How to Graduate Into a Great Career

Yeah, the job market stinks, but these six strategic tips will help young workers find their footing.

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If you've graduated from college over the last few years, you probably don't need anyone to tell you that your timing sort of sucks.

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Even now, two years after the recession officially ended, jobs remain scarce. Younger workers have some advantages, since they can work for less and usually don't have families to support. Yet the unemployment rate for workers between ages 25 and 29 is 10.2 percent, and for those between 20 and 24, it's 14.9 percent—significantly higher than the overall unemployment rate of 9 percent. The prospects for college grads are better, but even so, recent research shows that more than half of young workers with a bachelor's degree end up working as cashiers, clerks, waiters, or customer-service reps, jobs that don't even require a degree. Many recent grads have been forced to endure an even worse indignity: moving back in with their parents.

But wait a few years before tearing up that diploma. It's a brutal job market for just about every age group, yet there are hopeful signs for people willing to get the right skills and take the other steps needed to set themselves up for success. Companies are finally hiring, for one thing, adding about 200,000 jobs per month so far this year, on average. That's not great, but it's still the best pace of hiring since 2007. Many young workers come pre-loaded with the kinds of technology and social-media skills that employers increasingly need. They've also got a lot more time to adjust to turbulent changes in the job market than baby boomers or others close to retirement. And a few industries—mostly related to technology—are booming, proving that at least parts of the economy will enjoy healthy growth in the future.

You've probably heard all the tactical advice for getting a good job: Be persistent. Get relevant experience. Network relentlessly. Wear a decent suit to interviews. Purge those beer-bong photos from your Facebook page. While you do all that, here are six more strategic tips for jump-starting your career:

Know what kinds of jobs are available. This sounds elementary, yet far too many people look for the kind of job they want, not the kind of job that companies are offering. That's one reason that even now, with 14 million unemployed Americans, some companies that want to hire can't find the kinds of workers they need. Some of the unemployed are looking for jobs based on skills they learned awhile ago, which may no longer be relevant. Others simply want to do work they enjoy, even if few employers are willing to pay for. If you majored in art history and want to be a museum curator, that's fine—as long as you realize that job openings are likely to be scarce, the competition tough, and the pay low.

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It's not hard to figure out what kinds of jobs are available these days. Job-search site Indeed.com, for instance, tabulates the hottest job trends based on the most common keywords in the millions of job postings it tracks. Not surprisingly, every one of the top 10 trends on its most recent list relates to technology, in fields such as mobile apps, social media, and cloud computing. To get a more specific idea of the needs in your field, network your way to people willing to give you a bit of advice, and drill down to get as much specificity as you can. You might be surprised to learn that while there aren't too many curatorial jobs at museums, Web developers or design firms are increasingly interested in hiring people with an artistic background. If they are, adapt your skills, adjust your expectations, and go get that job.

Know what companies want. Math, analytical, and engineering skills are in demand, but so are "soft skills" that are hard to feature on a resume. Soft skills are the things that everybody claims they have, but few actually do—a knack for leadership, a personable way with customers and co-workers, the ability to think creatively about problems and solve them quickly. Recommendations are one way to demonstrate that you truly do have "strong interpersonal skills," but expect companies to be skeptical, since it's hard to prove that you actually do.

To some extent, job interviews are one way to show off your soft skills. "Be truthful in terms of what you have to offer," says Breck Marshall, a partner at consulting firm Accenture who advises big firms on hiring and recruiting. "Articulate what you can do. Bring your experiences to life in an interview. Demonstrate how you have the types of qualities they're looking for." And to make sure you know what they're looking for, research each firm in advance and learn as much as you can about its culture.

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There's a lot of evidence that soft skills are at least as important as formal education in determining an individual's success—but companies aren't in the mood to gamble on employees these days, so you'll have to prove yourself over time. That's why internships, part-time jobs, temp work, and contract positions can be a great way to start—they allow the company to try you out (and vice versa) before making a bigger commitment. The trick is to find a starter position that will expose you to the people able to make important hiring decisions and will lead to someplace you want to go. To figure it out, do as much research as you can and, if possible, find insiders willing to help guide you.

Move. You may be comfortable where you live, but if the economy is weak and companies aren't hiring, it could hold you back for a long time. In cities with a weak economy, getting started will take longer and there will be fewer opportunities at every step of your career. You probably won't meet the most dynamic people in your field, and the longer you stay in an economic backwater, the deeper the rut will get. Sure, moving is disruptive—but it'll seem a lot harder when you have a mortgage and a family than when you're young, with few commitments.

If it's not obvious where the action is in the field that interests you, start by looking where the biggest companies tend to be clustered. If you're interested in tech or social media, for instance, northern California—home of Google, Facebook, Apple, and many of the world's most prominent tech companies—would be an obvious place to start. If you're intimidated by the high cost of living, remember that one reason it's expensive to live there is that salaries are high, too. Indeed.com lists the job openings per capita in the nation's 50 largest cities, which is a nice snapshot of where the job market is strongest and weakest. Pair that kind of info with more detailed knowledge about your field, and you'll start to glean some useful guidance.

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Also keep in mind that you may not need to move somewhere new before getting a job. Apply from afar, and if some good opportunities surface, then move. Companies may regard your mobility as a sign that you're willing to go where the action is. And don't rule out overseas locations, like Shanghai, Bangalore, or Sao Paolo. Big firms increasingly need Americans able to travel overseas, even in entry-level jobs.

Go back to school. Beginning the day after you graduate. Don't worry, you don't have to enroll in grad school right away and take on even more loans. What you do need to do is start filling in all the holes in your resume. Everybody has them, and the sooner you get used to constant learning, the better—it's one of the most important ways to get ahead, and make sure you stay ahead.

No matter what your degree, there's still a lot more you can learn—and a lot of it you can do on your own. If you majored in something technical, like math or engineering, take the time to learn more about social media, mobile technology, or writing. You may be able to find a job where you don't need those kinds of skills, but if you have two or three skill sets, instead of just one, your resume is more likely to land at the top of the pile. If you're a liberal arts grad, get some training in analytics or data mining, since it will help put your open-minded creativity to use in a tangible way that companies can bank on.

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Supplemental education can be informal, based on your own reading, research, or online resources, or more formal training through a community college or adult-education program. Accenture even advises that some grads consider learning a trade after college, since a combination of hands-on skills and a business or marketing background might make you a standout hire in some industries. One area where there's a shortage of skilled professionals, for example, is beer brewing—since few people think to combine high-level management skills with the tradecraft of brewing, which can take years to learn.

Demean yourself. Sure, it can be demoralizing doing work for which you're overqualified. But it's a lot better than doing no work at all. You'll earn some money, even if it's not as much as you feel you deserve. You'll build a work ethic, which is a lot better than sitting home and complaining. Plus, there are millions of Americans right now who are underemployed, earning a lot less than they're used to, while retooling their skills and adjusting to the Darwinian demands of today's labor market. You're no exception, so do what you must to earn a living.

The danger of working beneath your skill level, of course, is that you'll never get the kind of experience needed to get ahead or launch a more fulfilling career. Marshall suggests developing a two-track plan in which you split your time between work spent developing a career, and work spent earning the money you need to support yourself. He advises "time-boxing" the career plan: devoting a set number of hours to it each week, whether they're spent working at an unpaid internship, researching job openings, networking, or learning an important new skill. As for that demoralizing day job, keep an open mind about that, too: Maybe there are management opportunities at that fast-food restaurant or clothing store where you're barely making minimum wage. Many senior executives have risen to the top by starting at the bottom. Think big.

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Double up. If you already specialize in one thing, then specialize in two. That's one of the surest way to build a secure career and make the most of what you know. Healthcare is a growing field, for example, which is a why a lot of people are going into nursing, ambulatory care, and various technical specialties. But the growing pool of applicants means that pay and benefits are often modest, at best. Meanwhile, the need for people who specialize in information-technology for healthcare is growing faster than healthcare in general, because of the increasing use of digitized medical records and the growing reliance on technology to lower costs. That makes healthcare IT a growing field within a growing field. And since it requires a high degree of skill, the competition for jobs is likely to be light, which means bright prospects for pay and leadership opportunities.

In many traditional fields, including retail, food-service, publishing, manufacturing, and education, there's surging demand for workers who know the operational and management basics, and also know something about technology. The demands on your time—and your brain—might seem overwhelming, but here's an uncomfortable workplace secret: The old-timers feel the same relentless pressure. And chances are, they're not as energetic, or as idealistic, as you.

Twitter: @rickjnewman