We currently live in one of the best job seeker markets in recent memory. Unemployment is low and there are more jobs than people seeking employment. Given those circumstances finding a job as a recent grad in a STEM field is fairly easy. But if the market contracts, how do new grads make themselves stand out to still get hired quickly? Have you considered internships?
My Experience with a Tight Labor Market
I graduated from college in late 2003. During that time we had one of the worst recessions of the last 20 years. Searching for that first job was just brutal. This was made even worse because my chosen field, at the time, was computer science. That’s right, I graduated with a degree in computers during the middle of the Dotcom crash.
Before It was Tight it was Easy to Get a Job
That famine in jobs actually came quickly after a feast scenario not unlike where we are today. As late as 2000, I was turning down job offers to drop out of college and be a software engineer. The money from my summer jobs as late as 2000 was as good as most people in full-time jobs. And then the bottom fell out.
In 2001, when I returned to my internship company my fellow employees were dropping like flies. One person was laid off 3 times from the same job in 6 months. Another was frog walked out the door the day after their vacation. It was depressing.
Things Got Worse as the Recession Continued: Bye-bye Internships
In 2002 things were even worse. The guy that recruited me for the internship no longer worked there, nor did anyone in my department. There was no one at my former internship to even call to come back. Things were so bad that summer I ended up taking odd jobs just to be employed.
By 2003 I was able to squeak my way back into one more summer internship at a different company, but the market was still very tight for a young soon to be recent graduate. That summer worked out well enough that I felt the job market was recovering and was less worried about finding a job out of college. Then I graduated and realized how wrong I really was…
My Mistake at Graduation: Leading to 7 Months Unemployment
I will be the first to tell you I made some mistakes when I graduated from college. I had at least one job that I decided to stop interviewing for as I figured it was not really what I wanted to do and something better would come along. In retrospect, I should have taken that job and then evaluated future options. My perception to that point though was still colored by the wide-open market of 2000. So instead of going on a full court press to find a job I just assumed I’d end up working for my internship or some other company would scoop me up. Big mistake.
A Lack of Opportunities Post Graduation
Beyond the job I rejected I only had one other interview at the time of graduation, from my internship company, but I did not get the job. In the end, I was unemployed for the first 7 months out of college. That meant no money at all as only those with work history get state unemployment. It was a dark time living in my mother’s basement.
During this time I was applying to every job I could find and then some. But I was getting no interviews. Looking back some of this was my own doing. I did a lot of my applications through online resume sites. Quite honestly if you want a job do not waste your time with these sites. I have only ever had one job from one of these sites in my career, and in that case the employer found me.
Connections and Job Interviews
Anyway, continuing our story about halfway through my 7 months I had one interview at a friend’s employer. This was my first exposure to the reality that making live contacts at a site is the only reliable way to get interviews. It really did, but then I bombed the interview.
Always Prepare for Your Interview
Simply put I did not prepare properly for the interview. When it came time for me to ask questions of the employer it was obvious I had not done my due diligence. Any time you are doing an interview you should well research the potential employer. At a minimum have potential questions for the hiring manager about the position at the ready before you walk into the room.
Looking at Odd Jobs, Over Qualification Strikes
Shortly after this interview my faith in my whole situation was seriously shaken. I began to look at other options. First I looked at odd jobs, but no one would hire me as I was too qualified. Even the folks at Best Buy were afraid to hire me since they assumed I’d be gone with the first real opportunity.
To Go Back to School or Keep Looking: Does Education Help?
So I then looked at the next option, going back for a graduate degree and giving up on my job search. This was really common during 2003 and then again during the 2009 recession. But I ultimately got some great advice from a mentor that stopped me. To understand I must repeat the question he asked me. “What part of the posted job requirements for most positions do you not meet?”
No Replacement for Experience
Now for those of us that have worked for a long time you know the answer was not more schooling. Going back for a masters degree might buy me time, but graduating I would be in mostly the same position within the job market. You see what employers really want is someone with experience. Education is just icing on the cake. That is even truer when you have a tight labor market. They have their pick and the guy with a great education and no real work experience is probably not it. Now don’t get me wrong, there are certainly cases of people knocking the socks off the interviewer and getting a job while underqualified. But in general, there is no replacement for experience on a resume.
Internships or Co-op, The Only Real Way to Get Experience Pre Graduation
If a college kid were to ask me what the most important aspect of the degree program is, I would 100 percent say the internship or Co-op. That employment experience at least gives you a leg up over your fellow grads. Also, it helps you to establish a network of connections in your industry. That gives you another leg up and may save you later on. As you’ll see a little later those connections saved me.
The Job Options Suddenly Appear
Anyway, I remained unemployed through mid-2004. Then a funny thing happened at the beginning of my 7th month. An employer in Texas called me up and flew me to Houston for an interview. It was my dream job at the time. I was smitten. After a two day interview and tour of their facility, I flew home unsure whether I had the position. Then a funny thing happened. The very next day I received a call from my former internship company offering me that job I interviewed at 7 months before. I later learned the first choice failed a drug test and they came back to me after the fact.
Taking the Sure Thing
I was immediately in a tough decision. Did I wait to hear back from my dream job or take the well paying known sure thing? I’d had enough of living in my mom’s basement and really wanted to get started paying off my college loans and leading my life. So after some soul searching I called my dream job and I asked them about my chances. I was currently their second choice. I promptly took the offered job with my former internship. And the rest is history.
Your First Job Will be Nothing Like Your Last, So Don’t Agonize Over It Too Much
I spent 4 years with that first employer and have spent 12 at the next. I’ve been through 2-3 careers depending on how you measure different fields. I could never have foreseen my career projection when I was unemployed 15 years ago as my job looks nothing like any of those jobs for which I once interviewed. Which brings me to my last bit of advice. Your first job out of college is neither your last job nor a lock into one job for the rest of your career. Don’t book yourself into a job you’ll hate, but also don’t hold out for that perfect first job as I tried to do in the beginning. It will just end in wasted time.