Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Skills Recent Grads Need the Most: Job Search, a Fundamental Competency for Success

This is the second in a series of blogs that I am writing in response to a request from Bob Clary, Webucator’s community manager. The series concerns competencies that recent grads need. The competencies that I am covering are ethics, job search, interpersonal skills, and writing. This blog concerns job search and informational interviewing.

Finding a job, from students’ summer jobs to retirees’ part-time jobs, is a challenge that most of us face at least a few times. The challenge is most acute for those finishing a degree. Finding the right job from the get-go is important to a recent grad’s future, and the sooner that you find the right job, the better off you will be.
For one thing, the salary on your first job affects your future pay increases, so decades later you will still feel the ripple effects of your first salary rate.  For another thing, by finding the right job you will be empowered to do what you believe.  That enhances commitment, focus, and purpose. Clear goals lead to successful performance, and by targeting your chief interest you establish clear, motivating goals.

One of the best books on job search is Richard N. Bolles’s bestseller, What Color Is Your Parachute? (also here).  Bolles makes many useful points: The success rate for mass mailings of job letters is painfully low. A job search should start by identifying your aims and interests. The best way to look for a job is not to look for a job, but rather, to interview for information.

Many students think of looking for a job as a bidding process. They set out to find the one job that offers the optimal opportunity, and they don’t consider whether they are really interested in the field, the occupation, the firm, or the position. That is a mistake. You will spend more time with your career than with anything else, and a loveless career is as unfortunate as a loveless marriage. 

As with marriage, focusing chiefly on the financial dimension is likely to lead to divorce.  Without passion for what you do, the money will not be enough.  It is more expensive to change jobs than to figure out what you want to do beforehand, yet it appears that few do.  According to The Wall Street Journal, half of workers between 20 and 24 have been with their employer for less than a year, and in 2008 the typical American was on the job for only 4.1 years. These statistics suggest frequent job changes.

The Importance of Goals

In my teaching career, which began in 1991 and has included teaching organizational behavior and managerial skills classes at nine higher education institutions, I have asked more than 5,000 students to read What Color Is Your Parachute? and then write an essay about their career mission and goals.  Many students have trouble conceptualizing their goals, and many students have little faith that they can execute the goals that they choose.

Besides doing the exercises in What Color Is Your Parachute?, students who have trouble setting goals for themselves can take the Strong Interest Inventory by consulting with a career counselor or other career professional.  The Strong Interest Inventory is more than 85 years old, and it has been revised many times; the questions concern the test taker’s occupational interests, subject area interests, activities interests, leisure activities interests, and personal characteristics.  It gives scores relevant to occupational themes, basic interests, and personal style. These can help you to identify fields that are of interest to you.

To some degree it is not so important that you find a goal that you love as that you find a goal to which you are committed. If you cannot think of anything that you really want to do, then pick something that you think is a likely suspect, and focus on it and only  it. 

Interview Not for a Job, but for Information

Once you have focused on a specific job, field, salary, and set of achievements that reflect your mission, your practical job search can begin. Bolles says that 1,400 letters and resumes are needed if you are going to play the numbers game of mass mailings.  Moreover, it is unlikely that you will find the very best jobs that way.  The reason is the unseen job market.  Applicants fill most jobs, and virtually all of the great entry-level jobs, through personal connections.  If you do not have personal connections, mass mailing of cold letters will not likely help you to get the best jobs.  Advertisements and headhunters won’t either because entry-level jobs are mostly filled through the unseen job market. The unseen job market is the web of personal connections through which employers fill most jobs.

In the early 1990s, before the advent of the Internet, I taught an on-site class at a major cosmetics firm’s Long Island plant.  I asked the class this: “How many of you got your job through newspaper ads, through personnel agents, through headhunters, through career fairs, or through personal connections?” Every single student in the class had gotten his or her job through a personal connection.

If you wish to work in advertising, investment banking, consulting, or in other high-end jobs, you need to consider how to make the contacts that will give you a leg up.  The answer, which Bolles establishes in What Color Is Your Parachute?, is informational interviewing.

Informational interviewing is a way to tap into the hidden job market by establishing personal connections with a number of professionals in your field.  One way to informational interview is to start by identifying people who are already successful in your field.  You can do this in a number of ways: through scanning a listing of alumni available through the college career center, through reading articles about specific managers in the business press, through calling firms, or through visiting professional association websites.

Many professional associations list their members, but they only make the membership list available to other members. That’s one good reason to join the professional association in your field. Another reason is that professional association meetings are great places to use a slightly different method of informational interviewing:  setting up informational interviews at professional association meetings.

After you’ve identified 30 to 100 managers who are likely to have information that will be of value to you in beginning your career search, write each a letter to set up an interview. Don’t write them all at once; rather, write them sequentially.  You will only be able to do one or maybe two informational interviews each day. Job search is a full-time job.

In the letter say that you have heard of them and their achievements and that you would like to request an in-person meeting so that you may learn from them. State explicitly that you are not looking for a job.  The reason is that you are asking for an informational interview, not a job interview.

Using bullets, indicate a few sample questions that you would like to ask in the interview such as how they got into the field, whether your degree is appropriate, and what the emerging problems in the field are. Make a mental list of 10 or 15 questions, but when you actually go on the interview you are unlikely to need a list. Once you ask a few questions, the interviewee will open up, and the meeting will become a free-flowing conversation.

In the letter give a specific date and time on which you will call to set up a meeting.  When you call, attempt to make an appointment with the individual’s secretary, or leave a message on an answering machine. Three failed attempts are the maximum.

Many students wonder whether business people will be willing to meet with them. The answer is a qualified yes. From five to thirty-five percent of the individuals whom you contact will be willing to meet with you in person.  Even if the percentage of yes answers is only five percent, the response rate will be twice that of mass mailings. More likely, you will be able to achieve a ten to  fifteen percent response rate, three-to-seven times better than that of mass mailings. 

The reason more managers will see you because of an informational interview letter than because of a job search letter is, first, that they often don’t have a job opening, but they are interested in meeting an available applicant. Because people hate to say no, they will see you for an informational interview but not for a job interview. Second, most people enjoy giving advice, and this is a great opportunity for someone to indulge themselves in that great pleasure. Third, many managers know about informational interviewing, and they are happy to participate because they may someday be in the same position as you are now. Who knows? Maybe when they are looking for a job in the future, you will be willing to interview them.

After the meeting, ask whether they know of anyone else who might be willing to meet with you. Also, tell them that you will keep them apprised of your progress.

The informational interview serves at least two purposes. First, by going on 20 or 30 informational interviews, you will learn a great deal about the field.  In 1996 I went on a series of a dozen informational interviews, and I found that after about six or seven the interviewees were asking me for information rather than the other way around.  By learning much about the field through an informational interview, you place yourself in an advantageous position when you obtain interviews using traditional job-search methods. In a sense, you are engaging in a benign form of industrial espionage.

Second, by meeting people in the field, you establish connections.  Since most of the best jobs are obtained through the hidden job market, through connections, you are opening up the possibility of an offer in three, six, or twelve months.  Bring a resume, but do not offer it. They are likely to ask for it.

Many students are reluctant to pursue informational interviewing because they fear rejection. Given that only five to thirty-five percent of interviewees say yes, that means that ninety-five to sixty-five percent say no.  That means that people who informational interview have to put up with rejection most of the time. The same is true of many high-value-added business tasks, such as sales. Rejection is a necessary stepping stone to success, whether you aim to be an entrepreneur, a trader, an author, or a scholar.

The job-search skill is important because your first job is likely to define your future ones. It is just as or even more important to know how to look for a job as it is to have gone through the best academic program.  By doing it right the first time, you will make early gains that will multiply over your career.  

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