Five tips for young job-seekers during a recession

BusinessWeek's latest cover story reports that the current financial crisis is creating a lost generation of young people. That sounds quite dramatic, but is it true? A generation tossed on the scrap heap of history? Surely you exaggerate, BusinessWeek! Unfortunately, its evidence is certainly sobering. However, my work with people on the verge of graduating from college suggests that gloom and doom won't help.

BusinessWeek argues that in the last two years, the employment gap between those aged 22 to 27 and those 28 to 50 has almost doubled. It found that in 2007, 84.4 percent of young graduates had jobs -- just slightly below the older group's 86.8 percent. But in 2009, the gap has grown to be about twice as big.

Research also suggests that getting your first job in a recession can be costly. BusinessWeek cites evidence showing that as the unemployment rate rises by 1 percentage point, those who graduated during the recession earned 6 percent to 7 percent less in their first year of work than people who got their jobs when times were better.

And it's hard for them to catch up. The research found that 15 years out of school, the recession grads made 2.5 percent less than those who began working when the economy was strong.

I take great interest in this kind of research and reporting because every semester, college seniors -- and some juniors -- contact me seeking help with their job searches. In good times and bad, here are five tips I give them:

Know yourself. Some students feel pressure from parents to pick a job that pays the most right off the bat. But if students manage to land those jobs and the work doesn't really interest them, they'll probably find their way out the door within a few years. It's better for students to use internships and any other real-world experiences they can to figure out which work suits them best. A student went into investment banking on the urging of his father and had a lucrative run -- but ultimately he got fed up with the stress, the hours and the politics, so he changed careers.

Understand how others perceive your strengths and weaknesses.
If you love to sing but you can't hold a tune, then your career prospects as a singer are pretty bleak. American Idol provides hundreds of examples of such people every year. The same holds true for careers. So it's really important to find one that depends on skills that fit your strengths as measured by others you trust -- such as your professors or bosses.

Pick a career goal that plays to your likes and strengths. Not surprisingly, if you pick a career that involves doing things you love doing every day and avoids activities you dislike, you're off to a good start. And if your performance in the job elicits praise from co-workers and bosses and pays enough money for you to meet your financial goals, then you've found your calling. One of my students really stood out for his creativity and presentation skills -- so I was pleased when he decided to enter the consulting business. I thought it would be a good fit and it worked out well for him.

Network like crazy.
This is where reality kicks in. Jobs are really hard to find, especially during downturns, and if you think you'll land one by applying for jobs that are posted online or advertised in public, you could be in for a long wait. Instead, you'll need to get aggressive about networking. Once you've picked a career goal, you ought to look for companies and departments in those companies where such jobs are likely to exist. Then you need to use family, friends and classmates to help you get an introduction to people who work there. Keep meeting with such people and ask them what they like and dislike about their jobs, and whether there are others you should talk with about the field. A student I had not met found my name on the college web site and asked to meet. I introduced him to a friend who was a partner at a big consulting firm. My friend offered the student a job and he worked there happily for years.

If all else fails, start your own business or go to grad school. I've worked with students who have tried all these things and still decided that the results weren't satisfying. One or two of them have decided that they should try their hand at starting a company. Others have decided to go to graduate school -- a strategy that's quite popular in times like these because people hope that when they emerge, the economy will be better and that they'll be more qualified for the jobs that become available then. Another student started a company this spring and after interviewing for various jobs, decided to devote himself to his startup after he graduated. He's since hired people, built up his service and raised money.

As I posted Sunday, the most important advice for those determined to find a job is not to give up until you have it in writing -- and develop a thick skin because you'll encounter much rudeness and rejection along the way.

Peter Cohan is a management consultant, Babson professor and author of eight books including, You Can't Order Change. Follow him on Twitter.

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