A recently published report from job market analytics firm Burning Glass arrives at a surprising conclusion: if you’re out of a job, chances are it’s your fault. Naturally, this prompts immediate outbursts. ‘But the economy!’ they cry, ‘my skills aren’t in demand!’ ‘my degree is worthless!’ ‘I can’t keep up!’.
What the report suggests is not that the world is conspiring against you, but that you are more than capable of re-aligning yourself with the job market as it looks right now and turning your employment fortunes around. Using a veritable goldmine of socio-economic and commercial data, it links in-demand skill sets with available jobs, salaries and sector growth rates. It identifies close to a million jobs available right now across the United States to recent graduates with supposedly ‘irrelevant’ degrees and/or skills. It even suggests that learning just one relevant skill would expand this selection by a further 800,000 jobs.
That millions of increasingly indebted students and recent graduates are nevertheless unable to find work remains an unavoidable reality. Burning Glass’ CEO Matthew Sigelman is adamant, however, that it is not merely possible but relatively straightforward to acquire in-demand skills in a short space of time. Hardly a complex insight – so if Sigelman is right, what are we all doing wrong?
The first thing to notice is that supposedly ‘traditional’ jobs in retail, customer relations, marketing, data analysis, design and media are almost unrecognisable compared to what they were twenty years ago. Similarly, the qualities that employers in such fields seek are now entirely different.
Marketing is now all about social media, programming, web presence and interactive software and hardware solutions. Design now comprises infographics, graphical interfaces and the ability to manipulate complex software packages. All of these positions involve skills that can be acquired independently for less than the cost of one university course.
If these skills are so easy to develop, why are there still so many young people with all the right hallmarks of success but no job? Well, perhaps the problems don’t stop with mismatching supply and demand of relevant skills. Perhaps the younger generation is unwittingly placing itself at a disadvantage. Katherine Goldstein of online magazine Slate certainly thinks so. Years of experience in graduate recruitment have taught her one thing: large swathes of job applicants, most fairly young and inexperienced, are only dimly aware of how to present themselves in a favourable way.
This, by the way, is good news. You can stay ahead of 90% of the competition by implementing just a few of Goldstein’s pointers. A good CV, for instance, and one that doesn’t centre around your summer job in an Australian beach bar, is a given. The accompanying cover letter, on the other hand, is the first thing a potential employer will read. Take the opportunity it gives you to present yourself as bright, creative and informed. Don’t be long-winded, vague and poetic, whatever your opinion of your own literary panache. Stick to relevant details and demonstrate that you can express yourself clearly and concisely.
Now the terrain becomes a little more uncertain. Where do you draw the line between confident and simply arrogant? Recruiters can spot smugness and self-aggrandisement a mile off, but nor will they be likely to hire a self-deprecating shrinking violet. In other words, be confident in your own abilities and don’t shy away from promoting yourself – but do it in good taste.
Another caveat is that you should only brag about your skills to the extent that they are useful to your employer. Ultimately, whatever they may say, your employer isn’t all that interested in your future success in the industry. They’re interested in the direct benefit you can bring to their company.
What else? Well, if you’re applying for a job, you should make it your business to find out everything you can about the company itself (and, if possible, the person who will read your application!). Be knowledgeable, be interested, be specific – and for goodness’ sake, be original. Reading about ‘life-changing experiences’, ‘personal journeys’ and school plays can get very repetitive for a recruiter. They’re really not that interested. It’s not the school-age version of you they want, it’s the here and now. What can you provide in terms of skills and experience right now?
Another pitfall of the recruitment process is the ingrained human tendency to want to show off their previous work regardless of its relevance. If you’re a recent graduate, or even still a student, you’ve probably completed a masterful, elaborate thesis on something fairly obscure. If you’re applying for a PhD or Masters course somewhere, it may well make the difference. Almost everywhere else, it won’t. Mention academic work and specific courses only if directly relevant to the job, and never at length.
Once again, it’s not what you’ve done previously, but what you’re doing now. Recruiters want to see that you’re on the ball: blogs, LinkedIn pages, articles, Twitter feeds and so on. In the real world, passion and drive will trump academic credentials nine times out of ten.
Here’s the final piece of advice: put yourself in the recruiter’s position. Imagine yourself reading dozens, even hundreds, of applications for a single position. You haven’t got time to mess around. Anything lengthy, poetic and vague is discarded almost by default. You’re looking for short, to the point, inventive and strictly relevant applications that stick to the requirements you specified in the job posting. Nothing is more irritating than applicants aiming to impress by ignoring word limits.
Armed with the above, an out-of-work graduate should be able to
a) identify the skills that will give them an employability boost
b) improve your all-important cover letter in at least one aspect.
It’s not rocket science, but judging by the data and feedback from those in the know, many new entrants to the world of work are tripping up before they’ve even started. Hopefully I’ve demonstrated here just how easy it is to give your approach a complete overhaul – which might just tip the balance in your favour next time around.