For two-thirds of young adults, getting a job that provides financial security is the primary reason for going to college.
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But far too many students are still assuming that going to college will guarantee them a job. In fact, thirty-five percent of college seniors have never stepped foot in their school’s career services office or even used its online resources.
After graduation, nearly half will be underemployed—and two-thirds of those grads will still be underemployed five years into their careers.
As the co-founder of a startup aimed at helping people find meaningful work, I’ve worked with a number of recent college grads who’ve spent years in career purgatory—unwittingly working contract roles, freelancing, and interning.
Many of them have a similar story: they didn’t spend enough of their college career proactively working towards a full-time job they enjoyed after graduation. When the big day came, they walked across the stage, shook hands with the dean, and stepped into underemployment.
From there, they began battling through part-time jobs and six-month contracts, trying to gain experience and land a great full-time job.
But the job search isn’t easy. The workforce is more competitive than ever, alternative education is booming, and employers are beginning to realize that candidates without college degrees can be highly skilled.
The truth is that no one can afford to sit back and passively send out college resumes anymore.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-semester freshman or have several years of experience in the workforce. If you want a fulfilling career, you have to take the job search into your own hands.
Here’s how to do it:
1: Explore every opportunity that interests you
You don’t have to limit your search to one or two career paths.
If a job sounds even a little bit interesting to you, find people who are doing it and talk to them. Just get on LinkedIn, choose three or four people in each position, and reach out to ask if they’d be willing to chat about their roles.
Use those conversations to get a sense of what they like and dislike about the job. Ask what trends they see in the next five to 10 years within the role, the steps they took to get to where they are, and what it takes to build a career in that field. Ask them about traps or pitfalls to avoid early on.
Talking to people in each field will help you get a realistic sense of whether the job is something you can actually see yourself doing.
2: Talk to as many people as possible
A lot of people struggle when it comes to networking and striking up conversations. But I’ve learned about so many interesting professions I never knew existed by chatting with a random stranger.
Starting a conversation feels uncomfortable at first, but the best way to improve is by practice. So if you’re on a plane, try talking to the person next to you. And while everyone’s waiting to get their bags, chat with someone else.
The more people you meet, the more you’ll learn about the vast number of potential careers.
3: See what it’s like to work a specific job
Once you have a shortlist of jobs that you’re interested in, go see what they’re like in person.
By this point, you’ve already spoken to a handful of people in each role. Take it one step further and ask if you can come to their place of work to take a tour, or even shadow them for a couple of hours. Offer to take them to lunch afterward as a thank you.
You’d be surprised at how many people are willing to show you around if you’ve already built a relationship with them and expressed your interest. People love to mentor and explain what they do on a daily basis. This is your opportunity to build genuine relationships and see for yourself what a job is really like.
4: Get real work experience
After getting acquainted with the day-to-day experience of the jobs on your shortlist, you’ll have a good idea of what you want to pursue.
Now, you have to get some experience in that field.
If you’re in college, that means going to career services and using alumni networks to find an internship. If you’re out of college, you can use products like Edvo to help you in the search.
If you’re having trouble finding a job, identify and work on a project related to the role you want. For instance, if you want to become a graphic designer, create your own portfolio. And then use the network you’ve built to ask for advice or critiques. Being able to show off a finished project or portfolio will increase your chances of getting an internship and put you on the path towards your final goal—a job that you can thrive in.
5: Focus on finding a good first job
If you have work experience and know the right career path for you, then your next step is finding the right first job.
Your first job is incredibly important because it sets you up for your second job, which sets you up for your third—and so on and so forth. Plenty of recent grads narrow their search to only a few brand-name companies, but that isn’t a good strategy for finding a job you’ll enjoy.
Instead, be intentional about your job search. Be open to the idea that there are great companies out there you’ve never heard of. Based on the research you’ve done, the people you’ve spoken to, and your work experience, start applying to jobs that you believe will be a great fit for you, regardless of prestige.
Consider the skillset you want to develop, the type of projects you want to be working on, and the opportunities for growth you’d like to see.
If you take the job search into your own hands, it doesn’t matter whether you have a degree or not. Networking to build genuine relationships, having a willingness to explore different paths, and working strategically and proactively will win out every time.