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How Students Can Improve Their Chances of Getting a Job

Follow these tips to be prepared when you enter the labor force.

This summer hasn’t been an especially productive one for working teenagers. After a strong start in May, teen employment faltered, and total employment gains through the end of July ended up 3% lower than last summer, according to an analysis of government data by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a global outplacement firm. Overall, reports Challenger, only 43% of 16- to-19-year-olds were employed or actively seeking employment, compared with more than 70% in 1980.

One major cause is the tepid economy, which also means more competition from older workers for entry-level jobs. Some teens probably earned money as self-employed entrepreneurs, doing odd jobs such as mowing lawns and babysitting; others volunteered, took summer classes or participated in organized sports. “Today’s teenagers have far more options than previous generations,” says company CEO John Challenger.

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But it seems to me that a lack of work experience during their student years can’t help but hurt young people when they enter the labor force for real. I raised that point with Paul McDonald, senior executive director of Robert Half International, a specialized staffing firm with offices worldwide.

When McDonald stopped by my office to chat, I took the opportunity to pick his brain about what young people can do to improve their chances of getting a job. In addition to his professional experience, McDonald has young adult kids and he often fields questions from their friends who don’t even have what he considers the basics -- a résumé and cover letter. His advice:

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Start your job hunt while you’re still in college. As soon as you settle on a major, join student groups or societies associated with your field. (Note: When my son was at the University of Michigan, one of the best things he did to build his résumé was join Nexecon, a student-run consulting group.) Block out some time each week for your job search by listing employers to target and making contacts with professors and the campus placement office.

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Choose your major strategically. In his business, McDonald sees great demand for accountants, software developers and IT troubleshooters, but also for “creative types,” such as public relations specialists and marketing managers. See 10 Best Majors for a Lucrative Career.

Network, network, network. And we’re not just talking social media. It’s important even as a student to have a LinkedIn profile, says McDonald. But Gen Yers need to go beyond e-mail and make personal contact whenever possible. (That’s a point near and dear to my heart; see Job-Hunting Tips for New Grads). If you have a city in mind, spend a week there and set up interviews in advance.

Get an internship -- or two. Academic success definitely matters, but, says McDonald, “gaining real-world experience will likely play the most pivotal role in your career prospects after graduation.” Start planning when you’re a sophomore.

Don’t neglect “soft skills.” When he was an accounting major in college, McDonald says one of the best things he did was take courses in public speaking. Today, he says, a lack of communication skills can stall your career. Finance professionals, for instance, need the ability to add their insights to complex data. And IT specialists need to establish a good working relationship with non-technical co-workers.

Be versatile.“If you’re a business major, take a writing course,” says McDonald. “If you’re an arts major, take a business course.” (For my thoughts on making yourself marketable, see How to Limit Student Loan Debt) That’s a lesson his own son has learned. By day, he has a paying job making training videos, and at night he pursues his passion taking freelance photos of rock bands. “I have to put on a business hat to make it in a creative world,” he told his father.

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