My first four months out of college were some of the most frustrating – scratch that – the most abjectly miserable times of my life. With the grace period on my loans swiftly drawing to an end I needed work and I needed it fast.
I logged hour after hour online, searching for jobs that I believed in. Failing that, I looked for work that I was qualified for. Failing that, I starting looking for anything.
Nothing ever came of it.
Barely a word from interviewers, and when I did hear back, it was usually to inform me of the dreaded “this job requires two to three years of experience” criteria. I was stressed beyond belief and couldn't shake the feeling that I was letting everyone I knew down. Here I was, two degrees under my belt, a small mountain of debt, and nothing to show for it.
If I had known then what I know now I could've spared myself all those months of anxiety and crushing self-doubt.
It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know
…But you already knew that.
Back in those agonizing months, I knew it too – or at least, I thought I did. I, like many work-starved millennials, recited that old phrase as a complaint. How on earth were any of us supposed to compete with folks who'd spent decades in the workforce? How were any of us supposed to stand a chance against people who'd had years of developing professional ties?
By starting now.
Give A Little To Get A Little
Our first step is by focusing our search. While we're probably going to feel pressured to take any job we can, if we're going to maximize our effectiveness we're going to need to target a single field of work, or better yet, a specific company or organization. With that done, it's time to start putting in the legwork.
Try volunteering for an organization that would bring likeminded people together. While the prospect of working without pay is probably going to sound pointless (even counterproductive), it's opportunities like these which are best for really getting your name out there – especially when you've got a strategy in place.
Stand Out in a Stack
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Say that you wanted to get into the construction field – not an easy thing after the Great Recession of 2008 and the subsequent collapse of the housing market. We could try relentlessly applying at different companies online, but we'd just be one of a thousand other folks doing the exact same thing. Rather than struggling vainly with the competition, try tracking down some place where you'll have a chance to meet someone already working in the industry. If construction's your field try Habitat for Humanity, an organization that builds houses for the needy. You're almost certain to run into experienced carpenters, plumbers, tilers, masons, roofers – you name it. Not only will you be able to make those connections, but you'll be given the very rare chance to let these folks actually see your skills and work ethic. Anybody can claim to be dedicated and hard-working, few people ever get a chance to prove it.
And if construction isn't your thing, no need to worry. If you can imagine it, there's almost certainly a service of some kind out there looking for volunteers. Hospitals, animal shelters, veterans' organizations, radio, television, culinary work, education, music, sports – there's no lack of opportunity for the able and willing (Idealist.org is a great place to start).
The Direct Approach
While volunteering is a fantastic way to make connections in your field of choice, we need to be simultaneously pursuing connections with specific individuals. For those of us with a specific company or organization in mind this is definitely going to be a route worth exploring.
Now while Elon Musk and Bill Gates aren't going to respond to your e-mails (no matter how eloquent), don't be afraid of being ambitious. What holds many of us back from making connections with influential people is our tendency to put supervisors and bosses up on pedestals. We only see the imposing presence and tailored power suit, forgetting that these same people get bored at work, like to kick back with an episode of Family Guy, and have had explosive diarrhea at least once in their lives.
That said, you can't just cut right to that person. If you do want to talk to a more major figure (such as the owner or CEO of a larger company or corporation) you're still going to have to work your way up the ladder rather than trying to jump the chain of command. Cutting ahead of HR, the hiring manager, and whatever supervisors stand between you and the big guys is going to be seen as an act of disrespect by both sides, and I have seen people actually lose opportunities this way.
Search the company website and find some entry-level employee. Get in good with that person and start moving up. With the added weight of the recommendation of the person on the rung below, you massively increase your odds of talking to who you want to talk to.
Six Degrees of Separation
LinkedIn is perhaps one of the best (and most underutilized) tools available to us. While there’s a good chance you’ve got a profile up already, more than likely you haven’t touched it since, or are just watching it with the ever-diminishing hope that a recruiter will stumble across it.
That’s not how it works.
If you’re going to network, then you have to be the one to take the initiative. Use the site to zero in on a company you’re interested in and start “following” it. Once you start receiving updates from the company in your news feed, you can use that information to kickstart a conversation with one of their employees – the vast majority of whom will probably also have profiles on the site.
That’s all good and well, but what if the company has hundreds of employees? How do we figure out who to pursue?
LinkedIn’s got you covered.
As you scroll through the employees, the website will highlight ones with similar skills and interests to yourself. More importantly, it’ll designate ones who you share connections with – and you will be staggered by how many there are. In a single tiny craft brewery that I follow, I managed to find five employees separated from myself by only three degrees – that is, they were connected with someone who was connected with someone I know (including close friends and even my own father, who lives on the other side of the planet). All that’s standing between me and them is a few pithy e-mails, assuming I didn’t just contact them directly (which LinkedIn absolutely lets you do).
Ask About Work, Not For Work
As time wears on, plenty of us are going to become convinced (wrongly) that our best or single selling point is our desperation. You've got bills to pay, loans to stay on top of, rent, groceries, internet. I know that I myself got to the point where I'd be willing to drop to my knees and plead if it meant me having a fair shot of being considered.
Which, needless to say, it wouldn't.
Nothing's more of a turn-off to employers than desperation. Regardless of the realities of your situation, employers are going to want you to apply because of what you can do for them, not what they can do for you. Blasting off e-mails or filling up answering machines with “Hey, you hiring?” just isn't going to work.
What will work is sending out an e-mail asking about work.
The simple truth of the matter is that human beings as a species are vain. We love talking about ourselves, and work is probably the easiest thing to base a conversation on. And lest any of the naysayers and skeptics want to dispute this, just put yourself in the position of the person getting the e-mail. Some stranger sends you a polite and friendly letter asking you what it's like to work in your field, what are you going to do? Here's a person offering you their undivided attention – it'd take the humility of a saint to not feel flattered by that.
Once you get a conversation going you'll be able to slip in bits about yourself (if they don't ask you outright on their own). Subtle things like “You know, back in my economics course they were telling us to do x, y, and z – is that something you're doing presently?” or “Eesh – I know what you mean. A couple summers back I volunteered for this one charity helping refugees, and most every day I was encountering the same thing.”
Does that actually work?
You better believe it.
The Devil You Know
The hiring process is miserable not only for the job seeker, but for the employer as well. When a position's open the company either has to pay someone extra to do that work or double someone else's workload at the sacrifice of both, otherwise the work just isn't getting done at all. Employers want to get their positions filled as fast as possible, but at the same time a bad hire puts them at risk of restarting the whole process over, costing them money, manpower, and weeks of time. As a result, employers are almost always going to go for the candidate they see as having the least risk attached to them, even if that person's less skilled. It's a simple matter of the devil you know over the devil you don't.
And that devil's gotta be you.
Making yourself familiar to the employer by finding some way of getting down there and showing your face. Stop by to ask the receptionist some questions. “Check in” on your application. Pop in to personally deliver a thank you letter for the chance to even just apply. There's a fine line between persistence and annoyance, but if you can walk it then you're certain to stand head and shoulders above the crowd.
You Can't Beat The Personal Touch
We're all sick of hearing our parents or our grandparents talk about how in their day all they had to do was enter somewhere and talk to someone. As frustrating as it is to hear that smug advice over and over (and you will hear it over and over), there is truth to that. While the job search process has shifted almost entirely to online, we still have to find a way of introducing the human element to all this.
Look, anyone can put down anything on their resume. Anyone can check off anything on their application. Neither of these documents really tell the employer anything concrete until they have a chance to actually meet you.
So beat 'em to the chase.
Rather than sitting back, hoping and praying for an interview, be the proactive one. Head on down to the place of business and strike up a conversation with the receptionist. You're probably not going to get a full tour of the organization, but you can get a few seconds in with someone, and those few seconds are what make all the difference. Introducing yourself with “Hi, my name's ______ and I'm putting in an application here. I know you're busy, but I was wondering if I could just ask a couple quick questions…”
All we're trying to do here is establish that who you say you are on paper matches up with who you are in reality. Now this will work better with smaller companies than large ones (who typically have more policies in place and hoops to jump through), but if you can leave a favorable impression with just one person there then you'll have done more than the vast majority of the competition – even the seasoned veterans.
If It Ain’t Broke
Now all of this might sound decent, but some might question who actually has time to do all this?
The real question should be “Who has the time not to?”
Just do the math here, people – how many hours did you sink into creating your resume? How many hours did you spend tweaking and fine-tuning it afterwards? And can you even begin to estimate how much time you sank into filling out applications, or even just searching for work you might be marginally qualified for?
Take all that time, and imagine you had invested it in establishing ties and connections within a single industry, with a single company.
Which do you think would've taken you further?
As frustrating as these old cliches might be, they've survived for a reason. We just need to relearn them and re-apply them to the age of online applications. Don't waste your time like I did. There's enough in life to stress about without it.
Get out there and talk to someone.