5 Insider Tips for Job-Seeking College Grads
With unemployment still in the double digits, December college graduates face a grim job market
By Zach Miners
Posted December 30, 2009
The latest data from the Labor Department show that employers might be beginning to dip their toes back into the hiring waters, but that doesn't mean finding gainful employment will be easy for recent college graduates. It will take a combination of networking, assertiveness, and tech savvy to land that first job, counselors say.
Harrison Barnes, founder and CEO of the job search website EmploymentCrossing.com, says applying for jobs now could give winter graduates an edge. But heeding some key advice—not just winging it—is still a must. "It's not a seller's market. It's still a buyer's market," says Ed Koc, research director at the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Here are some strategies to keep in mind:
1. Make a personal connection before the interview. Scouring the job search boards online and sending out dozens of applications blind might sound like a solid way to get in the game, but experts say that all that does is get you lost in the shuffle. More and more employers are instead posting open positions to their own websites, so a slightly better strategy might be to decide which companies you're specifically interested in and then apply directly through the firm. But even that method might be an exercise in futility.
"The trick now isn't getting the interview and getting the job. It's getting the interview, period," says educational consultant Eric Yaverbaum, president of the website CollegeClickTV.com, which partners with U.S. News to provide video reviews of colleges nationwide. To do that, you're going to want to try to get to know, face to face, the people at the places where you're trying to get hired, before the interview.
One way to do that is to research the most prominent associations within the industry you're interested in and then attend their events and conferences. Every industry has them, they're scheduled regularly, and experts say it's a great way to start the networking process. If you want to go into public relations, for instance, check out the Public Relations Society of America. "Join the community you want to be a part of before you even have a job in it," says Yaverbaum. "That personal contact is what gets you remembered."
Mark Smith, assistant vice chancellor and director of the career center at Washington University in St. Louis, recommends talking shop with friends of parents and with parents of friends. But don't flat out ask for a job, he says.
"If you know what type of work you want to do, talk to them about the industry, and ask them if there are other people you should be networking with," says Smith. If you meet them at a party, tell them you want to learn more, and arrange to meet them for coffee or at their office. Dress nicely, bring a copy of your résumé, and ask them about other individuals or firms to contact. And keep the lines of communication open after that. If you do ask directly for a job, and he or she says no, the conversation could be over.
Going the online route is a good idea if you're using it for social networking. NACE estimates that almost a third of employers are using social networking websites, including Facebook, in their recruiting efforts. If you have a Facebook profile, consider tidying it up to look more professional, and post a status update such as "Looking for leads in the marketing field in New York," says Smith.
And think about creating a profile on LinkedIn.com. If you meet a potential contact in person, ask if you can connect with him or her on the site. But don't simply glue yourself to your computer screen. "It's easy to hide behind the Internet, but that's not enough," says Yaverbaum. "You want to get the people face to face."
2. Continue to use your career center. Most schools will not cut you off when you graduate. Many keep their doors open to graduates for at least another two years. "Some might get embarrassed about it or feel that it's not proper, but counselors there want you to succeed, and they will gladly help you," says Smith.
Some career centers provide online counseling as well as over-the-phone counseling, but Koc recommends making an in-person appointment to get the most out of it. "Graduates might be inclined to simply search the jobs posted to their center's website, but they really should make full use of their services," he says, which can include résumé building and interviewing advice as well as assistance in focusing the job search.
Tasha Tompkins, a December graduate of York College of Pennsylvania, is using her school's career development center to beef up her résumé. "Graduates should definitely take advantage of their college's resources," she says. "I didn't, but I'm making up for it now."
Looking for a job can be a discouraging process, and campus career centers can provide moral support as well as leads. Some large universities, such as the University of Texas-Austin, even have separate career centers for each college, which can be extremely helpful if you're looking for targeted or industry-specific resources.
3. If you're undecided, look where the jobs are. It might sound like a no-brainer, but job opportunities in some fields in particular will abound in 2010 and beyond, and looking in those areas could lay the groundwork for a lucrative, rewarding career down the line. U.S. News recently examined brand-new job growth projections for 2008 to 2018 and identified 50 hot careers that offer good pay and varied educational requirements. Some of the careers open to graduates with just a bachelor's or associate's degree include computer software engineering, biomedical engineering, and a host of jobs in the healthcare sector. There also is a growing demand for special education teachers, multimedia artists, and film and video editors.
Barnes of EmploymentCrossing.com agrees that the allied health professions are very stable right now and offer diverse job opportunities. "Right-brained people tend to steer clear of it because they think it's all about science, but hospitals and healthcare companies also do public relations, marketing, writing . . . practically any job you would have," he says. "Looking in the medical field is a smart thing to do."
Triage Consulting Group, a San Francisco-based healthcare consulting firm, is one such company that is hiring. Principal Andy Stemmler says it expects to recruit 75 to 80 graduates in 2010, up from about 70 new recruits last year. Well-rounded candidates, with majors mostly in business and economics, will make up the bulk of their hires, he says.
Jobs in journalism and the media face an uncertain future as the industry struggles to evolve, but those positions are still in high demand. Experts say that interested college grads can get an edge by playing up their writing abilities and Web savvy. Koc of the National Association of Colleges and Employers says, "Employers across the board are looking for verbal and written ability, communication skills, and teamwork skills. Applicants need to point to their experiences in those areas."
4. Think hard about your priorities. There are opposing schools of thought on whether it's more important for your first job to be intellectually stimulating and rewarding or one that pays the bills. Yaverbaum of CollegeClickTV.com says it's better to have a low-paying job with the best job description and title rather than a good-paying job with a bad title. But Washington University's Smith isn't so sure. "That's fine if you don't have any debt and your parents are willing to help support you," he says. "But not everyone has that option."
If you are living on your own, regardless of how you weigh living expenses against job satisfaction, conventional wisdom says that your 20s are the time to do things that you can't do later in life. "Don't get out of college and feel pressure to map out your entire career," says Yaverbaum. "Worry about the next five years, not the next 30."
You might want to take some chances. Don't discredit volunteering opportunities, whether it's at a nonprofit company, a hospital, or for a political campaign. The experience looks great on a résumé, and in some cases it can lead to a full-time paid position. Working internationally is another option. That might mean studying for an extra year in an exchange program or taking a more menial type of job abroad. There are also plenty of opportunities to teach English in overseas jobs and certification programs. And experts say social learning in a different culture can be just as important as discrete job skills.
Wherever you end up, Yaverbaum says the most important thing is to focus on creating a record of achievement that will be attractive to future employers.
5. Don't cop out for graduate school. Applying to law school because you've always wanted to be a lawyer is one thing, but experts advise against pursuing it because you don't know what to do with that anthropology or English degree, or because the job search is leading you nowhere. "The only reason to go to grad school is because you want to go to grad school, not because you can't find a job," says Smith. "Graduate and professional school can increase your debt load without increasing job prospects."
Don't go to graduate school unless you know why you are going, where it leads, and that you want that career. It is smart to take the entrance exams—like the LSAT, GRE, or GMAT—within a year of graduating, but those schools will always be there, and racking up some real-world experience, and digging yourself out of debt, will put you in a much better position to apply for graduate school a few years later. If nothing else materializes, it makes more sense to get a part-time job, even if it's just waiting tables or mixing drinks, Smith says. While you do that, continue to look for other full-time positions, rather than jump into something you're not sure about.
York College's Tompkins, who majored in sociology, currently has a tech support position at her local school district in Fawn Grove, Pa.—the same job she has had since high school. She's working on tweaking her résumé to apply for jobs better suited for her college degree, but she knows she has to be flexible. "I'm not going to be really picky because of the economy right now," she says. "I figure something is better than nothing."