A college degree is supposed to open the door to well-paying jobs. So why is it so difficult to land a job after graduation?
The underemployment rate remains high among college graduates today. In fact, a recent Gallup poll suggests that nearly 14 percent of adults are working in jobs that don’t let them use their education or skills.
It’s easy to get discouraged if you’re an international relations expert struggling to make ends meet with a part-time barista job, but there’s plenty you can do to break into your dream career.
How to find a better job
To find out more, I spoke with career coaches around the country and got firsthand stories from graduates who broke free of their subpar jobs. Here’s how you can find a better job.
1. Identify and leverage your marketable skills
Most college graduates don’t have the privilege of remaining jobless until the right opportunity comes along. Instead, they take what they can get, even if it’s not related to their major or career goals.
But even a random role can help you develop marketable skills, says Dr. Heather Rothbauer-Wanish, owner of Feather Communications.
“It’s important to focus on transferable skill-building — no matter the job you currently work in on a daily basis,” she says. “For example, if you have consistent client contact, you can then focus on relationship-building, communication skills, and collaboration abilities.”
Brian Weed, CEO of GradStaff, agrees that job-seekers should highlight the soft skills they’ve developed through their current roles. If you work in retail, Weed says to emphasize your skills in customer service, sales, and merchandising.
“[If you’ve done administrative work,] show a prospective employer you’re committed to detail-oriented results and adding value to a business at any level,” Weed adds.
You might think that serving coffee won’t help you get a job in marketing. But even if a job seems unrelated, it’s still valuable work experience. Identify the soft skills you’ve learned and prepare to discuss how they would transfer well into your next position.
2. Highlight your college achievements
If you’re a recent graduate, it’s a perfect time to talk about your college achievements. Did you volunteer at a community organization? Take on a leadership role in a student group? What about an internship or a research project with a professor?
Take a close look at your college experience. Locate instances where you contributed to your community, acted as a leader, or took initiative. “All of these roles helped develop important transferable skills you should market to prospective employers,” Weed says.
Plus, employers will be impressed by your ability to think critically and learn from your experiences. “Not only will they take note of your initiative, they will also notice your ability to harness what you’ve learned from all of your work experience — and they’ll be looking for you to bring those skills to their company,” adds Weed.
3. Ramp up your resume and LinkedIn profile
Once you’ve identified your major skills, place them front and center on your resume and LinkedIn profile. Martha Schmitz, a senior advisor at The Mentat, encourages job-seekers to play up their competencies and pair them with hard evidence.
“Rather than asserting that you are ‘outcome-oriented,’ demonstrate specifically when and how you brought about certain outcomes,” she explains. “Where possible, use numbers to back up your assertions.”
Your resume and LinkedIn profile are powerful tools in the job hunt. Spend time designing them in a purposeful and strategic way. If possible, customize your resume to a target job. If you’re applying for different jobs, submit different resumes to each one.
4. Network, network, and network
An incredible 85 percent of jobs are filled by networking, according to LinkedIn. When it comes to getting hired, who you know matters. Not only can a personal connection help you get an interview, but you may hear about a position before it’s even advertised.
Larissa Hildebrandt learned about the importance of networking firsthand. After completing her Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, and six internships, she could only find work as a part-time cinema box office cashier. By reaching out to her network, she was able to land her first full-time job in customer support.
Since then, Hildebrandt, now a marketer and blogger at Budget Undercover, has relied on connections to secure other jobs in her field.
“I invested a lot of time in attending networking events and even networking with other teams within my company,” she says. “It paid off tenfold, and I enjoyed myself at the events. You can even network online by joining awesome local Facebook groups for like-minded professionals.”
5. Go above and beyond in your current role
It’s easy to feel bored if you’re underemployed, but there might be a lot to learn in your current role. Augustin Kennady knows this feeling well. He struggled to find work after graduating summa cum laude from Columbia University in 2013.
Kennady encourages the underemployed to dive in. “[There are likely] key contributors who have more on their plate than they can realistically handle,” he says. “Ask to assist them, even if it means putting in work beyond your job description. This is your chance to show that you are worthy of consideration for a higher internal opportunity.”
This advice worked for Kennady, as he moved from Warehouse Associate to Media Relations Director at ShipMonk in just two years.
Even if you have no chance or interest in advancing in your current workplace, you’ll benefit from your proactive behavior. “It will put you in the habit of taking pride in your work, so that when the opportunity presents itself, you will already know how to perform at a high level,” notes Kennady.
6. Adopt a positive mindset
It’s easy to spiral into negativity when you’re struggling in your job search. It’s especially tough if you don’t know how to find a better job, but a positive mindset can go a long way.
“Don’t wallow,” Kennady says. “If you are underemployed, the worst thing you can do is focus on the fact that you are underemployed. Discontent fosters discontent, and if you sour your workplace you will soon find yourself unemployed.”
Dawn Mitchell, Chief Executive Advisor at The Corporate Couch, also says to drop the “underemployed” label. “[It] has a subtle energetic psychological negativity attached that can cause you to feel drained,” she says. “Refuse to wear it and know that your unique experience is strategically preparing you for your next move.”
Even if you’re feeling frustrated, challenge yourself to adopt a positive mindset. By staying optimistic, you can make real progress toward your professional goals.
Are you getting ready for your next job interview? Learn how to ace these 7 common interview questions.
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