You would expect someone toiling in marketing, communications or academia to possess a resume steeped in five-dollar words and fanciful descriptions of past experience.

But what about tradespeople whose claim to fame is the work they do with their hands: carpenters, electricians, plumbers, machinists, stonemasons, and the tool belt-wearing militia boosting modern construction sites? How can you write a skilled trades resume highlighting the information most valuable to employers while teeing yourself up as the candidate to beat? Especially in an employment arena where things like word-of-mouth and personal references are highly prized?

“I certainly look for previous work skills, candidates that have done something similar. And that they would be able to make an easy transition into my company,” says Ryan Kobelka, president and founder of Toronto’s RNW Electrical Systems who started working as an electrician out of high school at age 19 and is now 41.

Asked what he looks for in a resume, Kobelka says, “It’s mostly to do with skill sets and the type of work someone has done. If they list that and capture the terminology correctly, you can determine they know what they’re talking about.”

That statement is seconded by Bruno Rossi, professional engineer and co-owner/operator of Gimco Limited, self-described as “Mechanical contractors for the institutional, commercial and industrial markets.”

“If I get a resume in, I ask: does this seem like a person with good experience for the field that we’re in,” Rossi says, adding that “Resumes should be short – no more than two pages.

“List your background, your licenses, any degrees or certificates you have and past projects you have worked on. Anything more than two pages, I don’t read.”

While union shops hire according to collective agreement within a hierarchy, independent contractors operating outside a union face tough competition. Both Rossi and Kobelka insist that optics matter, and even those working with their hands must pay attention to details like spelling and grammar or risk having their resumes chucked to the reject pile.

“Unfortunately,” says Kobelka, “many people who are new to the country may have amazing credentials, but when they send out their resumes, they’re not very well put together and it’s difficult to determine what they’ve actually worked on. It kind of fails the first pass.

“And it’s not just new Canadians,” he continues. “Lots of resident Canadians have resumes that are rough around the edges. This is a wing of employment where people may not have post-secondary education so there are a lot of grammar and spelling mistakes.”

On the plus side, cover letters – which are pretty much de rigueur for any kind of work that happens in an office setting and can be notoriously difficult to craft – are largely unnecessary in the skilled trades field, according to our experts.

There are exceptions, of course.

“Trades can be so varied,” Rossi says. “You can have trades people at a high level, someone who has moved into the office over the course of their career. In that case you are looking for a trades guy with managerial skills or organizational skills or project management skills.”

John Kalinowski is a former technical recruiter currently working as an electrician. In his headhunting role, Kalinowski reviewed untold numbers of resumes.

“And the best I ever read belonged to (American computer scientist and Sun Microsystems co-founder) Bill Joy. It was one sentence: ‘I invented the computer language that underpins networking on the internet.’ In and out.”

Ironically, Kalinowski landed his current gig not with a resume but by answering a help-wanted ad on Kijiji (and then acing the face-to-face interview) which may constitute a resume even shorter than the above-mentioned Joy’s. Still, Kalinowski insists that no matter the job, a great resume is best characterized by “Clarity and concision.

“Essentially, everyone has the same skills,” Kalinowski says. “What it comes down to is personality and trust. Personality can only be proven over time but trust via references are a key performance indicator.”

So what about neophytes who haven’t yet built up a list of references?

In that scenario, the resume is the only thing separating you from the desired job. Kalinowski says the best bet is to go for a chronological versus functional resume, where you list work experience in the order it happened, beginning with most recent, versus grouping your information by areas of aptitude.

Also, ask someone for help with proofreading. And please, don’t list how much money you think you have earned for past employers which, according to Kobelka, happens all the time in the trades.

“It’s the most common resume mistake I see, along the lines of: ‘For this time period to that time period, I worked on this job for this company and made X amount of dollars for the company.’

“I don’t really look at a resume to see how much money someone is going to generate,” Kobelka says. “I look at it to see if they’re going to be a good fit for the company and able to do the job they are hired to do.”

Adds Rossi: “In all situations, word of mouth is very important. And that’s certainly true once you get to the interview stage. Your reputation is everything.”