getting started as a PA. Now I just have to end up on a pilot that goes so I can try to get a job with the writers (or sell a spec, whatever).


e.e. terrell said...

Leave your grad degree off your resume. Unless it's from USC or Harvard, nobody cares and it only serves to make you look overqualified for things. I have a grad degree, and I haven't put it on a resume in years.

Also, I recommend starting out as a temp if you're having trouble getting work. It's a good way to meet people and gets your foot in the door. I got my first PA job because I was temping in a network's development office and saw an email that a show's temporary production office just opened. Guess who I contacted and faxed my resume to that very day?

Kate said...

Even students at USC and UCLA struggle to find work in the industry, so no, I don't recommend going to film school as a gambit to find employment.

(And speaking of state school grads, there are a pair of UWisconsin alums who worked on Lost and are now EPs on Once Upon a Time, so don't assume you need a prestigious school on your resume.)

I would not give a lot of thought to your age and how it's affecting your job hunt; you can't change it, and you can't prevent people from judging you. (And in some cases, you might be surprised to discover that some people are writing you off as too green or too young.)

I agree with the other posters -- you need to build relationships with writers and producers, and temping can be a help with that. (Actually, let's be blunt: Producers are way more helpful than writers. Writers write, and once in a great while, suddenly realize they need an assistant for something. Producers both develop a variety of things at one time, and constantly meet/talk to a pool of people who have things going on; starting as a second assistant at a production company can be a really good way to break into the industry.)