Networking: How to Improve Your Grim Job Prospects
Jobs are in short supply right now, especially for newly minted college grads. Is it worth going to college if there is little guarantee of a job? Recently, Business Week published an article entitled The Lost Generation that has generated a lot of conversation around the grim job prospects for recent college grads. And NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook dedicated its Monday episode to talking with ’09 grads about their problems finding jobs.
Reading and listening to the comments on both the Business Week article and the NPR episode offers a bizarre blend of commiseration by fellow job seekers, recommendations that grads try different means of employment or work harder to get a job, as well as wider indictments of social and economic situations. Students are frustrated, and rightfully so.
There has never been such a terrible shortage of jobs for qualified applicants. Apparently, 2009 was the worst year to graduate from college—no thanks I bet to the flood of eager young professionals laid off from the campaigns after the 2008 election (I was one). Next year may be worse. But as we continue the transition to a kind of knowledge economy, the college degree has supplanted the high school diploma as a requirement. And even more traditionally reliable routes, such as continuing on to professional master’s programs and law school, are churning out hundreds of the overqualified and unemployed.
A number of commenters on the above pieces suggested that the students take on part-time service jobs—restaurants, retail, etc.—rather than hold out for their “dream jobs”. In the meantime, grads might be able to build experience through unpaid internships. However, competition is fierce for these internships, even more so now that overqualified and unemployed grads with advanced degrees are seeking similar opportunities to bide their time. To be a bit polemical, unpaid internships are almost criminal by not paying minimum wage (or anything at all) and, in effect, discriminating against those who can’t afford to take them. Sure, some grants are available for these opportunities but that varies widely from school to school and field to field.
I was fortunate to go to Rochester Institute of Technology, which has one of the largest co-op programs in the country. Most majors on campus are required to spend multiple terms at companies and organizations being paid to work in their field. This gives the students an edge in the job market. By making sure they have job experience before graduation, they can hopefully avoid the paradox of trying to gain experience from jobs which are increasingly requiring experience already.
Right now, I’m considering returning to school for my Ph.D. A friend recommended that I read Getting What you Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D. I really wish I had read this before I went through my master’s degree. There are great tips about picking the right program and maximizing your experience. Furthermore, I wish there was a guide like this ahead of undergrad.
One of the key insights is the importance of networking. As an undergrad preparing to apply to grad school, you need to be befriending your professors and attending research conferences to network with other professors that could serve as potential advisors. Guess what? This is exactly what undergrads should be doing to improve their odds of getting the job they want.
With what could be called a “credential creep” occurring across the job market, its more important than ever to get direct referrals for jobs in which you are interested. Remember: you may have been the most reliable, high achieving student at college but there are plenty of other all-stars applying for the same jobs. You need someone to recommend you that knows you well and whose opinion is respected by a hiring supervisor.
Networking is your most important transferable skill; it gets you in the door to so that you have the opportunity to show off your other skills.
Last spring, I sent out a dozen job applications to positions I felt qualified to fill. About 50% acknowledged my application because I knew someone connected to the organization. But this didn’t get me an interview. EVERY JOB I secured an interview for in the past year was the result of a direct referral to the hiring supervisor by a local friend already working at the same organization.
My recommendations for getting an edge while still in college:
- Network with professors and school administrators that have connections to industry and the community;
- Take full advantage of the career services office;
- Apply for a part-time job on campus even if you don’t need one because the extra cash and professional experience will be useful later;
- See if your school offers grants to students taking unpaid internships and seek out any other external grants you can apply for;
- Try to get a paid co-op position while in school that could later be parlayed into a full-time job after graduation;
- Start working on this your freshman year.
While you are in college, you have so many centralized resources at your disposal. Take advantage of the ability to slowly build relationships with professors and companies you are interested in, and make the most of your experience. Thomas Hobbes may help you win a philosophical argument but your political science professor, who consults with a number of prominent non-profits, may help you land a great job.