Many young workers and college students are positively mystified by this job market. What happened to the wide range of meaningful opportunities promised to those who labored for degrees, undergraduate and beyond? Work was supposed to be more than a paycheck. Now, if you're paying attention to the news at all, it seems lucky enough simply to get a paycheck.
It's easy to be discouraged—but it's also unwise. Here are five things you need to know about this market:
Media reports may not be relevant to you: The news about the job market has obviously not been good. If you're not reading about the spiraling unemployment rate, then you're probably reading about the layoffs at Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Citigroup, or AT&T. If you're unemployed, you probably feel suffocated by the market's darkening cloud. If you're employed, you're probably clinging to your job as if it's a lifesaver.
But employers see workers with three to five years' experience as a best buy in this economy, says careers blogger Penelope Trunk. "They're very cheap, they can probably handle relocating anywhere, they can handle a decrease in their income because they don't have two kids and a mortgage, and they can hit the ground running," Trunk says. Mass media tend to over-report bad news because many of the media skew older, she says.
You're not expected to have it all figured out: Workers in their 20s don't need to have their career path figured out. In fact, Trunk says, only 12 percent of people are likely to pick the right job for themselves during their 20s.
The data on employment for young workers would, in some cases, indicate that younger workers are better off in this recession. For example, in the third quarter of this year, the greatest number of job openings on Beyond.com was in healthcare, and the single biggest group of those called for one to three years of experience. But some data would show young workers as worse off. The number of employed people ages 20 to 24 dropped by about half a million in the year ending in November 2008, according to the Labor Department. The number of employed workers ages 55 and older actually increased by nearly 900,000 over the same period.
Either way, the ultimate goal for workers in their 20s is self-knowledge, Trunk says. The workers who will benefit the most are those who give themselves the freedom to explore their options. Those who will suffer the most are the workers who stick to a job they do not like, strictly for security.
Personal branding should begin early: Bob Daugherty, the U.S. recruiting leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers, spends time on college campuses talking with students about building personal brands that can eventually help them compete for jobs in a new marketplace. Applicants today will need an edge, he says.
The brand concept is easily explained: "Did you have a certain reputation when you left your high school?" Daugherty asks students. "I would call that a certain brand or a certain image." College students should begin thinking early about where and how they add value in their work and life, and where they make an impact. Daugherty encourages students as young as freshmen and sophomores to begin spending time at the college career center, to talk with senior students and school alumni. You should develop your unique brand in all your contacts and within your network.
Passion counts in this market: Pricewaterhouse maintained close to the same hiring levels for full-time positions and paid internships this year as last: about 2,900 full time and 2,300 interns. The competition for openings is intense, and an applicant's passion often makes the difference.
"Don't ever go into something halfheartedly right now," Daugherty says. "It'll be over before it starts." If you've deeply researched a company—talked with employees or former interns and built a passion for its culture and its business operations—make that clear when you're interviewing. Your goal isn't to name-drop; your goal is to demonstrate your special interest in a career and company. Don't be shy with recruiters. If recruiters are on campus 15 to 20 times in a year, "there's 15 to 20 times that you've got a chance to network with my firm," Daugherty says.
Companies will look at your relationship skills: Technical know-how is pretty much a given among applicants to companies like Pricewaterhouse. But recruiters like Daugherty are looking for more. They want to know that applicants will be able to navigate through a variety of work relationships, that they are truly team players. Have they inspired their colleagues? Have they engaged in group extracurricular activities? Have they built relationships with professors? "We do everything in teams," Daugherty says. The strongest candidates are those who can build and foster relationships.