Articles > Feature Articles

A Skill All Its Own

Searching for a job in a difficult economy

By Jennifer Bobrow Burns

"Do you want fries with that?" Six words that every soon-to-be college graduate fears. After the all-nighters, endless problem sets and hard work, the payoff of a satisfying job beckons from the horizon. But what if things don't work out the way you've planned?

By nature, the economy is cyclical. It's highs and lows are what make the world go 'round. Right now, you may feel like you have bad luck since you are graduating into a down time for the United States economy. But consider this: What goes around, comes around. At some point, most job seekers are going to look for work during a difficult economy. Those who graduated after the dot-com boom ended faced this very same issue as companies went under and jobs disappeared. And they continue to face it, along with job seekers everywhere, as they try to reinvent themselves in order to land a job.

But there are signs that things are getting better. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), recent analysis finds that college-level job openings between 1998 and 2008 will nearly equal the number of college-educated entrants into the labor force. A primary reason for this shift will be the large number of retirements expected from workers at the leading edge of the "baby boom" generation-those born between 1946 and 1964-who are currently in college-level jobs. What this means is a considerable decrease of college graduates who are forced into "non-college" jobs or are unemployed.

Another BLS study finds that eight of the ten fastest-growing occupations are computer-related, including computer software engineers and network systems analysts. And another positive sign, according to the Yoh Index of Technology Wages, pay for technology workers rose 2.5% in the third quarter of 2003 compared to the same period in 2002.

Whether the market is strong or weak, one thing remains the same: Job searching is a skill. By familiarizing yourself with the job search process, you will be ready to go regardless of current conditions.

Job Search Basics

Assess yourself and research your options
Determining who you are and what you want is the beginning of the job search process. This is never more critical than in a difficult market. Until you've honestly looked at your interests, skills and values, the job search isn't likely to be successful. What do you like? What are you good at doing? What is most important to you? You will need this background information in order to understand your goals and create a plan accordingly.

Once you know more about yourself, it's time to research the outside world. What careers and opportunities seem to match with your personal objectives? Take a look at the myriad of printed information in books and on the Web. But don't stop there. Talk to people and gain a first-hand perspective through networking and informational interviewing. Join professional associations in your field to tap into the wealth of knowledge and experience they offer.

According to Peter Vogt, president of Career Planning Resources in Bloomington , Minn. , and the MonsterTRAK career coach on, networking activities are still the number one way that most people find jobs. "In my opinion, informational interviewing is the most underutilized job search and career exploration tool, not only among college students and recent grads, but among the entire working population in general," Vogt states. "In addition to learning what a career, industry or company is all about, you often end up hearing about internships, co-ops and job openings in the process-opportunities that may not necessarily be advertised widely or even at all."

Make informed decisions through hands-on experience
By putting together knowledge of yourself with your understanding of different fields, you should get a sense of what you want to do in your career. This is also a great time to gain experience through internships and volunteer work. Not only are they helpful to clarify your goals, but they can also be a crucial foot in the door in many industries.

According to Tim Luzader, director of the Center for Career Opportunities at Purdue University in West Lafayette , Ind. , companies indicate that internships are the number one way they recruit full-time candidates. "When it comes time for hiring, employers often look to their own interns first," he says.

Furthermore, the experience you get outside the classroom makes you a hot commodity to employers. When Jed Finn graduated from McGill University in Montreal , Quebec , in 2000, he believed that his IT summer internship at Teradyne in Boston helped him to get his first full-time job as a software developer for eMeta Corporation in New York . "Until my internship, my experience with software and the IT industry was purely academic," says Finn. "While I developed a solid theoretical foundation in school, I had no knowledge about how my computer science skills would actually be of value in industry.

"During my internship, I gained hands-on knowledge about the applicability of the concepts I had learned in the classroom," Finn adds. "When it came time for my job search, I became a much more attractive candidate because I had already experienced the transition between theory and practice, and I required less time before I could contribute."

Market yourself and participate in campus programs
In order to be competitive, think of yourself as a brand. Spend some time thinking about what you have to offer and your unique accomplishments. Take advantage of any and all assistance on campus to fine-tune your "product," including resume and cover letter assistance, interview preparation, and job search workshops. Make sure to utilize services early and get involved with any recruiting programs and career fairs offered to graduating students.

Deborah Liverman, assistant director for the School of Engineering at the MIT Careers Office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge , seconds this advice. "Interview with as many companies as possible through your campus recruiting program and be persistent," Liverman recommends. "If you find that you are not getting selected for on-campus interviews, meet with a career counselor to find out what might be going wrong."

At the same time, don't depend on campus recruiting to meet all of your needs, especially in a tough market. "Your personal network and individual contacts count more than ever right now," says Tim Luzader of Purdue. He reinforces that you need to take networking and informational interviewing seriously and look beyond campus recruiting to increase your opportunities.

Identify the issues
When you're not getting the results you want, it's easy to become frustrated and want to throw in the towel. However, now is the time to ask WHY? Here are some common roadblocks that job seekers run into and each one's potential solution.

Problem: You have found job listings, sent your resume, but have not been offered interviews.

Solution: Work on your resume. Employers are getting hundreds of resumes for each open position. How can you distinguish yours? First, make sure your resume "speaks to" the industry to which you're applying and uses targeted jargon. Think about how you can emphasize your skills and highlight your strengths. It's a good idea to have it critiqued by a professional at your college career services office. Already had it critiqued? Try again. Go with a different format, font or style in order to show what makes you unique.

Also, cover letters play a very important role in getting interviews. Be sure your cover letter is geared to the specific opening to which you are applying. Employers don't want to see generic cover letters.

Problem: You have had several interviews, but no job offers.

Solution: One word-practice! You may be doing or saying something during your interviews that you shouldn't, so work on fine-tuning your skills. Many career centers offer mock interviews where a counselor can run you through an interview simulation and give you feedback on how to improve your interview skills.

Problem: You can't find job listings in your field.

Solution: Reevaluate your plan. Through networking, learn from people working in the field how to find jobs, as well as where the jobs are. Are there certain publications with job listings for this industry? Where is the best geographical location to work in this field? Are internships the best way to break in? Don't waste your time on methods that aren't working for this specific type of position.

Consider Alternatives: What About Plan B?

The poet Robert Burns said, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." This is why you should always have a backup plan. Sometimes you have done everything right- from perfecting your resume to networking your heart out-and a job still fails to materialize.

Putting your first plan on the backburner does not mean that you have to say goodbye to your dreams forever. Instead, it keeps you fresh and focused on a more realistic current goal, while enabling you to build transferable skills that will help you transition into your first-choice field whenever possible.

Go where the jobs are
The notorious bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks; his reply was, "because that's where the money is." Does it make sense to look for a job in the oil industry in Maine ? If you have been having a hard time finding positions in your field where you've been looking, consider a geographic switch. Use your networking and research skills to find out what cities are up-and-coming and/or experiencing a hiring boom, and go where the money is.

Go back to school
Sometimes, a graduate degree may give you the experience and competitive edge to help you find the job you want. However, grad school is expensive and time consuming. You need to be sure you are going for the right reasons-not just to escape a bad job market.

Research the positions you want and the backgrounds they require. Do most people in these positions have advanced degrees? Also, determine what type of internship and job training your graduate degree would give you. That way, you can develop your practical job skills while continuing your education.

Consider retraining
A graduate degree might not be right for you at this time, but obtaining additional training could be the answer. Are there computer skills that would make you more marketable? If so, you can probably find a class at a local college or institute that will provide the necessary certification in the course of a weekend or a few short weeks.

Also, if at all possible, don't rule out an internship or volunteer assignment to gain experience. You will probably have to couple this with a part-time paid job in order to make ends meet, but the extra effort will be worth it once you land the job you really want because of your hard work.

Transition to another field
Have you explored options that make use of your background but move you in a new direction career-wise?

In 1990, when Caleb Pollack graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia with a BSE in computer science, he found that opportunities were lacking in his field. He decided to make a transition and become a patent attorney instead. "I felt that career options for patent attorneys were better than for computer science majors in both the short and long term," Pollack says. Talk to people with similar majors to discover the alternative paths they might have chosen.

Seize the opportunity
Often, job searches are unsuccessful because they lack focus; you might have to go back to the drawing board. Now is the time to use your unemployed status as an opportunity to determine what you really want to do. Reassess your interests, abilities and values. Research industries that you might have overlooked before but seem to be a good match for your skill set and personal goals.

Fall back on your transferable skills
Whether you are coming directly out of school with no experience or have a few years of work under your belt, you have developed skills through your education and your practical training that are valuable to employers in any field. Core skills such as quantitative, analytical, communication and teamwork are crucial no matter what you want to do. Make sure to highlight these skills in your overall presentation of yourself as a candidate. Also, by determining which of these skills is your strongest, you might get some new ideas of career options to consider.

Tim Luzader agrees about the importance of these transferable skills. "Particularly for technical job seekers, it's the 'soft-skills' that are important, mainly verbal and written communication," Luzader says. "For the past 20 years this has been consistently cited by employers as crucial."

Also, Luzader recommends gaining teamwork experience. "Now, more than ever, employers are looking for proven ability to work in a team," he states.

Hang in There

It can be hard to stay motivated when you are not getting results, but try to stay focused. Job searching is a very individualized process. Your timetable and experience with searching for a job can be very different from that of your friends, so try not to fall into the comparison trap. When dealing with stress remember the following:

It's not you, it's them
No one likes to get rejected, but try not to take the job search personally. Even if you are ultra-qualified, remember that there are lots of other candidates who are, too. Getting passed over for a job is not about you, but about staffing needs of an organization at a certain time. It's not a reflection of who you are as a person or as a candidate. Be persistent and talk about your feelings to family members and friends.

Look out for number one
As you go through the job search process, set realistic goals for yourself. Reward yourself as you accomplish various tasks by doing things you enjoy. Treat yourself for the goals you can control. For example, don't reward yourself for getting an interview, but, rather, treat yourself when you accomplish your goal of setting up a certain number of informational meetings or writing follow-up letters.

Go to work each day
Looking for a job is a full-time job all by itself, as anyone who has been there can attest to. Find a place to go each day, whether it is your career center, the local library, bookstore or coffee shop. Keep to a schedule to prevent yourself from being bored, lonely or discouraged. You can do this by assigning yourself daily and weekly tasks, including specific books to read, Web Sites to browse, contacts to follow up with, cover letters to write, etc.

Get by with a little help from your friends
Don't go through this process alone-support networks exist for a reason. Talk to your friends and family members, and set aside time to let others help you through your job search. Also, meet with others who are job searching as well. Rather than "bringing you down," it will be helpful to bounce ideas off of each other and hear about effective strategies and techniques.It will also give you an opportunity to vent your frustrations.

Ask for feedback
Wondering why you didn't get a certain job when you felt it was a perfect fit? Don't be afraid to ask. Employers are often more than willing to provide feedback as to why they didn't hire you, particularly if you made it to the last rounds of interviewing. Hone in on any points they provide and devise strategies for improvement. Also, networking contacts are another great resource for an honest and objective assessment.

Balance your budget
If you're stressed out about money, consider working part time or temping while you continue to search for a full-time job. Look for ways to cut costs in your day-to-day expenses, including housing, food and entertainment. Remember that these cutbacks will only be temporary.

Even in good economic times, the average job search takes three to six months. Be persistent and don't get discouraged. Mix optimism with a healthy dose of reality to keep your plans in check.

Have you heard the old saying, "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime"? Well, the same thing applies to the job search. Once you understand who you are and where you're going, you can conduct a successful job search-no matter what the conditions. And since the average person will have ten jobs and five careers in a lifetime, this puts you in great shape!

Jennifer Bobrow Burns is the former associate director of career development at Columbia University. Currently, she is a free-lance career consultant and writer living in Connecticut.

job search

Articles > Feature Articles