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Successful job hunt means returning to basics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 9, 2011 -This past fall, as her graduation from Saint Louis University loomed, Claire Bira filled out a job application a day. She started during her junior year, but said it still took her a long time to find a full-time position.

"My biggest mistake would have been putting a lot of time and energy into applications for internships with big corporations because I didn't really have a contact with them, any relatives to recommend me there, or real credentials to impress them with yet," Bira said. "It was a long shot and it didn't really pan out for me."

She eventually was hired as a development assistant at SLU, where she currently works.

Everything old is new again

Though it seems counterintuitive due to the increasing use of the Internet to locate jobs, career counselors and coaches say the traditional elements of a job search -- resume and networking with employers -- are still the most important.

A job search is "all about differentiating yourself from the next person, showing you have value and strengths someone else does not," said Ellie Vargo, owner of Noteworthy Resume.

Career counselors are reintroducing job-seekers to the traditional job search, teaching people how to market themselves and to acquire experience through internships and other programs.

At area universities, students and increasing numbers of alumni are taking full advantage of career centers. According to Kim Reitter, director of SLU's Career Services Center, appointments for alumni have increased 22 percent over last year. Part of the boost may be due to the economy, but Reitter said appointments also increase when the economy improves, as alumni see a window of opportunity to make the transition to a new career.

Most career counselors and coaches stress the same points to students and alumni. Paper resumes and face-to-face job interviews may seem outdated, but these tools are still widely used by employers.

"The resume is where people should devote most of their energy," said Josh Kaffenberger, a career counselor in the Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville Career Development Center. A resume needs to include relevant educational and job experience, including employment and internships. Reitter said the information has to be succinct, as many employers scan a resume for about 30 seconds before moving on.

Active verbs and short bulleted items can add impact to a resume. These items need to be brief, but also accurately explain the applicant's job experience. "These days, people often have very complicated jobs, and they don't explain them very well. If the reader doesn't understand what you do, your chances of being selected for an interview are pretty slim," Vargo said.

Networking and Social networking

Job-seekers can supplement their resume with social networking sites. LinkedIn is the preferred professional social media site; it allows users to post relevant experience and make connections with employers. Facebook may seem off limits, but many employers do check the Facebook pages of potential employees.

To keep Facebook and other sites professional, "don't post anything you wouldn't want your grandma to see. That can be a good rule of thumb," Reitter said. A professional demeanor in email and other online communication is also important.

While websites can supplement the traditional job search, career counselors say people cannot expect to find a job by sitting behind a computer. "We do not want a student to go down that black hole of just sitting at the computer for their job search," said Teresa Balestreri, director of career services at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Social networking "is one piece of the recruiting tool; they still have to get face time with employers."

Face time comes during a traditional interview, but students and job-seekers can also take advantage of connections made at job fairs, interviewing workshops, employer-facilitated workshops and events put on by professional organizations. Balestreri said job-seekers need to be on a 24-hour job search alert and need to think constantly about how they can make connections.

"Students and recent graduates are afraid of the word networking and think they don't know anybody, but if they break down (their connections), they know people," Balestreri said.

Harvey Multani, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, said networking is the best way to find a job. He hopes to secure a job after graduation by meeting people, finding out what their company needs are and seeing if there's a match. "The perspective I have is: How can I make or save this other person money," he said.

Importance of internships

Students can make networking connections through internships or part-time jobs. Internships serve as a resume-builder and increase a student's marketability. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, internships are the No. 1 hiring source for full-time, entry-level employment.

Although most firms that have paid their interns in the past are continuing to do so, many of those companies are hiring fewer interns each year because of the economy. Bira said the economy also affected full-time photography and art positions. Many of the positions she applied to were cut or scaled back.

Some internship programs have come under fire recently from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which says that for-profit employers cannot hire interns on a volunteer basis if the intern is performing the duties of an employee.

"With more people out of work, we want to make sure employers aren't going to take advantage of people who just want to get into a company," Kaffenberger said.

Some students can't take an unpaid position because they need income. Kaffenberger said some students have a dissonance between wanting to get the experience from an internship, but not being able to afford it.

The current negative economic outlook has also created lower expectations for many students, said Balestreri. Career centers do not advocate lowering expectations, but they do want people to be aware that they need to have realistic expectations about the amount of time and effort needed to secure a job.

A traditional job search takes around three to six months, "and (students) should prepare that it will take even longer because of the economy and also even longer if they don't have an internship," Balestreri said.

For students and recent graduates looking to expand their job search, some industries are growing despite the economy. The colleges and employers association cites electrical and mechanical engineering, business administration and management as the top fields for the graduating class of 2011.

No matter what happens with the economy, university and community career centers are ready to help people in all fields adjust their job search. Frustration is common, but resources are available and many industries are recovering and growing.

"The frustration can be a difficult thing, but the alternative is to just give up, and that's not a very good alternative," Kaffenberger said. "There are a lot of different (strategies) to try; being creative and taking initiative are two really important things."

Vargo agrees and said good jobs exist for good people, always. "The trick is to make yourself stand out," she said. "It's all about competition."

Erika Miller, a student at Saint Louis University, is an intern at the Beacon. 

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