CAREERS


How Grads Can Compete in the Job Market

After being taught to believe they can be anything, many members of Generation Y never dreamed they'd be doing nothing. But this recession has been quite the wake-up call. In February, unemployment was at a record high of 8.1%. And the unemployment rates (seasonally adjusted) for 20- to 24-year-olds and 25- to 34-year-olds were even higher, at 12.9% and 8.7%, respectively.

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Thao Tu is afraid of becoming one of those statistics. By the end of 2009, she'll have earned an associate degree in accounting, just when the general unemployment rate is forecast to approach 10%. While in school, she's already had some bad luck seeking part-time work. After applying for more than 100 jobs since last July, she scored only three interviews and almost gave up.

At the same time, she did what she could to improve her prospects. Tu, 33, picked up a couple of unpaid gigs that awarded her experience in her chosen field. Career consultant Vickie Causa thinks this is a great move. "Recruiters and hiring managers look very favorably on volunteerism," she says.

Such willingness is a big advantage for young job hunters when facing one of their biggest obstacles in today's harsh market: competing against more-experienced workers. "Young college grads are finding that they are losing out to some of the older workers willing to take entry-level jobs or big cuts in pay that they normally wouldn't have taken in a good market," says Causa.

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So how can you compete against older and more-experienced job applicants? Career consultant Brenda Bence, author of How You Are Like Shampoo for Job Seekers (Global Insight Communications, $19.95), suggests focusing on a potential employer's "emotional needs," as opposed to "functional needs" -- an area where the more-seasoned competition will beat you.

For example, as many companies cut back, they're more interested in finding employees with the kind of hustle Tu shows in her volunteer work. "A lot of young people are willing to invest extra time in their career," says Bence, and this creates "a big opportunity to stand out in a crowd."

Showcase this "willingness" advantage. Let potential employers know you're up for clocking in extra hours by dropping it into networking conversations and mentioning it in your cover letter. And include volunteer work in your résumé. Gen Y has a bad rap for wanting to work little but be paid a lot, says Bence. "Combat that negative image by showing a consistent willingness to work hard at an entry-level salary. Once you prove your worth, more money will come."

Another benefit of having less experience: You carry less baggage. Emphasize your fresh perspective and your desire to do business the way a particular company wants it done. "Let them know that you're open to being molded and shaped," says Bence.

And don't forget to emphasize your ability to multi-task. With five minutes and a good Internet connection, you and your peers can easily check your voicemail, respond to e-mail, update your Outlook calendar, create an expense report, and still have time to wonder, Where's my latté?


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