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HETRICK: Job-seeking advice for graduates and grownups, too

April 24, 2010

Every few years about this time, I’ve offered job-seeking advice for collegians. But these aren’t normal times.

Our economy is still struggling to recover. Job growth lags stock market gains. And many organizations have grown accustomed to fewer people doing more.

So my job-seeking advice has undergone a course correction.

Before we address tools of the job-seeking trade, let’s consider attitude adjustments.

• Step 1: You have to work hard to find work. Whether recent graduate or veteran, job-seeking can be one of the toughest jobs you’ll ever have. It’s harder now because there’s more competition—from rookies and veterans, people better qualified than you, people willing to do more for less than you’d like to accept.

To set yourself apart, you must stay motivated when you don’t feel that way. You must put in endless hours of prospecting, networking and follow-up. You must tap every connection you have. You must customize every appeal you make.

And in your spare time, you must expand your skills, expertise and adaptability so you’re ready not only for your next career, but also the careers after that.

• Step 2: You have to work hard if you have a job. Because this is a buyer’s market, we’re all under pressure to do more, to work more productively, to constantly prove our mettle. Even if your salary’s been cut. Even if your hours have been reduced.

Employees who show speed, drive, dedication, ideas, innovation, versatility, contacts, deal-making, deal-closing, business-growing, fund-raising, client-serving skills will be first in line to have their jobs saved, salaries raised and bonuses paid.

Given these realities, my tried-and-true job-seeking lessons matter even more.

• It’s about the job, not you. Nearly every resume my firm receives begins with an objective. In many, the objective has nothing to do with employer needs and everything to do with applicant desires.

“I hope to obtain a job that will allow me to advance my knowledge of important concepts” said one. “[A job that will] provide new and valuable skills that will help to further my career,” said another.

Earth to applicants: Your prospective employer exists to serve customers, not to run a continuing-education program.

Cover letters can be equally self-serving. “This would be a great experience for me and I am excited to be applying,” said one. “I am very interested in any entry-level position within your company,” said another.

But what can you do for our organization?

• Research matters. Job applicants should know how to do research. But many won’t even use a telephone or the Web. Letters arriving at my firm often are addressed to “Human Resources,” “Human Resource Manager,” “Sir or Madam,” “Sirs,” and “Whom It May Concern.”

None of those people work here.

Get the name and title of a real person. Get the correct spelling. Get an e-mail address. Get someone to refer you. Anonymous applications are often the first ones round-filed.

• Write well. No matter what kind of job you want, you have to communicate. Your first assignment is your cover letter and resume. Yet the words we receive from applicants, even would-be communicators, often are garbled.

Said one: “As a motivated self-starter, I am taking the initiative to contact your firm at this time in order to express my interest in joining your associates. In appreciation for the merit and time involved in building a trusting, mutually profitable relationship I have included this modest statement regarding my character and vocational perspectives, as well as a brief resume for you to better assess my employment potential.”

• For collegians, internships—even post-graduate internships—are essential. A few years ago, during spring break, I took my sons to Cleveland for a few days. While there, we toured the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. During our tour, we met the woman who does the hiring. She told us about graduates who arrive at her doorstep bragging about classroom learning, grade-point averages and table-waiting summer jobs. Then she told us that if prospective employees haven’t worked internships, formal coursework and fancy grades don’t matter. I’m glad my sons heard that.

• Timeliness is next to godliness. Many letters requesting summer internships and entry-level jobs arrive in April, one month before graduation or summer break. However, we often receive our first application in November and sometimes ink the deal as early as February. By April, we’re sending out lots of “Sorry, you’re too late” letters.

• Say thanks. Most interviewees never send thank-you notes. At many workplaces, the ones who don’t aren’t hired. Show gratitude. It’s a simple way to set yourself apart.

• The onus is on you to follow up. Many random applications say, “Please call me to follow up” and “I look forward to hearing from you.” Not gonna happen often. You’re seeking a job. If you want to stand out, the follow-up—like the attitude adjustment, the homework, the customization, the communication skills and everything else—is on you.•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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