Career strategies for recent graduates

Career strategies for recent graduates

It’s common for college graduates to feel a mix of excitement and anxiety about entering “the real world.” But for the class of 2010, anxiety is an understatement. These employees-to-be face a job market where 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are unemployed or out of the workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.

Jamie Miles, a recent journalism graduate from Syracuse University, says she certainly feels the burden: “As a college graduate trained to work hard and excel in everything you do, it’s difficult to take a step back and realize everyone is struggling to get a job right now.” However, even in an economy racked by a recession, these bright minds can take steps to achieve their career aspirations. Here, eight ways graduates can improve their chances, starting right now.

Use your network

About 80 percent of jobs exist in the hidden job market—they are never advertised—and come through personal referrals, so reaching out to other people is the most important thing you can do, says Ellen Gordon Reeves, author of Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?: A Crash Course in Finding, Landing and Keeping Your First Real Job. Find someone in your field via company websites or LinkedIn and invite him/her for coffee (yes, you should pay). Try to leave with two or three more contacts in the field, and you’ll soon have a full-fledged network. Says Reeves: “Use your school’s career services, alumni connections, the public library, your family and friends. Even if you’re at the beach or a barbecue, you have to get out there and tell people what you want.”

Or, set up informational interviews. Contrary to conventional wisdom, summer can be a great time to look for a job. “It’s true that many employers take vacations in the summer, but think of how much more time the people who are in the office will have to share with you,” Reeves said. Send an introductory email along with your resume and ask about informational interview opportunities. If you don’t hear back within a week, follow up with a phone call. Be persistent but patient. If you don’t get a response after a reasonable amount of time, move on. If you do score an interview, whether it’s informational or for an actual job opening, be sure to prepare. Research the company and the interviewer. Practice by doing a mock interview with a friend or relative who has interview experience.

Shadow someone for a day

Some companies will allow you to ‘shadow’ an employee for a half-day, a day, or more. Just like a shadow, you follow around and observe an employee to better understand the job. Companies like AT&T offer college students and recent grads the chance to shadow managers for several days. Think of it as an extended informational interview; you’ll have the chance to ask questions and make a great impression. “Several recent graduates who took part in the shadowing program last year ended up working for AT&T,” said AT&T spokesperson Adam Cormier. If you have a relative or family friend in a managerial role at a company you’re interested in, ask about the possibility of shadowing them for a day.

Find an internship

Internships, whether paid or unpaid, offer a unique opportunity for career exploration, as well as a chance to show companies you have the right stuff for permanent hire. An internship packs extra power on a resume when it meshes with your area of academic interest. “You need to have continuity,” said Liz Kaufman, owner of Keystone Consulting, a headhunting and career advice service. “Internships can be very valuable, but it’s more important than ever to do an internship in the area in which you got your degree.”

In recent months, you may have heard some rustlings about the legality of unpaid internships. Here’s what you need to know. Federal law mandates that unpaid internships meet six criteria: they must be educational, be of benefit to the intern, the position may not replace a regular employee, the intern may not benefit the employer by providing a source of unpaid labor, employers must make it clear that the internship is unpaid and that it does not guarantee a future job.

Abhijit Nagaraj, a 2010 graduate of Columbia University, used summer internships during college to help focus his career goals. After trying internships in technical writing and mergers and acquisitions, he finally found a perfect fit interning as a teaching assistant on Greek literature. The experience encouraged him to pursue a graduate degree in the Classics, and he hopes to eventually become a professor. “My internships were absolutely good experiences,” he said. “They are an excellent way to explore different career paths.” However, he warned that some internships can be disappointing. “I have many friends who started internships with high hopes, only to find themselves photocopying eight hours a day,” he said.

Most interns aim higher than the copy machine, but if you find yourself at the copier, make the best of it. Remember, you can impress your supervisors in almost any task, and if you excel, it may lead to a better assignment. Either way, you will have gained work experience to add to your resume and, hopefully, a glowing reference or letter of recommendation from your boss.

Take a temp job

Temporary employment is one of the fastest growing segments of this economy; the number of temp jobs has increased steadily since September 2009, adding nearly 300,000 jobs to the workforce. Many employers like to “try out” people as temporary employees before hiring them full-time, which could work well if you find a temp job in your field. Or, temp jobs can provide a way to make money while you continue to job search.

You can apply by contacting temp agencies in your area or searching on Web sites like net-temps.com. Temp agencies contract out both full and part-time employees, so you may be able to arrange some flexibility. But the assignments are often clerical; you have to be willing to shine at the menial stuff, and there is no guarantee of a permanent position.

Try a paid job

For many new grads, an unpaid internship may be an unaffordable luxury. The good news is that getting a retail job or waiting tables doesn’t mean giving up on your dream job. It may even help your chances. “If you need to waitress while you focus on your job hunt, go for it. To me, that shows character,” Kaufman said.

Use the job to build your resume by highlighting your ‘transferable skills,’ the tasks you’re learning at your current job that can transfer to your industry. For example, if you want a career in marketing and your college job was to call alumni during the annual fundraising drive, you can highlight that you have experience with cold-calling. If you are now working in a restaurant while you look for another job, you can add to your resume that you provide exceptional customer service and thrive in a fast-paced environment. “All the skills you have—from internships, course work, babysitting, and other jobs—are relevant, if you can learn to repackage and present them correctly,” Reeves said.

Go back to school

While you’re job searching, consider taking a class. This doesn’t have to mean going to grad school; there are also in-person workshops and online classes that provide practical skills for the workplace. Typically you pay for these classes, but owing to the high level of unemployment, some workshops may offer discounts for the unemployed. For example, Noble Desktop, a computer graphics training center in New York City, offers a 25% discount if you’re unemployed, as well as some free seminars open to the public. Your local community college or a technical school may also offer continuing education courses that can help flesh out your resume. Or, if a friend has a skill you don’t—maybe you know an HTML guru or an Excel whiz—consider asking him/her to teach you for a small fee. Explore every resource to build your skill set: the more you know, the more you have to offer a future employer.

Depending on your financial circumstances and whether your industry requires it, you may want to consider graduate school. Even in a down economy, the better-educated you are, the more you earn and less likely you are to be unemployed. On average, people with a master’s degree have a 3.9% unemployment rate and make $1,257 weekly, while those with a bachelor’s degree face 5.2% unemployment and make $1,025 weekly. However, not all degrees are created equal. For example, a humanities PhD (English, History, Religion, etc.) costs about $42,800 per year, and programs take at least six years to complete. After incurring all that debt, just 50% of English PhD graduates reported securing any job by graduation in 2008, compared to 60% in 1989. Even medical or law school, which used to be safe bets, now come with high debt and a grim outlook for job prospects.

Even given these bleak statistics, some college graduates see grad school as a way to improve their skills while waiting for the job market to improve. “The economy definitely played a role in my decision to go to graduate school,” Abhijit said.

Volunteer

If you can afford it, volunteering is another way to get your foot in the door of a potential employer. Volunteering is increasingly popular because of the weak economy, and it can teach you about a particular organization or a career field while demonstrating your dedication.  James McBride, Executive Director of the Office of Career Services at the University of Virginia, recommends  a “work and volunteer” strategy, in which new graduates take a paid job at nights or on the weekends that leaves weekdays available for volunteer work in their fields of interest.

Where you might want to volunteer depends, of course, on your career aspirations. Companies that typically welcome volunteers include public radio and television stations, hospitals, museums, libraries, and political campaigns. But if you are targeting a particular company, don’t hesitate to cold call and ask about volunteer opportunities there.

Travel

In many ways, graduation from college marks the first time you’re truly independent, which often leaves students eager to see the world. Rather than getting further into debt with a pricey vacation, consider working overseas. Long a staple of college graduates looking to improve their resumes while helping others, the Peace Corps has seen a huge upswing in applications since the recession hit. In fact, 2009 brought an 18% increase from the year prior, and the largest applicant pool since the organization began recording in 1998. The application process takes between six months and a year, and volunteers are expected to commit to approximately two years of work helping overseas.

Another increasingly popular option for new grads is to teach English as a second language overseas. English language skills are in high demand worldwide, and as long as you speak English, you already have the most important prerequisite for the job. Some programs prefer you to get a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate, which takes about four weeks. Salaries for ESL teachers vary, and most positions require a minimum commitment of a year.

If you want to travel in the U.S., you might consider applying to Teach for America, a program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income rural and urban regions across the country for a minimum of two years. Teachers receive a full-time salary, health benefits, and access to funding for relocation expenses. The program has become very popular among Ivy League graduates; 17 percent of Harvard College’s class of 2010 applied.

Don’t underestimate the value of life experience on your resume. Companies with a large international presence consider global experience a major asset.

Look on the Bright Side

Finally, stay positive. While the job market for 2010 graduates is undeniably tough, employment prospects are improving. A new survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employersreports that 24.4 percent of 2010 college graduates who applied for a job have one waiting after graduation, compared with 19.7 percent in 2009.

Additionally, one advantage of not landing that high paid dream job the day after graduation is that you may be able to lower your federal student loan payments. Ask the company that provides your loans about income-based repayment (IBR), which bases the amount of your monthly payments on your income. (If your income is low enough, you could see a significant break.) If you’re unemployed, you can also apply to have your federal student loan payments deferred for up to three years. For more information, try IBRinfo.org and finaid.org.

Above all, approach your job hunt optimistically and try to appreciate the down time while you have it. Finding the right job requires patience. Jamie, our Syracuse University graduate, just landed a paid internship at a national magazine. She found the job through networking with an editor. On her spring break, they went out for coffee and discussed article ideas and her new blog. When a job opening came up at the magazine, she applied and mentioned it to him, and he put in a good word for her. She says, “If you are genuinely interested in meeting people in the industry and learning from them, they are bound to help you in the end.”

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