The latest data from the Labor Department show that employers might be beginning to dip their toes back into the hiring waters, but that doesn't mean finding gainful employment will be easy for recent college graduates. It will take a combination of networking, assertiveness, and tech savvy to land that first job, counselors say.
Harrison Barnes, founder and CEO of the job search website EmploymentCrossing.com, says applying for jobs now could give winter graduates an edge. But heeding some key advice—not just winging it—is still a must. "It's not a seller's market. It's still a buyer's market," says Ed Koc, research director at the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Here are some strategies to keep in mind:
1. Make a personal connection before the interview. Scouring the job search boards online and sending out dozens of applications blind might sound like a solid way to get in the game, but experts say that all that does is get you lost in the shuffle. More and more employers are instead posting open positions to their own websites, so a slightly better strategy might be to decide which companies you're specifically interested in and then apply directly through the firm. But even that method might be an exercise in futility.
"The trick now isn't getting the interview and getting the job. It's getting the interview, period," says educational consultant Eric Yaverbaum, president of the website CollegeClickTV.com, which partners with U.S. News to provide video reviews of colleges nationwide. To do that, you're going to want to try to get to know, face to face, the people at the places where you're trying to get hired, before the interview.
One way to do that is to research the most prominent associations within the industry you're interested in and then attend their events and conferences. Every industry has them, they're scheduled regularly, and experts say it's a great way to start the networking process. If you want to go into public relations, for instance, check out the Public Relations Society of America. "Join the community you want to be a part of before you even have a job in it," says Yaverbaum. "That personal contact is what gets you remembered."
Mark Smith, assistant vice chancellor and director of the career center at Washington University in St. Louis, recommends talking shop with friends of parents and with parents of friends. But don't flat out ask for a job, he says.
"If you know what type of work you want to do, talk to them about the industry, and ask them if there are other people you should be networking with," says Smith. If you meet them at a party, tell them you want to learn more, and arrange to meet them for coffee or at their office. Dress nicely, bring a copy of your résumé, and ask them about other individuals or firms to contact. And keep the lines of communication open after that. If you do ask directly for a job, and he or she says no, the conversation could be over.
Going the online route is a good idea if you're using it for social networking. NACE estimates that almost a third of employers are using social networking websites, including Facebook, in their recruiting efforts. If you have a Facebook profile, consider tidying it up to look more professional, and post a status update such as "Looking for leads in the marketing field in New York," says Smith.
And think about creating a profile on LinkedIn.com. If you meet a potential contact in person, ask if you can connect with him or her on the site. But don't simply glue yourself to your computer screen. "It's easy to hide behind the Internet, but that's not enough," says Yaverbaum. "You want to get the people face to face."
2. Continue to use your career center. Most schools will not cut you off when you graduate. Many keep their doors open to graduates for at least another two years. "Some might get embarrassed about it or feel that it's not proper, but counselors there want you to succeed, and they will gladly help you," says Smith.
Some career centers provide online counseling as well as over-the-phone counseling, but Koc recommends making an in-person appointment to get the most out of it. "Graduates might be inclined to simply search the jobs posted to their center's website, but they really should make full use of their services," he says, which can include résumé building and interviewing advice as well as assistance in focusing the job search.