How Grads Can Compete in the Job Market

Show you're willing to hustle and emphasize your tech know-how.

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.

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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.

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?

That talent for using time efficiently is more impressive than you might think, and it gives you a leg up on many older applicants. Bence says the average 15- to 24-year-old is working with 5.5 electronics at all times. For example, while watching the news with the ticker scrolling across the bottom of the screen, he'll also be checking his e-mail, talking on the phone, and sending and receiving text messages. The 40-and-older crowd typically maxes out with 1.7 gadgets running. "All we folks can handle is watching television and maybe picking up the phone every once in a while," she quips.

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Tech savvy is an enormous advantage for the first full generation raised with computers as an integral part of their lives. Certainly include on your résumé the oodles of computer skills you've mastered just by playing with MySpace and Facebook, such as using Photoshop, designing Web pages, and uploading audio and video clips. But be wary of your vast Internet experience's downside. Do a Google search for yourself before a potential employer does, and make sure those scandalous Mardi Gras pictures don't pop up to ruin your career before it even gets started. "Remember: Privacy is virtually nonexistent on the Internet," says Bence. (See Reclaim Your Good Name on the Web.)

You should also use your techie know-how to learn all you can about the company and job to which you're applying. Besides studying the company's Web site and doing general Google searches, try digging deeper with social-networking sites, such as, and career sites, such as -- where you can find scads of information on companies for free, plus additional details for $10 a month.

Networking is crucial to landing a job. Causa says 80% of jobs are acquired through networking rather than through a headhunter or job-board posting. Using LinkedIn, you can search for companies where you'd like to work and connect with employees to learn about the firm and any job openings.

Of course, you should mine your personal connections as well. Talk to friends and family, acquaintances and former co-workers. "Let people know what your passions are, what your interests are, and what your dream job is," says Bence. "You tell enough people, and something will come out of it eventually."

Recently, Tu used her personal network to finally clinch a part-time job as a receptionist at the senior community living center in Rosemead, Cal., where she volunteers. She knew a number of employees, including her volunteer-services manager, who were happy to put in a good word for her. With all her in-house referrals, she was called in for an interview just a couple days after applying and was offered the position the next day.

Many employers are scaling back college recruitment -- according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, companies plan to hire 22% fewer graduates from the class of 2009 than they hired from the class of 2008. But Causa suggests students and recent grads use networking programs their college provides, which put job seekers in touch with alumni that could help, and attend school recruiting events. If you're nervous about throwing yourself into a crowd of strangers, approach it as you would any other social event. "Go with somebody else you know," says Causa. "You don't want to attend a party by yourself."

While networking with alumni or speaking to recruiters, Causa recommends asking these questions: How did you get started? What do you like best about your industry? What's the most difficult thing you've faced to get where you are in your industry? Where do you see your industry going? What are the opportunities for growth in your industry? The wrong questions to ask, says Bence, are about pay and benefits. Even the initial interview isn't the right time to talk about compensation, "unless the interviewer brings it up," she says. "It sends a signal that all you care about is the money."

Another misstep that job candidates of all ages often make: not sending a thank-you note immediately after the interview. Bence says only about 10% of applicants send an indication of their gratitude to interviewers, so this is an easy way to float to the top of the applicant pool. Try snail mail if the interviewer says it will take a couple weeks to make a decision; otherwise, e-mail works just fine. "And don't just thank the interviewer for the meeting," says Bence. "Use your note to help showcase your interest in the job and point out why you'd be a great fit for the job and company."

Stacy Rapacon
Online Editor,

Rapacon joined Kiplinger in October 2007 as a reporter with Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and became an online editor for in June 2010. She previously served as editor of the "Starting Out" column, focusing on personal finance advice for people in their twenties and thirties.

Before joining Kiplinger, Rapacon worked as a senior research associate at b2b publishing house Judy Diamond Associates. She holds a B.A. degree in English from the George Washington University.