Why hello there, recent graduate! If you’re reading this, it probably means I’ve perished horribly in a surprise rabid elk attack you’ve come here looking for a nice, clean, simple checklist of things you have to do in the coming weeks. After all, that’s what you were given in school: study x hours to ace your test, finish this assignment to pass your class, mix these chemicals to dissolve a corpse, take these classes to get your degree… you might expect post-grad life is similarly structured. If you were fortunate enough to snag a decent job out of school and have had this expectation validated by glorious luck (and as much as you might want to credit merit, believe me, it was luck) then you’re probably all set. Nothing for you to see here – enjoy your regular paychecks and healthcare coverage.
Okay, now that all the people with technical degrees are gone and it’s just us good ‘ol liberal arts majors, I’m going to let you in on some secrets. Now, I’m not going to profess to be an expert and have all the answers (though I will certainly imply it), but there are some things I learned from being irregularly employed for nearly 4 years. See, I had the great fortune of graduating in early 2008, directly before the economy went all Hulk on our asses and obliterated the job market (see how I slipped in an Avengers reference? That’s SEO gold right there). I made a LOT of great mistakes along the way (and will probably make more), but I don’t see any reason to not share those mistakes (I’ve also spent a good deal of time talking with HR reps about hiring practices, so that doesn’t hurt either). So without further ado:
By now, you’ve probably heard enough about the job market to reduce yourself to a quivering pile of goo1. Stop it. Stop. I mean it. Having a poor mindset will make you vulnerable to depression2 and will severely limit your effectiveness. You may be in the same boat as everyone else, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get out and swim for it. And if the sharks attack, use bat-shark-repellent on them and continue onward, avoiding any additional extended metaphors.
The first thing you need to do is stop watching the news. There is no joy you will get from the media that won’t be immediately crushed several thousand times over. You may not think it will affect you at first, but you’ll be bombarded so much by a message of hopelessness (and celebrity reality news), that you’ll eventually give in. This becomes more true as more time passes. Don’t worry, if something big happens like a zombie apocalypse (god willing) or an Australian military invasion, you’ll hear about it anyway. If you really just can’t bring yourself to give up news entirely, limit yourself strictly and avoid financials / economics like the plague.
Kill your pride
If Fear is the mind-killer, then Pride is the, um… other… mind killer. So you have a disgustingly expensive degree. Good for you; so does everyone else. If you’re lucky enough to not be burdened with an uncaring sea of student loan debt and have plenty of savings, this lesson will probably take longer for you to learn (you son-of-a-bitch). For everyone else, Pride will cost you dearly. It is a jerk and an opportunity-killer. Pride has no foresight and will embarrass you. Keep an ambitious and confident spirit, but temper it with humility.
Live in your parents’ basement. If you have friends or family willing to house you for free / on-the-cheap, do it. You will save so much money and suffer much less for the lack of it. Don’t worry about what people will think; you’re just out of school during one of the worst economic periods in recent history. Anyone who judges you for that is an asshole and not worth your time (and also probably about to be set on fire by the hand torch you keep handy).
Use your unemployment benefits. Depending on where you live, you’ll have access to a variety of government programs that will help you financially over short periods of time. When you’re between jobs, take advantage of those programs – your taxes pay for them in case of exactly these situations. I’m serious about this; you can note the lack of snarkiness here as evidence of how serious I am.
Be willing to wear a nametag. The worst thing you can do is turn down a job when you have no other prospects because you’re “above it” (believe me, you’re below it, I checked). Aside from the immediate benefit of earning cash, low-skill jobs can sometimes lead to better and more interesting opportunities in surprising and unexpected ways. Just don’t forget (and this is important) to keep looking for something better.
The Lies We Tell
Now that you’re equipped with the right attitude, you need to have the right expectations. There’s a lot of poppycock out there about hard work, crafting the perfect resume, and where to find jobs. If you think any of it is valuable, by all means give it a try, but remember: all your competitors (aka the-people-you-finally-graduated-with) are reading the same stuff. Take what proves to be useful, and abandon the rest.
So much job hunting is luck. There are things you can (and should) do to make sure the odds may be ever in your favor (Hunger Games SEO-boosting reference!), but sometimes every advantage you can get will not be enough. Don’t take it personally.
Nobody cares about your grades. Very few employers will request a copy of your transcript, and very few that do are worth working for. This is because many HR reps already know what you don’t – good grades are not indicative of a good employee. Plenty of high-achievers in school fail to perform in the workforce (and the bedroom – I’m looking at you, Stephen Hawking). Don’t ask me why, I don’t understand it myself; it’s simply an observable phenomenon, like how being hit by lightning will give you psychic powers and/or cancer.
Nobody is going to read your resume. Well, some will, but consider this completely anecdotal evidence: The HR rep at my last temp gig told me she had received over 300 resumes in a week for a low-paying, entry-level position. Her process was to scan quickly and pull out the few that matched her nonsensical criteria, but heavily relied on recommendations from employees. Those connections were worth more to her than the random resumes (qualified as they may be) that she received and ultimately didn’t even read. This has been corroborated by other HR reps I’ve had the fortune of forcibly extracting information from learning from, so it clearly must be true everywhere. (Don’t forgo the resume altogether though. Obviously, you still need something for when you do get your foot in the door.)
You are not special. Your experience is for shit, and you probably don’t have a lot of skills outside of your field of study. It’s time to change that. Instead of spending your free time perfecting your Facebook Liking skills, take the plunge and learn some real skills outside of your core capabilities3. The added versatility *will* make you special, and very valuable to the right employer.
Your Social Network
THE way to find work is to meet people. If you look for work by mailing out a ton of resumes and wait for a response while re-watching every season of Buffy, you’re going to be disappointed. You’re pretty much relying on luck or desperation (which means work nobody else would take). Your network is your most important asset when job-hunting; use it and grow it (and yes, you can increase your social connections without being phony).
Go to social events. Especially the ones that don’t interest you. There are tons of free social events around – they cost nothing but your time, and are a very worthy investment of it. Have some business cards handy (scraps of paper with your e-mail jotted on them are NOT business cards) so people don’t have to try and rembmember the name of yet another unemployed post-grad they shared a brief moment of conversation with. And hey, even if you don’t learn anything or meet anyone new, you’ll probably get some free food out of it at least.
Start a community. So let’s say you live in a small town with not much going on. Let’s say it’s your hometown in the remote wilderness of Northern New Hampshire/what-might-as-well-be-Cananda. Or let’s not. Either way, the absence of activity is a good excuse for you to stir things up. Find some like-minded folks, and start a regular meeting of some kind about something you enjoy (or don’t enjoy. I don’t know, maybe you’re just a masochist. Maybe that’s your thing.) It will have the benefit of being fun AND productive.
Develop connections outside of your age group. Just because someone is 20 or 30 years older than you doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer. Some of my best-paying temp gigs came out of knowing someone I wouldn’t typically hang out with. And they usually have great stories too. Once you earn someone’s trust, they become a lot less boring and tell you all the crazy shit they did in the 80s 70s 60s.
Look out for the people in your network. If you’re not able to accept or pursue a job opportunity for some reason, help the employer connect with one of your colleagues who can. This is not only a cool/nice thing to do for someone, but it encourages reciprocation (wink wink).
Temp agencies, for the uninitiated, are companies who sell workers to companies who have temporary (and often boring) work for a project they need completed. When an agency sends you to an assignment, they charge the client an hourly rate for your work and pays you a (typically undisclosed) portion of that rate. You’re almost always getting paid much less than what the agency charging for your work, so don’t have any illusions about being taken advantage of: you are (you’ll find there are a lot of parallels between temping and prostitution). But no matter how you feel about temping, it can be a delicious lifesaver when you’re strapped for cash and just need to make it through the month. That said, there are some hidden benefits to temping, and plenty of unspoken practices you should be aware of.
Agencies are tissues. There are so many, most of them are crap, and they will usually do the bare-minimum to get you into any assignment they can make money off of. Sign up with multiple agencies4 and let them know they are competing to place you quickly. That said, if you find a good agency that consistently pays or places you well, give them preferential treatment.
Don’t turn down any opportunity. When you say no to a assignment, make sure it’s for a good reason, because you won’t hear back from that agency. They have plenty of people who will reliably accept whatever they offer. The same is true if you walk out on an assignment.
Learn new and disparate skills. Remember what I said earlier about learning skills outside of your core? Not every temp assignment will be a cornucopia of challenges, but even small things like learning how to manipulate pivot tables in Excel, maintaining government records, or manipulating a maintenance worker into giving you late-night access to the office so you can pull an ill-conceived prank involving plastic cement and several live falcons on a co-worker can be among your many assets later on.
Don’t pay for a recruiter. I’m going to invoke Yog’s Law here: as a job seeker, money should pretty much always flow toward you – you shouldn’t have to pay for a job placement, training, or equipment.
Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Ask a lot of questions. The advantage to temping is you’re probably not going to be hired, so you don’t have to convince anyone that you know everything. Take advantage of that to learn more about the field you’re currently occupying.
Be as effective as possible. I know it’s tempting to pop in the headphones, crank up the deadmau5 (seriously, SO much SEO happening), and text on your phone all day while doing the bare minimum to keep your crappy temp assignment. But remember: when you’re temping, you’re working for testimonials. If a client reports back to the agency with tears of joy at how you completed the project early (and without having to use the office spear-gun once), they’ll be more likely to use the agency again, and the agency will reward you for it. Also, it’s rare, but if you do a particularly spectacular job and the client decides they’d like to hire you as a full time employee, they may decide to purchase the right to hire you (I’m not kidding) from the temp company.
Develop a relationship with the agency’s client. If you get to know the employees at a client’s office and build a rapport with them, they will often help you in your job-hunting activities (and start to think of you as “part of the team”). Stay in touch when each assignment is over, and you’ll soon have a lot of new connections in your network you didn’t have before. If it helps, you can think of them as your personal job-sniffing minions.
If you can afford it to work without pay for a while, apply for internships. Some organizations will entertain bringing you on as an intern even if you are not a student. This is an excellent way to break into an industry you have a specific interest in (see: dashing secret-agent-gone-rogue) and will typically yield greater/more diverse training and experience.
If you can’t be bothered to read the specifics of the above advice (and really, if you did, there’s your first problem), here are some core concepts that should lead you in the same general direction:
- Make yourself uncomfortable & embrace the unusual.
- Don’t be picky.
- As things improve, be more picky.
- Always be selling. Every interaction with every person is an opportunity to seek work.
- Find work you enjoy that other people do not.
- Keep yourself sane. Be deliberate in taking the time to relax and have fun.
1and if you’re not worried, start. Seriously, what’s wrong with you?
2go ahead and laugh – see how much you’re laughing when you’re broke and stranded in the arctic tundra with no clothing and a hungry polar bear bearing down on you
3I highly recommend developing a working understanding of HTML – it’s easy to learn, and fast becoming a standard expectation from employers, even in non-technical fields
4make sure there are no legal obligations binding you to a specific agency – MA, for example, is an “at-will” state, leaving workers as free to leave without notice as employers are to fire