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        OPCD Director offers tips amid tough job market for recent college graduates

        April 17, 2020

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        How to stand out from other job candidates

        “Layoffs don’t always mean hiring is frozen. Often, when a company lays off employees, new positions are formed that focus on new needs or new skill sets. Do your research and find out how the company is evolving and how you might positively affect that evolution."”

        With some job offers now being rescinded and the nation’s job market tightening for recent college graduates amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s all the more important for candidates to do all they can to market themselves and network–albeit through virtual means. Auburn University’s Jan Moppert, director of the Office of Professional and Career Development in Auburn’s Harbert College of Business, addresses this tough job market and offers tips on how recent graduates can set themselves up for success even in such unprecedented times.

        What advice would you offer those looking to enter the workforce right now amid this pandemic and in the coming months?

        I was in career services during the economic turbulence of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina (in New Orleans), and the crash of 2008, which have given me interesting insight into unprecedented job search times. Employers that are used to receiving 50 to 200 applications for an open position are going to be inundated with applications. 

        janAfter the crash of 2008, it was not uncommon for a posting to receive 800 applications for one opening. Employers will have multiple, excellently qualified candidates and will be looking for the smallest of reasons to cull the stack of résumés. Candidates cannot give them any reason at all. Here are a few of the common mistakes that you cannot make when it is a buyer’s market (employer’s choice):

        • Absolutely no typos or spelling errors in the résumé, cover letter or any electronic correspondence. These are days when one “defiantly” instead of “definitely” can get you thrown into the reject pile.

        • If you send or deliver a hard copy application, make sure the paper’s water mark is in the correct position on the page. Hold the printed document up to the light to see the position of the watermark. I’ve seen recruiters at career fairs check for this small detail and toss résumés in the reject file when the watermark is upside down or backwards.

        • Employers are looking for solutions to their problems, not to help you fulfill your dreams. In your cover letter and résumé, showcase yourself as the problem’s solution.  Don’t tell them what this position will do for you, rather what you will do for them. Highlight your research on the organization along with your experience, training and skills that matter to and are valued by the employer. Clearly connect the dots between what they need and who/what you are and bring.

        • Whether you are in accounting or biology, your primary role now is a marketer. You must sell yourself in a way that is enticing to the employer. The best marketers know their product in detail and understand their customers’ needs. Have a clear understanding of what you bring that is valued.  Do your research on their company and the position, assess the employer’s needs and position your skills, experience, education, as the solution to their problems. Eureka! They’ve found it in you and don’t need to look any further.

        • Compose a different cover letter for every position you apply for. Make it interesting.  Tell stories of your success and how you can parlay this success to bring value to the organization.

        With most job interviews now taking place through Zoom or other similar online platforms, what recommendations might you offer to job candidates in making their best presentation through an online interview?

        It’s important to remember how communication happens. According to Body Language: A Key to Success in the Workplace, by Carmine Gallo | BusinessWeek – Wed., Feb. 14, 2007, communication is:

        Verbal – 7 percent (words)

        Visual – 55 percent (body and eye)

        Vocal – 38 percent (pitch, speed, tone, volume)

        In a tight computer screen, your body language will be limited, so maximize facial expressions and tone. 

        We use this handout to teach our students about video/Skype interviewing.  Zoom would have the same concerns. As I’ve been using Zoom multiple times a day, I have learned a few new tips. Video interviews are very intimate. It’s imperative that your personality comes through the screen. But also, make some personal space in the screen. Let the other person feel comfortable and not too in your face.

        How can a job candidate truly make themselves stand apart amid a time of remote work and a diminished job market?

        Years ago, I read an article that claimed that if you apply blindly to a job posting, you have a one in 100 chance of getting an interview. However, if you have someone shepherd your application by hand delivering your résumé, allowing you to use their name in your cover letter, or making a call on your behalf, the odds go up to one in 10! This is the real power of networking. Make connections inside organizations where you are applying and ask for their help in getting your résumé to the decision maker.

        “Demonstrate how interested you are by following up, often, but professionally. Try to get your message or your name in front of the decision maker at least seven times throughout the process."”

        In addition to the ideas shared in question one, another key way to stand out with employers is to follow up. Not following up is one of the top three reasons why candidates never get the interview or the offer. I also remember from my marketing class in my MBA that if you want your customer to see your message, they must see it three times. If you want them to act on your message, they have to see it seven times. In today’s social media and news clutter, these numbers have escalated. Candidates cannot be passive and play the waiting game when applying. Candidates need to create ways to get their message seen by employers. Here are a few ways to follow up:

        • First, make sure to send your cover letter (yes, people still read them, but you need to give them a compelling reason to read it) to a real person, not To Whom It May Concern or Dear Recruiter. Research the decision maker’s name on their website or through LinkedIn and address your letter directly to them.

        • If you apply online through a recruitment software program, consider sending a cover letter and résumé directly to the decision maker, too. Often, tight criteria for moving forward in the process are built into the software, and some obscure criterion may block your application from getting to the decision maker.

        • Call or email a few days after you sent your application. Reiterate your interest in the position and ask how the hiring process will proceed. Usually when you follow up by phone, you will get a voicemail; be sure to leave a clear, articulate and enthusiastic voice message that includes your phone number.

        • After a few weeks, if you’ve not heard anything, email or call again.

        • Write an individualized thank you note to all persons you interviewed with. Include information from the interview and reiterate reasons you believe you are a great fit for this position.

        • Ask at the end of an interview what the decision timeframe is. If you’ve not heard anything within 48 hours of their proposed timeframe, call again to reiterate your interest and ask how the decision process is coming along.

        • After an interview, reflect on the interview and determine if there is any additional information (e.g. samples of your work, certificates or an article on something you talked about) you can provide them.

        • If a strong connection was made, connect with them on LinkedIn.

        Demonstrate how interested you are by following up, often, but professionally. Try to get your message or your name in front of the decision maker at least seven times throughout the process.

        Once the shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted, an old fashioned, yet very effective tactic is shoe-leather on the street or cold calling. Get dressed in your interview clothes, print a copy of your résumé and cover letter and place in an envelope, drive to the company, ask the receptionist if the decision maker is available (you should know their name from your research).  Explain that you do not have an appointment and you don’t want to take more than a minute, but you are truly interested in this position and would like to personally deliver your application and meet the decision maker. Chances are that you won’t be able to meet them; however, you can leave your materials behind and you’ve demonstrated genuine enthusiasm and initiative. This tactic is especially effective in sales or other relationship-driven positions.

        new jobWe always hear how important networking is in getting a good job. Has that importance grown even more so amid the current climate of a pandemic? If so, how can that be done with social distancing and stay-at-home orders in full force?

        Even when the economy is good, a large percentage of jobs are never posted. It is estimated that only about 11 percent of jobs are ever posted on job boards and studies show that between 33 and 75 percent of jobs are found through networking. This is often referred to as The Hidden Job Market. The entrance into this market is networking and informational interviews. In the new post-pandemic environment, this hidden market will increase with tighter options for entering.

        We are strong proponents of LinkedIn and another networking platform, Career Shift. These platforms allow the candidate to complete research on professionals and make connections; Career Shift lets you set up actual campaigns. It’s a natural human desire to help others. If you ask for the opportunity to talk about career paths, organizations and advice for navigating these rough career waters, many people will offer assistance. It’s imperative that requests (through email or the platforms themselves) be written professionally and offer a reason for them to want to talk to you. Here are a few tips:

        • Avoid generic requests that can be sent to almost anyone.

        • Personalize the message and let them know why you want to talk to them in particular; show that you’ve done your research.

        • State how you found them; avoid looking like a stalker.

        • Give them a reason to want to connect; make a connection to you and your goals that aligns with their experience, training or organization.

        • Write professionally: tone, style, grammar, spelling.

        • Do not bait and switch. Don’t initially ask for information on their company, but once you have them on the phone ask them to help you get a job. Instead ask for advice, ideas, other connections.

        • Be sure to thank them with a written thank you note.

        • Follow up with them on how you used their advice and how you are progressing.

        Another way to capitalize the features of LinkedIn is to join alumni and professional groups and build your brand in the group. Introduce yourself to the group owner or manager and ask for recommendations of ways to either get involved or identify respected members to contact. Invite other potential members to join and participate. Start a conversation within the group; pose a professional question. Or post an article of interest for the group. Soon, you’ll be able to connect with fellow members, create relationships and build your network.

        In addition to LinkedIn, many professional groups/associations have chat rooms or virtual meetings and trainings. Join associations within your career field and get involved. Join committees. Volunteer to write an article for the newsletter. Build your professional brand among your peers. 

        What other helpful information might you have for recent or upcoming college graduates?

        A lesson I learned during other economic downturns is that layoffs don’t always mean hiring is frozen. Often, when a company lays off employees, new positions are formed that focus on new needs or new skill sets. Do your research and find out how the company is evolving and how you might positively affect that evolution.

        “These are also times to create opportunities/positions that companies haven’t even realized they need. Here’s where your research can really be optimized. Identify voids the organization has or new problems they are experiencing and sell yourself as the need they didn’t realize they had."”

        These are also times to create opportunities/positions that companies haven’t even realized they need. Here’s where your research can really be optimized. Identify voids the organization has or new problems they are experiencing and sell yourself as the need they didn’t realize they had.

        Looking for a job should be your full-time job.  You must put in the work, especially in a down economy.  Spend 20 to 40 hours a week doing your research on yourself and employers, holding informational interviews, targeting your résumé and cover letter to each position, fleshing out your LinkedIn profile to highlight your skills and experiences, following up on applications, practicing commonly asked questions, completing certifications in your field, building your brand through LinkedIn and networking, reaching out to people who can serve as recommendations to ask for their permission to use them should an offer be imminent.

        Create a job search file and keep all your materials in it:  copies of any annual performance evaluations you may have that showcase personal development, successes, and impacts you had at an employer; personality/strengths assessment results; answers to commonly asked questions; different versions of cover letters.  Don’t reinvent the wheel every time you prepare an application or for an interview.  This file can be an inventory of your experiences and stories that you can cut and paste as needed.

        About Jan Moppert:

        Jan is director of the Office of Professional and Career Development in Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business. The office helps students:

        • Assess and develop their professional skills

        • Focus their interests

        • Leverage their talents

        • Find the right career fit

        Jan Moppert has also served as director of Career Services for Widener University and associate director of the Career Development Center at Loyola University New Orleans. Previously, she worked 12 years in marketing with some of the nation's largest health-care companies. She is a facilitator of career development in the National Career Development Association and holds certification in Strong Interest Inventory and Myers Briggs Type Indicator Step I. She is currently pursuing certification in Gallup StrengthsFinders. She earned an MBA at Loyola University New Orleans, Bachelor of Science at Louisiana State University and leadership certificate at LEADERSHIP Philadelphia.

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