Dos and Donts for New Grads in a Difficult Job Market

It’s the classic Catch-22: You can’t get a job without experience, and you can’t get experience without a job. For many young people this is a very real problem and one that becomes more urgent as graduation looms.

Here is the reality: We are living in a time when people are very nervous. The economy is unstable and while the numbers are improving, unemployment rates are only just beginning to drop. This makes it a very competitive climate for job hunters. At the same time, it’s risky for a company to offer work to someone with only a theoretical idea of the actual tasks involved in getting the job done. Equally challenging are the nuances of doing a good job, e.g., picking up on the corporate culture, following industry standards, and understanding organizational structure and politics. An obvious answer is training. But training is expensive and often one of the first budgets slashed when profits are dipping. And training takes time. If I’m hiring, I want someone who can quickly adapt to the work environment and start contributing to help me meet my business objectives.

The relevant question for you is…how are YOU going to be one of those who finds work?

The answer is simple. Make sure that your 4 years of college are spent accumulating meaningful work experience that yields tangible results. Recruiters that I speak to are telling me they are desperate to fill openings – they have the jobs! Where they struggle is in finding young people who have some track record of accomplishment outside of the classroom. They frankly don’t care if you traveled widely or participated in an internship at a prestigious company unless you can talk about how you took an assignment from start to finish or demonstrate that how you handled a difficult interpersonal situation. The problem with much of the extracurricular experiences students pursue these days is that they are very insulated from failure, risk, and challenge. Employers know that some internships involve little more than taking notes and shadowing.

So your challenge is to do something different. Here are some Dos and Don’ts that will help you stand out from the pack:

DON’T:

  1. Be seduced by a prestige company name alone. Ask about the actual responsibilities and expected outcomes involved before pursuing an internship or co-op.
  2. Overlook opportunities to volunteer your time. Non-profits are desperate for extra hands and will often have short-term assignments that you can take from start to finish. They also provide a great environment for meeting well-placed individuals in the community.
  3. Wait until your senior year to start thinking about this!
  4. Focus just on your school work. Your grades may be great, but they can’t tell an employer whether you know how to get along with others, overcome obstacles or show up at work on time.

DO:

  1. Start early! Certainly by your sophomore year you should begin to look for part-time work opportunities. Look for work that will give you the chance to build good work habits, handle challenges, and take instruction.
  2. Use your summers wisely! Start in the fall and check out working in fields you think you might enjoy and find roles that will stretch your comfort level. WHAT you are able to do is far more important than where you do it.
  3. Visit your campus career center. They have connections with hundreds of potential employers and know who is looking to hire. Build relationships with the staff so they think of you when they hear about an opening.

    On the surface, it looks like a pretty bleak picture for new college grads. Employers are overwhelmed with applications – one friend just got over 400 applications from an ad for an accountant at a local non-profit. How do you stand out and compete with experienced people under those circumstances? It’s not easy. But, it is possible. A good place to start is with the numbers. In 2011, the unemployment rate for new college graduates (defined as those under 25 with a bachelor’s degree) was 13.1% (Bureau of Labor Statistics). That was about 4 points higher than the overall unemployment for all adults. In 2012 the overall unemployment rate is expected to drop to around 7.5%. Assuming the same difference will hold, new college graduates can be expected to be facing an 11.5% unemployment rate. While it sounds daunting, that means that 89.5% of new college graduates will find work. Yes I am a glass half-full type of gal, and at 89.5%, the glass is looking pretty full to me!

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