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Cocktail Connections: Offline Social Networking

It's Friday night and you want to grab a drink with some friends. But you also know that you should be looking for a job. Why not do both?

By Jebra Turner

As if you need another excuse to hit happy hour, Gen Y job seekers are being encouraged to pump up their prowess in face-to-face— not Facebook—networking. Can the ability to schmooze over a beer put your engineering or IT career on the fast track to success? In a word: yes. Social relationships lead to job opportunities, and it's easier to connect at a drinking spot than at a recruiting fair, convention, or on Twitter. (You don't have to drink liquor, either; Diet Coke is a good social lubricant.) So, pull up a stool, settle in, and read on to find out how offl ine socializing gives you a decided advantage in a cutthroat job market.

Why be a social animal?

"The market is saturated with talented people," according to Jake Newton, a Seattle-based account manager at Aeorotek Energy Services. "But a faceto- face contact sets you apart from the competition." As evidence, Newton cites one hiring manager who advertised online for a project manager and got 106 applications; overwhelmed, he pulled the ad after only three days. This happens so often now that recruiters employ serendipitous methods to screen candidates, such as disqualifying résumés printed on colored paper stock.

It is possible, though, to ensure you résumé makes it into the "yes" pile. How? Call or visit the hiring manager so there's a voice or face to go with your name. You will make a much stronger impression. Imagine that manager sets aside his mountain of applications when the phone rings, "Hi, I met you at the barbeque (or neighborhood block party, or community litter cleanup day, etc.) on Friday and I'd be perfect for your IT opening." A few hours later you're on your way to the human resources department to sign up for benefi ts and get your photo taken for a company ID badge.

Sounds simple, but how likely are most of us to risk personal rejection by making that kind of phone call? Not very. Today, young job seekers are more comfortable with online, not in-person, communication. Candidates increasingly rely exclusively on online job classifi eds, releasing a fl urry of résumés on the Net, even though that strategy yields poor results compared to a diversifi ed online/offl ine approach.

Cocktail Connections

"When I was young, my parents wouldn't allow me to play video games," says Paul Spangle, Assistant Director of Student Activities and Cocoordinator of "Charm School" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It wasn't social enough. Now they'd be thrilled if my younger brother invited someone over to play video games. The games are online now, so it's really not social anymore."

Every domain of life seems to have morphed into an online networking opportunity, including the search for a date or mate, often with disempowering results. "The experience I had calling to ask girls out in high school for the prom—especially the couple of rejections I got—helped me learn to make diffi cult calls for business later," explains Spangle.

So, how do you know when to turn on the charm and chat it up with someone? "Anytime is the right time to reach out and make contact," according to Lizzie Post, etiquette expert at Burlington, Vermont-based The Emily Post Institute (and Emily's great, greatgranddaughter). "We call ourselves 24/7 professionals. Anything can come up where our professional self has to show up." After all, you could be just walking down the street and unexpectedly meet someone who has been, or could be, a business connection.

Post suggests becoming active in the world around you, and fi ghting the impulse to cozy up at home with a takeout pizza and a video game. If you don't get out there and socialize, "you're not doing yourself any favors. Unless you strike up a business connection with the people you game with," she says. And that's entirely doable; online introductions can lead to inperson meetings, either one-on-one or as part of a social gathering.

Networking success on tap

A tavern, bar, pub, or restaurant with a social atmosphere is a great venue for networking. It's a fun way to make contacts, including casual friends who can give you a lead to a job opening, or an internship, or provide an in-thetrenches view of a specifi c fi eld or a company.

"I got my bartending job [while a student] by being in a bar," says Greg Spangle (related to MIT's Paul Spangle), who is now employed as a sales manager. "The bar manager knew my brother in high school. One day he asked me if I wanted to be a bartender. He slapped an application in front of me and said, "It doesn't matter what you put down, just fill it out.'"

First, scout out a comfortable establishment, such as Judge's Irish Pub, the popular college hangout in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Greg Spangle tended bar. Then strike up a conversation with the bartender, usually the easiest person to talk to. "They typically know everyone in the bar; they've got to be everyone's best friend. They're a great connection, and they'll usually bounce you off to the next person—'hey, I know someone you should meet.'"

How do you get the bartender's attention and enroll him as a co-conspirator in your job search? It helps to be a regular, someone who comes to the bar often, spends money, and tips well. Being a regular affords you special status and privileges, especially if you are also kind and courteous. One hand washes the other; bartenders will make an extra effort to take care of you because you're taking care of them.

Then get to know the bartenders and other staff members. Ask questions you industry—a patron who owns a gas station, perhaps. Sounds like an unlikely connection, but that patron may be tight with a vendor's sales rep, who has a lead to an entry-level opening with a customer's fi rm for someone with your specialty.

Don't forget your fellow bar patrons, either; you don't always know whom you're sitting next to, or whom they may know. "We recently placed someone from a connection at a bar, through a friend-of-a-friend," says Newton. A recruiter chatted with the guy on the next stool, who mentioned his friend, the new graduate, who was pounding the pavement. They exchanged business cards, an interview was arranged, and soon, the friend was gainfully employed in his chosen fi eld. Any number of careers have been launched with this kind of serendipitous, sixdegrees- of-separation networking.

Every bar has a personality—or amenities, such as karaoke, billiards, DJ—that makes it a good hunting ground, or not. For example, at a college bar, you'll meet students, faculty and staff members from many disciplines. Alumni, too. "When alumni come back to school, they'll go to their favorite bar, like the Golden Rail, where people may have been going for decades. That's a good opportunity to network with them," says Dorothy A. Kerr, executive manager of employer services at Rutgers University in New York. Alumni often want to help students at their alma mater so don't be shy about approaching them.

In addition, some nights are busier than others, and therefore a better bet for meeting new people. "Thursday night is a big night here, and many seniors go then," says Kerr.

I don't like bars—where else can I go?

Get involved with local alumni or professional associations and attend events with speakers. These gatherings aren't as intimidating as a job fair but will still allow you to practice conversing casually with people in your career arena. "You have at least one thing in common that you can discuss—the event, or the people there, or the speech if there's a speaker," says Newton.

Cocktail Connections

He also suggests going to social mixers for professionals in allied fields. That way you share some interests, but aren't competing with a room full of candidates with similar backgrounds. Newton recalls meeting a mechanical engineer (one of the few) at a Northwest Environmental Business Council mixer, and later getting him a job in the energy field.

In addition to dinners, associations often sponsor purely social functions, such as pro sports games and cultural events, often at discounted rates.

If professional networking sounds too stuffy to you, become an active member of your community, instead, says Post. "Host a small dinner party, or accept an invitation to a barbeque. I went to my aunt's lobster party and the man across from me turned out to be someone we did business with." She also suggests getting involved in school activities, such as the college orientation weekend backpacking trip, where her cousin met some friends who later became his business partners.

Finally, look to see what may be especially popular activity in your town. "This may be a Boston thing, but kickball leagues are very popular," says Paul Spangle. "It's a way for young professionals to connect and build community." A wide variety of people—lawyers, executives, teachers— play the game, then go out later for drinks at a favorite watering hole. It's a fun way to meet people for any number of purposes: business, friendship, or dating. "I'm going to a wedding later this summer for a couple who met at a league," he says.

Put words in my mouth

Year in and year out, communication skills top the list of desirable qualities that recruiters seek in student job applicants, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers' Job Outlook Survey. Nobody teaches you how to have a conversation with a stranger, though. In fact, early on parents actively discourage it with warnings about "stranger danger." Professors don't teach you how to meet and mingle for professional advantage and may not even know how. You have to learn it yourself.

Casual conversations may be especially problematic for international students. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," advises Kerr. She tells students to learn what's customary in the United States, then adjust their behavior, as much as possible, to fit those standards.

As your mother probably assured you, to make friends, just be yourself. Relax, and take some deep breaths. Don't put on a show. Paul Spangle cautions, "I've heard plenty of goofy things that people say, mostly when they try to be someone they're not."

A word of warning: avoid keeping the spotlight on yourself. "I can talk about myself and make myself sound good," says Paul Spangle, "or I could ask two questions and make the person I'm speaking to feel good." So, keep a few opening questions in your back pocket. Some topics don't lead anywhere; asking about the weather, for instance, is usually a dead end.

Abdulaziz Albahar, a socially-active mechanical engineering senior at MIT, suggests opening with a question about hobbies. For example, when chatting with a recruiter at a campus barbeque:

Student: "So, what are you doing in your spare time?"

Recruiter: "Working out."

Student: "Me too. Is there time to do that with this job? How do you fit it in?"

Albahar dislikes the term "networking"; it makes the process sound complicated. It's actually simple: people like to talk to people. The trick is to take the time to find what's interesting in someone's story. "You might be thinking, 'that's boring,' but these people are talking about something they're passionate about, what they're working on every day," he adds.

Do's and don'ts

Do set a drink limit. "For me, at a cocktail party, it's one drink. Anything more might make my lips loose," says Post. If you're also a lightweight when it comes to drinking, you could instruct the bartender to "pour me half the liquor you usually pour," she says. If you're willing to give your business card, then you have to safeguard your role as a company representative.

Do keep talk casual. "In [face-toface] social networking, the social comes first," according to Post. You're both there to enjoy friends, so exchange contact information and agree to set up a meeting at a later time to discuss details. "Enjoy the event or activity and let business be something that trickles in lightly," she adds.

Don't drop the ball. To pursue contacts, you don't have to be aggressive, either. Post recommends writing a follow- up note: "I was so pleased to meet you at the barbeque. I thought it was interesting that (whatever topic you discussed). I'd love to meet with you soon to talk more about it."

Do avoid gossip and negative remarks, advises Post. (Enough said.)

Don't be overly pushy. "Salesmanship [at a social event] is desperate and unattractive," says Robert B. Dimmick, a Boston-based online etiquette expert. "I remember going to a party and a travel agent kept asking me questions like, 'Where do you travel?' and then she'd reply, 'Oh, yeah, we go there. We can book that for you.'" By the same token, recent graduates, inexperienced in self-promotion, can push too hard.

Do have other interests. "If the only topic is your job search and professional field, you'll bore people," says Dimmick. If you have an avocation, cultivate that interest. Or, develop a wide variety of interests and go to a wide variety of events. "Fruitful professional and business relationships often start out in other ways," Dimmick says.

Don't fear speaking on your feet. Public speaking is the number one fear for many students. "Some companies sponsor Dale Carnegie courses, but we suggest students join Toastmasters," says Kerr. Toastmasters is a low-cost option, often costing less than $100 a year. An improvisation group can also help you think on your feet.

Do attend DYI charm school. There's a wealth of information on the Internet and in the library. Or visit Post's blog at www.EtiquetteDaily.com and Dimmick's website at www.etiquetteer.com; both offer answers to your etiquette queries. Then practice, practice, practice. You'll feel awkward at first shaking hands, making small talk, and giving your personal "elevator pitch." But soon you'll be able to work a room without breaking a sweat.

Jebra Turner is a former human resources manager who writes about career issues, and other business topics. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at www.jebra.com.

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