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How the class of 2013 can set itself apart in today’s labor market

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This year’s recent graduates are faring better than the graduates of five years ago despite the economy’s slow paced growth. June’s BLS household and payroll survey, the latest data available, reported that 22 million Americans were unemployed and/or underemployed. Despite slow upward progress, we still see recent grads assimilating to the tough labor market. Thus, young college grads have to differentiate themselves and showcase the skills they have gained through out their college careers and multiple internships. They have to show up and prove themselves to compete.

The good news is that having a college degree is an asset to participate and thrive in today’s labor market. The unemployment for college graduates (3.9% as of June 2013) is about half of what it is for workers with just a high school diploma (7.3 %). However, many young college graduates have found jobs that underutilize their skillset. Many of the jobs obtained do not even require bachelor’s degrees. Given these circumstances, it is vital for graduates to set themselves apart because even if their first job underutilizes their skillset, they will have to use that as a stepping-stone to push their overall career goals forward.

As the New York Time’s Catherine Rampell put it, “…as the economy continues to improve, those recent college graduates will be better situated to find promotions to jobs that do use their higher skills and pay better wages.” In other words, you have to start somewhere.

Barbara Henderson, St. Edwards University Director of Career Services, agrees that “The 2010 job market for college grads was extremely difficult… [and] The 2013 college grads appear to have more employment opportunities, but that does not mean the jobs are good jobs.” So given the rugged job market, how do students differentiate themselves and grow into strong job candidates fresh out of college?

NerdScholar turned to the experts to learn what young college grads can do to make sure they know how to navigate the tricky labor market. Here are the three pieces of advice experts give to students:

    • Get your foot in the door: Do an internship to gain intangible skills, differentiate yourself, and grow your professional network
    • Learn about professions you are curious about: Ask for informational interviews at each job/internship you do
    • Apply to jobs and make the best out of every job experience: Research jobs and tailor resume to specific job you’re applying to and grow from each experience

The internship: Getting your foot in the door and exploring

Getting your foot in the door is not easy. But if you can get an internship after college, this can give you the “in” you need to launch your career. Dr. Michael Woodward –author of The You Plan, Executive Coach, and Organizational Psychologist at the Florida International University Center for Leadership– agrees that internships are a great way to explore and get to know yourself better, which is highly important. He says that, “Nobody can predict the future, but you can plan for it.” Specifically, he tells us that students should ask themselves what their long-term career and life vision is and then decide from there what short and long-term goals it is they  need to set to get there.

Dr. Woodward also put it this way, “As individuals competing in this world you have to keep your eyes open and stay focused on what is relevant to you. Opportunities are all around, but it’s up to you to focus on the ones that make sense for you. All too often people seize opportunities out of desperation not realizing the impact on their larger goals. Having a basic framework to operate from will provide a sense of grounding from which thoughtful decisions can be made.” In other words, you do not basically have to know exactly what you want to do but you should at the very least have a vision of the direction you want to take your career in.

Stuart Mease, Director of Career Advancement and Employer Relations at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business, recommends articulating your “job mission” and from there finding what internship opportunities would help you accomplish that mission. Mease tells us, “ [pretend you are] crafting a 30 second commercial to share with others. In that statement, a student must be able to communicate where they want to work, in what industry and for which companies. If the students do not know these vitals, then it’s hard for anyone to help them.”

You have to know the general direction you want to take your career so that you pursue the appropriate internship opportunities that will help you get your foot in the door. Other experts call this an “elevator speech, ” which is where you talk about what you have done, what you do now, and how that plays into your overall career goals.

But it is also helpful to remember that internships are a chance to explore your career options. Lynn Owens, Associate Professor of Communication at William Peace University recommended to “Be willing to look outside your area of interest. I had a student who wanted to be a broadcast reporter, but was not having any luck landing a job. She eventually applied for an assistant news producer position and was hired. One year of experience in that role gave her the experience and connections necessary to land that on-air job she wanted.” Sometimes one experience will lead to another so make the most of your internships because it will set you apart.

Kathleen Monroe, Assistant Director of Career Services at William Peace University, told NerdScholar that, “relevant experience from internships sets recent graduates apart from candidates with less applicable work history. Recent graduates can be effective in their job search by connecting how their education, internship experience, and additional work history allows them to add value to an organization.”

The informational interview: Learn about the professions you are interested in

Once you know what general direction you want to take your career in, you have to make sure you learn as much as you can from the professionals around you by asking them on informational interviews. And you do not have to limit yourself to the people within your organization. If you are interested in learning about someone at another company, do not be afraid to reach out. Although it may seem like it’s intimidating to ask someone to coffee, for example, a conversation with him or her can really shed light on his or her career trajectory.

If you want to go into politics, intern at your state legislature or if you have the means to move to DC for a summer internship on the hill, do that. You’ll be exposed to policy makers and people who have industry knowledge. Once there you could ask them for coffee and advice to learn how they got to where they are.

Another good example is the tech sector. If you’re interested in learning working in tech, seek opportunities in those areas. This summer, a group of bay area interns started the “Intern Project,” giving advice to interns about how to make the most of your experience, ace future interviews, and get recommendation letters. This also means that you should talk to your peers to hear advice about what you could be doing better to land more job interviews. The bottom line is that you need to consider where you need to move to increase your chances of reaching your career goals. Check out some of the best cities for young professionals here.

John Brady, career expert and Boston University alum, recommends young grads to reach out to their alumni network, particularly those who are professionals in the career field you wish to pursue. He advises to, “Use your school’s alumni network.  Most good job opportunities are snatched up before they can be broadly advertised on a job board even though they may be posted on an employer’s website. To efficiently create a network, have meaningful exploratory conversations with alumni in your chosen field.  Ask for their advice, their experience, and keep to the allotted time.”

The informational interview has a lot of power and can direct your job search in the right direction. Do not underestimate its helpfulness and seek out to learn from your colleagues especially while interning, which can help set you apart.

The job application: After you identify an opportunity make sure your application is done right

When you find opportunities to pursue and apply, be extra cognizant of how you present your application. It is helpful to tailor your resume and your cover letter to whatever job you are applying to. Being careless in this step of the process can get your resume thrown in the wastebasket.

Researching the company or organization you want to work for is crucial, but you also have to make it a point to play up the skills that can make your employer thrive. It’s about how you can help your potential boss, not the other way around.

Stephanie Kinkaid, Program Coordinator for Monmouth College’s Wackerle Career and Leadership Center, tells NerdScholar that recent grads can compete in the market if they go beyond the basic research for the jobs they are applying for and play up the intangible skills they gained in their past internships.

“Graduates should not only be educated in an individual field, they should also be skilled in social attributes. Employers are looking for candidates who can make decisions under pressure, remain calm and be confident in difficult moments. Internships and part-time jobs are a great way for college students to prepare for the real world. Employers do not want to take the time to teach soft skills, so observing those in desired fields can be a way for students to learn the attributes needed,” Kinkaid said.

As you intern and get your first job out of college, make sure that you learn how the “basics”—how to set up meetings, write effective emails, and work cross functionally with different members of a team and across departments in your organization. Having intangible professional skills will be sure to set you apart come time for your job interview.

In addition to honing your basic intangible skills, you have to work with what you got. Most college graduates do not land their dream jobs straight out of college. In fact, not many people do but everyone starts somewhere. The important thing is to remember that you can learn, build and grow from every experience no matter what you are doing. If you feel like you are “underemployed” and “underutilizing” your skills, you have to remember that the way to grow is by doing your job well and with integrity. The skills that you gain at each job are the stepping-stones to help you build your overall career.