For those recent and future graduates worried about breaking into this difficult job market, the advice you get from career professionals can be crucial. Consider carefully what those professionals are saying and whether you should believe them. From my many years spent as an educator and non-profit administrator, I've developed a range of suggestions that I've outlined in this column and I hope you’ll find helpful.
What are the career professionals saying? In an article by Scott McCredie for NWJOBS.COM, he says the 10 old ways of approaching the job market are now considered outdated. In their place, McCredie provides what he considers to be the newest thinking from career professionals. For example, he quotes career consultant Richard Baum saying, “Ninety percent of jobs are reached [through networking and contacts in the company], yet job seekers spend 90 percent of their time answering ads and online job board (postings).”
While I agree that networking and contacts in a company are crucial (see number 7 below), where does Baum find the 90% number? Beats me -- and it should beat you, too.
You should use all means possible to make contact with an employer, including answering ads. Online job postings are one of the quickest ways of responding to an ad since they allow for sending a resume and cover letter directly to the employer without delay.
McCredie quotes career professional Joseph Perez as saying that it’s wise to keep the resume oriented toward the job, limiting it to one page; two at the most. I have hired hundreds of people and one page resumes tell me nothing.
It’s the intangibles that always count: internships, awards, travel, unusual skills, prior jobs and more. Regardless how petty you might think they are, anything you can say about your ability to anticipate and be prepared for change may positively influence an employer in unpredictable ways.
If there’s one quality employers want in new hires, it’s the ability to take on a range of assignments. This fast changing market reinvents itself every six months to a year. Demonstrate in your resume how you find changes exciting and challenging, and many more employers will believe you’ll be an asset.
Many universities have career guidance centers with professionals who can be very helpful in developing an effective resume. Always read references before you approve them for use. Not everyone knows how to write a reference, and sometimes people say negatives that turn off employers.
I can remember a graduate student asking me whether a past employer’s reference should be included in the available references sent out by the job placement service of her university. It said, “Sarah suffers fools lightly and often takes on assignments because she’s uniquely qualified when others aren’t.”
I nixed the reference. Suffering fools lightly isn’t a positive quality in this era of team work. You can always ask a reference to change it but read references before using them. One bad reference in 50 will nix a job prospect.
A final example comes from WikiHow, which reads, “Settle down. If you've moved around a lot, be prepared to offer a good reason for it. Otherwise, you'll need to make a good case for why you want to stick around in the area where the job is located. A company doesn't want to hire someone with wanderlust who still wants to relocate.”
As someone who has done the exact opposite and not moved around a lot, organizations want people who are mobile and have the drive to use new positions as springboards for better jobs. This isn’t to say that you should move every six months, but letting employers know that you’re mobile and that you can relocate can be a strong asset in a market that is uncertain and where companies may need to change locations at the drop of a hat.
If you’ve decided that you just have to stay in a certain geographic area, your chances of getting a job diminish, and diminish greatly if it’s a popular place to live.
As you can see, the professional advice you get can sometimes be wrong. Below is my list of how to get a leg up on the job market. I’ll offer evidence but you should question it and see if it fits for you:
1. If you're still in school, think about academic degrees that will be most likely to get you a job in the future. Before the economic downturn, an MBA was the hottest degree in town. Guess what? It isn’t anymore, and applications to top notch business schools have dropped by as much as 20%.
Lawrence Summers, President Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury and President Obama’s Chief Economic Advisor, believes that after the recovery, one in six men between the ages of 25 and 54 will be unemployed. Thus, being future-oriented is the wise approach.
The U.S. Department of Labor releases current and future estimates of job availability in specific fields. You should consult it regularly.
If you have an MBA, look to the public and non-profit sectors for opportunities. The pay isn’t as good, but the perks are often equal to those in the private sector.
In a down job market, working in a less appealing job is always preferable for your long-term career prospects than not working, and you may gain valuable experience that can be used when your MBA has more value in the future. You may even like it enough to stay. You may also want to develop a sub-specialty or an area of business that’s just emerging. Pay attention to startup companies and the services they provide. This will give you a good idea of what some very smart people think are the future services needed in a quickly changing economy.
2. it’s not wise to go into fields that tap into your idealism, but are so oversubscribed with graduates that getting a job now or in the future is unlikely. Social work and counseling keep churning out graduates when the reality, according to the American Psychological Association, is that 30% fewer patients receive psychological interventions these days than they did in previous years. Managed care has increasingly limited visits and reimbursements for talk therapy but not for drug treatment, which is far cheaper.
However, there can be value in both degrees for recent graduates. In a study of graduates of a school of social work in Texas where I was the dean, 30% of the graduates had opted for business-related fields.
They said the Master's of Social Work degree had given them invaluable human relations skills that helped them immeasurably in business. Emphasizing your people skills and any management-related activities, especially budgetary and IT, can help your search for a business-related job. The combination of technical and people skills can be a powerful selling point to employers.
3. It’s important that you seek technical training since that's the sector where many great jobs are today and will be in the future. This goes for recent and future graduates and those of you in non-technical fields.
Two-to-three million jobs go unfilled every year because not enough applicants have specialized technical skills to fill job vacancies. While you’re at it, develop relationships with people you can count on to write references. Nobody worth their salt will write a good reference for a bad student or one whose behavior has been uncivil in class. I equate bad academic and social performance in a class with work-related behavior -- as do most teachers I know.
4. Many of us have taken blue-collar jobs when the job market is bad. I worked on the railroad, poured cement and roofed until the right job came along. It takes a long-term view of life to set aside your ideal job expectations but, remember, your work life may last well into your 70s.
Life isn’t a race and there will be plenty of time to find the perfect job. It’s better to be working, from a potential employer’s point of view, than to be unemployed or out of the job market since employers worry you may have lost your work ethic.
5. As government benefits decrease -- and they will decrease because of huge government deficits -- learn to understand the importance of benefits an organization offer. One health care executive makes more than $100,000 a year but has no pension plan, poor health insurance, and only two weeks of vacation time annually.
Since she has elderly parents living in other parts of the country and many family responsibilities, two weeks isn’t enough, so she's required to take at least two weeks of unpaid leave each year. The combination of no pension plan, large insurance co-pays and little vacation time is costing her $30,000 a year or more. Benefits can add or subtract from your total pay, so always consider jobs with good security and strong benefits even if the pay isn’t great.