The Graduate Job Hunt
Congratulations! You’re finally a graduate. You have survived the student life: long hours spent in the library, all night study sessions, part time jobs and (hopefully) a fair amount of socialising. Now it’s time to find employment, and enter the world of work. The question is: where do you start?
You will hear a lot of people complain about the high rate of graduate unemployment in South Africa. It’s true, the current state of the global economy means that now is probably the worst time to be entering the job market for the first time. But it’s also true that the graduate unemployment rate is still a hang of a lot lower than the non-graduate unemployment rate, which means your prospects are much brighter than your degree-less peers and thus you have nothing to complain about. Seriously. Stop complaining.
Next, you know those ideas you had about getting an amazing, fulfilling, high-paying and sophisticated job straight out of university? Squash them. Not that it can’t happen. Some lucky buggers seem to be able to do it. But isn’t it nicer to fully expect having to slog away in a peanuts-paying, less-than-awesome job for a few years, and be pleasantly surprised if that turns out not to be the case, than to have high expectations and be utterly despondent when you have to do part-time internships for 2 years? Yes. Yes it is.
But nevermind all that. What you need now is a) a job that b) gets your career started in the direction you would like it to go and that c) preferably pays enough so you can start paying off your student loans. Right. Here are 10 tips on how to get that.
Work while you are studying and get involved
Ok, so this is more a tip about preparing to get a job than actually securing one, and it may be too late for this piece of advice now. But in case it isn’t, listen well. Employers want graduates who show initiative, stand out among their peers, and most of all have skills and experience.
Imagine receiving two hundred CVs from recent graduates which all look the same, with the same courses, same degrees and more-or-less same results. Who are you going to pick? You’re going to pick the person who worked in their vacations at the local Spar, who wrote for the campus newspaper, or who volunteered in their community, who tutored at their old high school on weekends, or who started a photographic club or soup kitchen…Whatever it is that is available to you or you are passionate about, do it.
What you need is the competitive edge over your classmates, and anything additional you can add to your CV will give you that. Make sure to explain clearly the skills you gained from these experiences, and how that’s going to help you in the job you’re applying for.
Have a great CV
This may seem obvious, especially after having read point #1. But what we mean is, make it look nice. Make it easy to read, structure it well, and let there be no, NO, typos or grammatical errors. Your CV is the first impression your employer will get of you, and as we all know, first impressions count.
In high school, they teach you the standard CV format. You know what it looks like, plain white page, headings down the left, information down the centre, Times New Roman size 12. Some even teach you to add a coverpage with a clipart picture, or to include a picture of yourself. Don’t do this. Coverpages are ugly and unnecessary. A picture, while maybe not ugly, is equally unnecessary. Google for “CV template” or “resumé template” and use a format that’s ready-made that you think is attractive. Once you’ve filled in all your details, ask a friend who is particularly good at English to read over it. Even better, ask your mentor, tutor or lecturer and ask them for feedback and comments. They’ve probably seen hundreds of CVs and can let you know how yours compares to everyone else’s.
And we mean everybody. Your neighbours, your high school physics teacher, your ex-girl/boyfriend, anyone who’s ever cared about you even a little bit (and a fair number of total strangers) needs to know you’re looking for a job, and what kind of job you’re looking for. Think about it. Next time they see a job ad or opportunity that reminds them of you, they’ll send it to you. Next time they’re talking to someone who is in your field of interest, they’ll mention you, and mention that you’re looking for work. That person will then give your friend their business card, which will eventually find its way to you, and you will send them your CV.
Most people get jobs through the people they know. Not through corruption or anything like that, it’s just that employers like to lessen the risk they take on by hiring someone new, and a recommendation from someone they trust means they’re more likely to hire you than someone they know nothing about.
Get out there. Go to career fairs, conferences about things that interest you, attend talks by respected people in your field. Introduce yourself to people you think may be able to help you or at the very least offer you advice. If you’re really bold, make a batch of business cards with your name, contact details, and what you’re looking for in a job. It could really pay off in the end.
Networking is scary. It’s perfectly normal to be terrified of the idea of walking up to a stranger and saying, “Hi, I’m John, and you should spend some time speaking to me because I’m awesome.” Just kidding. Don’t say that. But something along those lines would work, or otherwise a question that shows you know what you’re talking about. It’s easier if you consider that most experienced people want to help younger people climb the ladder of success, and are impressed by those who are ambitious enough to introduce themselves.
Don’t go in unprepared. Hone your “elevator pitch”, a 2-minute speech about who you are, what you’re looking for, your short-term goals and how you chose your career path. There’s nothing worse than introducing yourself and then not knowing how to answer the first question they ask.
Pro-tip: When schmoozing, keep your right hand free at all times. As tempting as it may be to carry around a plate of eats and a glass of something, it’s really awkward to juggle these things when you want to shake someone’s hand. It’s either the eats or the glass, you decide.
As much as you dream of a really great paycheck at the end of the month, if you only apply to jobs that offer that, you may find yourself unemployed for a while. Your degree guarantees nothing. Chances are, you will have to accept jobs that offer little or no remuneration, like internships or volunteer positions in order to build experience. Every job is a stepping stone that leads to something better. And many, many internships have ended in an offer of full-time employment. At the very least you’ll get a solid recommendation for your next position.
Related to the above point is the following: be flexible. If all you can get right now is part-time work, freelancing, or a job that’s only somewhat related to where you want to be, take it. This way, you stay busy which has a two-fold effect. Firstly, it keeps you out of unemployment-induced depression. Secondly, it gives you experience that covers up the vast time gap that periods of unemployment create on your CV. Oh, and it can put some money in your wallet too!
- Can you write for a website on your topic of expertise? Writing creates a portfolio which you can include in your CV and may impress an employer.
- Can you offer your services, be it accounting, legal advice, editing or teaching, for a small fee? These opportunities can provide you with a cash inflow and great references.
- Companies sometimes need someone to manage their online presence, and, as a young person who grew up in the digital age, you’re already an expert on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Offer your services to a small company that can clearly use your help.
You never know, like internships, freelancing and part-time work lets you meet people who may open doors that lead to your dream job.
Do your homework and be prepared
Two things are really, really important when you’re looking for a job: to know the major players in terms of companies and organisations in your field, and to be thoroughly prepared to sell yourself in your interview and cover letter.
Research the companies you want to work for. Get to know them inside out. You can contact someone there and ask for an “informational interview”, which is just an opportunity for you to ask questions (and for you to sell yourself and make contacts!). Get to be able to think like them, to know what it is they’re looking for in an employee, and then convince them that you’re exactly what they’re looking for. Tailor your CV and cover letter to the specific job you are applying for, highlighting how you have all the skills and requirements they ask for in the job ad, and showing how you got them.
Ask your friends to do practise interviews with you. Search for a list of typical interview questions on the internet, and practise giving ideal yet honest answers. Read more interview questions here. Prepare notes, and ask if you may use them in your interview. Practise thinking on your feet, and speaking confidently. The more you practise, the better you will get, and the closer you will get to landing your dream job.
If there’s a specific skill that you notice the job ads keep asking for, consider doing a short-course to get that skill. A popular one in all fields is project management. A great way to convince a potential employer that you have project management ability is to be able to list a certificate in project management as your last educational accomplishment (and thus the first thing they see on your CV), even if you have no actual project management experience to brag of.
Know where to look
Use a variety of sources to find job ads. Everyone uses the internet, but what sites are you using? Did you know the website bizcommunity.com specialises in media and publishing jobs, and that the website ngopulse.org has jobs in the humanitarian sector? Did you know that the Department of Public Service and Administration releases a circular advertising all the jobs available in government? Many newspapers like the Mail and Guardian advertise Graduate Recruitment Programmes and other internship programmes. Speak to the career guidance department at your university, they may be able to steer you in the right direction.
Be patient and persistent
It’s not going to be easy. You may be unemployed for a while. Try not to take it personally. The labour markets are tough at the moment, and it doesn’t look to get better any time soon. It’s important to do whatever you can to stay positive and not lose hope. Keep sending out those CVs, keep talking to people, keep doing your research. If you feel yourself start to get depressed, talk to someone who can encourage you to keep going. Eventually, it’ll pay off, and then your strength and determination will all be worth it.