WallStreet Journal
Job-Market Strategies for Graduates
Sunday May 4, 2008 11:32 pm ET
By Sarah E. Needleman

Later this month, Mary Beth Lease will graduate from Iowa State University with a stellar academic record. But when it comes to securing a job, she's afraid she'll receive a failing grade due to the slumping economy.

"I've had lots of interviews and I still don't have a job," says the marketing major, who boasts a 3.7 grade-point average and is president of her school's chapter of the Society of Human Resource Professionals.

Ms. Lease, 22, has good reason to worry. April was the fourth straight month that nonfarm employment was down from a year earlier, the Labor Department announced Friday, although the decline was smaller than in March. But there are smart strategies that can pay off for spring grads -- as well as for already-employed twentysomethings hoping to hang onto their positions and even move up in this shaky business climate.

A good start for job seekers is to set pragmatic goals, says Alexandra Levit, author of "How'd You Score That Gig."

"College graduates today have very high expectations of their first job," she explains. But in a sour economy, "you might have to settle for a situation that's not 100% ideal."

Broaden your search to lesser-known firms and less glamorous roles. "Just because you're not going to fall in love with a job doesn't mean you can't learn something and make some money, too," Ms. Levit says.

To identify career opportunities beyond what's advertised on Internet job boards, networking is critical. But don't just tap the usual suspects, such as professors, relatives and friends, says Melanie McConnell, an associate director of career services at Rice University.

Also reach out to executives and hiring managers through professional-networking Web sites such as LinkedIn.com and Ryze.com -- even if you already belong to social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. And make sure all of your networking profiles are employer-friendly, as recruiters often look at social as well as professional ones, she adds.

Another way to make connections -- whether you are employed or still looking -- is to join business associations and attend their chapter meetings, conferences and seminars, says Ms. McConnell. While many groups charge membership fees, they typically offer student discounts.

Eugene Clark says he made scores of professional connections earlier this year through groups including the National Black MBA Association and the Project Management Institute. Several people tipped him off to job openings and sent his résumé to managers at their firms and others, says the M.B.A. student at the University of Georgia's Robinson College of Business. He subsequently landed six job offers, including the information-technology position he'll start this summer at the U.S. Department of Energy.

To boost your odds of landing job interviews, take the time to customize cover letters for every employer you target -- and show you know more about a firm than what's on its Web site, recommends D.A. Hayden, a partner at Hayden-Wilder, a Boston-based provider of counseling services to first-time job applicants. For example, you might mention a recent news story about the firm or its competitors or comment on something in the company's annual report, she suggests.

Similarly, you'll help yourself stand out by tailoring your résumé for every job you pursue. "The one-résumé approach does not work," Ms. Levit says. "You have to go after openings in a very specific way so recruiters can see within five seconds how you are the perfect candidate for the job."

Ben Matranga, 25, a master's degree student at New York University, says he sent five different résumés to employers earlier this year, varying the order of the information listed depending on the opportunity. The finance and public-policy major has so far received five job offers.

If you're like most recent graduates and have a short job history, show employers in your résumé how your college experience is transferable to the work force, says Ms. Hayden. For example, you might illustrate your ability to lead a project by describing a sorority function you organized.

Whether you are seeking a first job or looking to move up, volunteer work can beef up your résumé. "If you just graduated with an accounting degree, volunteer to do the books for one of your favorite nonprofits," recommends Steven Rothberg, president and founder of CollegeRecruiter.com, an entry-level-job site.

If you're already employed but concerned about your job security, now is the time to roll up your sleeves and work your hardest, says Dale Winston, chief executive of Battalia Winston International, an executive-search firm in New York. "Put 20% more effort in," she says. "When things are tough, you have to try harder."

Offer to take on unpopular tasks that need to get done, adds Gary Rich, president of Rich Leadership, an executive-advisory firm in Pound Ridge, N.Y. "Demonstrate you're flexible enough to play different positions," he says.

Meanwhile, update your résumé now in case you need to launch a job hunt on the fly, advises Shawn Graham, author of "Courting Your Career: Match Yourself With the Perfect Job." And make sure your networking efforts include professionals where you currently work. "By meeting people in other areas of the company, that might open doors for you in a different department," he says.

Finally, if a prolonged job hunt has you down, remember that getting hired in a sour economy often takes more time and effort than during robust times, says Ms. Hayden. "Don't give up just because you've had 10 interviews and didn't get an offer," she says. "The more at bats you get, the better your chances of getting a hit."

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at sarah.needleman@wsj.com

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