Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Finding the hidden job market

A nonprofit executive in Richmond once told me that employers do everything they can to fill open positions without posting a "help wanted" ad.

Employers want to hire people they know, or at least people known by employees (who are known quantities and presumably won't recommend someone who would reflect badly upon themselves). It's expensive to hire and train a new employee, and employers want to make sure that money isn't wasted. They want the closest thing they can get to a guarantee that the new hire will fit into the workplace and stay for a decent length of time. Publishing "help wanted" ads and interviewing unknown candidates is the least efficient way for companies to achieve their goals.

"You can't tell enough about a job candidate by reading a resume and conducting a 15-minute interview," the nonprofit executive told me.

This means that the majority of available jobs are not publicized before they are filled -- they make up the hidden job market. If you want a job, you'll need to find a way to tap into it.

This can be a challenge for new graduates. Unless you've had an internship, you may not have any contacts in the field you wish to break into. But don't panic -- you probably know people who know people who can help you.

"Networking" is the fancy term for befriending people who can help you along in your career. Asking friends, family and business contacts to help with your job search is also called "networking," as in, using your network (which is why you have it). It takes courage to ask for help the first few times, but it will get easier as more people agree to help you. And they will say yes; anyone who has looked for a job knows the importance of personal recommendations. It's about karma, at least a little, because what goes around comes around. You never know when you'll be in a position to help someone who has helped you before.

The networking methods you'll use to find the hidden job market will depend on who you know, how you know them, and what type of position you want to land.

Online networking for new grads. Believe it or not, Facebook and MySpace can do more than tell you things you didn't want to know about your friends. Take a look at the people you know in those online communities, then take a look at who they know. Who are you connected to who works in your field? Can your mutual friend introduce you to a potential contact, either online or offline? Use the meeting to ask questions about how to find and get an entry-level position, and ask whether your contact has heard of anything that's open. Pass along a copy of your resume and be clear about your skills and what type of position you're looking for.

Online networking for professionals. If you've already embarked on your career, try LinkedIn.com. The site uses your resume information to connect you with colleagues and graduates of your alma mater. Your contacts can introduce you to people in their networks, and they can recommend your work in a comment that gets attached to your personal profile. Recommendations are a big part of what makes LinkedIn work so well, as they give you "known quantity" status when you approach people about open positions in your field.

Offline networking. Do not discount the importance of face time, even in this world of digital connections. Join your field's professional association and get to know people who work in your field. Go to meetings and participate in events, even if you're not looking for a job. You'll have a good time, you'll learn more about your field, and most importantly, you'll have people to ask for help when you embark on your next job search.

Networking with your parents' friends, your friends' parents, and anyone else you know. The idea here is that you never know who might be in a position to help you. Do you play on sports teams, or sing in a choir, or do volunteer work? The people you've played with might know people who know people who can find you a job. Ask them. After all, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

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