When They Require Experience And You Have None
Tara Weiss 06.18.10, 11:41 AM ET
Lack of experience is often the biggest obstacle college graduates must overcome when entering the job market. Prospective employers can sound like a broken record, saying over and over, “You don’t have enough experience,” followed by the devastating “We’ll call you.” Especially last year, when only 19.7% of graduates had a job lined up after graduating. So how do you get your foot in the door–how do you gain experience if you don’t have any already?
Many new grads already have what recruiters are looking for. They just need to recognize it and package it properly in their résumés and cover letters. To begin with, think of experiences before you entered “the real world” that could apply. Consider including all the things you did during college, even those you wouldn’t have considered job experience at the time.
Bill Warner, director of sales and recruiting at the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca ( AZN – news – people ), oversees all the hiring of interns and recent graduates for sales and operations positions there. He says one of the best résumés and cover letters he’s seen recently came from a woman who described how her position as rush chair at her sorority had given her the leadership and project management skills she needed to work at AstraZeneca. She told of the unique challenges of dealing with rush rules that were changed that year, how she managed the process, calculated how many new members to bring in and got all the other parts of the job done as well.
Warner, impressed, offered her a job even though she had never worked in pharmaceutical sales. “They do have experience, but they struggle with the bridge from what they’ve done in college, how to link it to the position they’re interested in,” he says.
To identify that bridge, look at the skills you displayed and tasks you pulled off in your college exploits. One applicant hurt his chances by failing to emphasize being editor in chief of his university’s newspaper, Warner says. That activity involved numerous duties employers consider valuable experience, such as managing a staff, working with outside vendors and balancing the newspaper and schoolwork.
When you interview with potential employers and the issue of experience comes up, be prepared with an answer that doesn’t dwell on past jobs (or lack thereof).”Don’t stress your work experience as much as your skill set,” says Tarek Pertew, co-founder and director of marketing at the career website MyWorkster.
When college experiences and your skill set aren’t enough, try brushing up on a job’s specific requirements, Pertew says. If you repeatedly hear that you lack a specific technical skill for the jobs you want, take classes to gain that competency. Add those classes to your résumé as you continue your job search. “It shows that you have ambition,” she says.
Another way to gain technical competence is by volunteering your professional skills in the service of a nonprofit. The monetary perks might not be there, but the equally important networking perks will be. For instance, if you’re looking for a position in public relations or marketing, volunteer to help an organization in those areas. You’ll expand your circle of networking contacts, gain valuable experience and learn the trade. Ask the professionals you work with if they know of any opportunities in your field or anyone you should meet, and try to add to your skill set while you’re at it.
Volunteering anywhere improves your résumé, but if you can work with a nonprofit that has connections to a company you want to work for, that’s even better. It shows you’ve done your homework about the firm, and it’s a way to network your way to employees already there.
Also, apply for temp work at staffing agencies that place people in your intended field. That way you can gain experience and meet professionals to further add to your networking circle, and a temp job can sometimes lead to full-time work.
“Temp agencies are still hiring, because companies are still waiting to see how things will unfold in the third and fourth quarters,” says Joanie Ruge, senior vice president of Adecco Group North America, a human resources services firm. “They may have openings for which they can’t bring someone on full time. Temp workers give companies flexibility as they wait to see supply and demand. As the market turns, they’ll look at the temps first when they’re ready to hire permanently.”
Meanwhile, join your industry’s professional association, and attend its monthly meetings and conferences. Also, join a committee in the association, and take a leadership position, since that way you can meet some of your field’s most active professionals. That’s another good way to network with people who know of job openings. Don’t be intimidated because you’re younger than them all. They’ll be impressed with your eagerness to break in to the field. “It shows you’ve got initiative and leadership abilities,” says Joe Ruffolo, a career coach at 360jobinterview.com.
In short, networking is the most effective way to find a job in this economy, particularly if you don’t have much professional experience. Whether you’re volunteering, temping or attending a summer barbecue, have a 30-second elevator pitch ready to share with people who ask what you’d like to be doing professionally. That’s a brief explanation of what you’d like your next job to look like and what you’ve done in the past, whether it’s school, internships or full-time work.
Sometimes you just have to take any job. If there’s a position you can get as a manager at the Gap ( GPS – news – people ) or as an executive assistant, go for it. The trick will be to successfully market the skills you learned on that job when you meet a hiring manager for the job you really want.