Saturday, August 1, 2009

The 10 common mistakes to avoid when you're a new grad looking for work

We can all agree: looking for a job sucks.

I've been in a jobless position myself: when I graduated from school in the middle of a recession. It was pretty depressing for the three months I was looking. Especially being at an age where the world tells you to "spend, spend, spend" and you have very little disposable income.

As Prince once sang (about me, I think), "I ain't got no money, but honey I'm rich on personality!"

It didn't really get much better when I ended up taking an entry-level job for the low, low price of $15,000 a year, which was actually livable at the time (it was awhile ago, I admit it!), though I didn't exactly live like Rockefeller; more like a feller on a rock.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see some of the mistakes I made when I was looking for work. As an instructor in the CreComm program at Red River College in Winnipeg (Advertising, PR, Journalism, Broadcast, etc.), I also have the advantage of seeing hundreds of resumes a year, and talking to employers and students every day.

I think I have a pretty fair idea of what's going on out there.

First, some background:

At Red River College, 70 students a year or so graduate from the CreComm program. In this down economy, you might think that no one ever gets hired, which actually isn't the case. From this year's graduating class, at least 30 students have got a job in the industry (most on a full- time basis), and that number usually goes up significantly by the end of September.

CreComm has an excellent reputation in the community and a high percentage of graduates, as it says in the brochure, "are working in program-related fields in Manitoba, other provinces, and other countries."

I can back that up anecdotally if not statistically. As a grad from the program myself, I know that my fellow grads and I all achieved levels of success that we couldn't have done without taking the program; it just wouldn't have happened with my BA and good manners.

Looking online and at the job section of the newspaper every day, I've counted at least 30 communications jobs at various levels in the past two months, which is a high number even when the economy isn't down.

"Movement in the industry" is what you want as a new grad, and it appears to be what we've got in the local communications industry.

Disclaimer: I teach in advertising and PR, which is where I spent, and spend, a majority of my professional career. I can't speak for journalism and broadcast, which - I would guess - don't have as many jobs available these days. However, I have no hard data to back up that belief, just a million articles that tell me so. End of disclaimer.

Having been in the position of a desperate job hunter looking for work and discouraged employer looking to hire someone and finding no one, and instructor who hears stories from both sides, I see the same job-hunting mistakes come up over and over again every year. I made some of them myself, "back in the day."

The 10 common mistakes to avoid when you're a new grad looking for work

1. Don't give up before you even begin.

I'm always surprised at how defeatist some people are; in school, it often appears in the form of a student who doesn't apply for a job because he or she "isn't qualified."

News flash: when you first graduate, you're not qualified to do anything. Everyone needs a good six months to a year on the job to figure out how it works. As such, it's your job to apply for things that you're not qualified to do - because you have no experience. You have to sell your intelligence, work ethic, good nature, and willingness to learn.

You show that stuff, and someone will give you a chance.


2. Don't cop an attitude.

It's one thing to be confident. It's another thing to act like a potential employer owes you a job.

Every now and again, a student tells me, "I'll just show up at the interview, be myself, and if they don't like me, then I don't want to work there."

No, it's your responsibility to look like you care (which you should) by dressing up, doing research before the interview, and preparing in as many ways as you can: rehearsing answers to questions, making a list of what you're likely to be asked, and practicing for the interview in front of friends and family.

No matter what anyone says, you never work "with" your employer, you work "for" your employer. If you don't like an element of the job, it's normal: that's why you're being paid to do it. If you enjoyed everything, you wouldn't be paid, and you'd call it "fun."

Like Seinfeld said, "When you're going out on a blind date, you're not meeting with that person. You're meeting with their representative."

Send your best representative, and ask not what an employer can do for you, ask what you can do for the employer.

3. Don't fall into a cycle of bad habits.

You look for work by day, and party by night. Until the partying starts to take up more and more of your time, followed by the sleeping in.

I'm not anti-party, I'm anti-procrastination.

If you're looking for work, it won't help you to stay up until 3 a.m. watching TV, or going out to drink and sing karaoke all night - or whatever the young people do these days (dancing the mashed potato down at the five and dime?).

To find work, you get up at 7 a.m., like you would if you had a real job, put on some real clothes (pjs and sweats don't count), and get to looking for a job. The best time to call people is when they arrive at their desks at 9 a.m., not when they're leaving work at 5 p.m.

4. Beggars can't be choosers.

Even Freddie Mercury paid his dues time after time, did his sentence, yet committed no crime. And so should you.

A new grad isn't in a position to make demands. What does the best job for you look like? The first job that comes along!

Apply for that first job like it's your dream job, even if it isn't, and eventually you'll have a dream job. But you're gonna have to pay your dues first. You may have to live in Flin Flon. Accept it.

5. Don't discount the importance of a great resume, cover letter and portfolio.

Read your resume every day, and improve it every day. There are always things that can be improved with every resume - the layout, the organization, whatever. Make that baby the best, darn resume it can be. Even if you don't have a lot of experience, a one-page resume can really look great and tell a great story about your skills.

Generic cover letters never work. Customize every cover letter you send out to suit the job for which you're applying. One of the most irritating things I see on a regular basis is cover letters and resumes for students applying to get into Red River College, which say "Objective: to get a job as a fry cook at McDonald's." Oh, really? Then I guess you sent this to the wrong person.

You may think there are no typos in your cover letter and resume, but there are. So read them over and over and over. Get other people to read them. And don't rely on spell check, which misses context. In the communications business, one typo can send your resume into the garbage, so keep reading that thing until your eyes bleed.

No one expects your portfolio to be massive when you're a new grad; employers are looking at it to find "promise" and to see evidence of someone who "gets it." Keep your portfolio simple, clean, attractive, and understandable. Show a range of work. Show that you get it.

And don't forget about your online skills, like Facebook and Twitter. Professionals don't have time to figure these newfangled things out, so they may want someone who can do it for them. As a new grad, that's your niche.

6. Don't be dead at the interview.

The biggest complaint I have about grads going to interviews is, "the person didn't have a pulse."

In the communications field that rewards "being dynamic," that's bad. A person with no personality is a corpse. Who wants to work with a corpse? No "Weekend at Bernie's" jokes, please.

Everyone gets a little nervous at an interview - that's normal. But freezing up and shutting up will get you nowhere.

I used to approach the interview like I was being interviewed by David Letterman. Leaning forward in my chair, I'd listen to every question, laugh, gesture, tell the occasional (good-taste) joke, ask to think about a question if I needed to, and smile, smile, smile. At the end of the interview, I had a list of questions prepared, which I'd pull out and ask. Then, I'd make note of the interviewer's answers.

Once I got my foot in the door, there was no way I was not going to get that job. My favorite trick was to research the employer, find a book or article about it at the library, take it out, and bring it along to the interview. The interviewer's eyes would always light up when I pulled the book out and said, "On page six here, it says that...blah blah blah." The question didn't matter, but the research did. Interviewers appreciate a candidate going to the trouble.

I've been offered every job for which I've ever had an interview, with one exception: CBC. If you can figure out what they want, let me in on it!

7. Don't discount the importance of networking.

Don't go to the CPRS luncheon, sit there quietly, and tell everyone how boring it was afterward. The primary strength of associations and get-togethers is that you can talk to people in the industry who know what's going on, including what jobs are available.

It doesn't matter what the topic of the luncheon might be, or even if the speaker knows what he or she is talking about. Just get your face out there, and - like that terrible "worksafe" ad used to say, "Don't be afraid to ask questions."

As well, you'd be surprised at who might meet with you if you call them and ask them for 15 minutes of their time. When I thought I might want to work in corporate PR for a bank (I know, what was I thinking?), I called up the senior vice-president of CIBC, and she actually met with me and gave me useful advice.

My nieces once called film-maker Michael Moore, and he called them back.

Everyone remembers when they were grads looking for work, and most are happy to help you out. Keep the meeting short (15 minutes or less), you buy the coffee, and keep it cordial.

8. Don't forget about your friends, family, and former classmates.

An insurance agent first sells policies to his or her friends and family before branching out to everyone else. Why? Because friends and family want to help.

If you want to get the word out that you're looking for work, stay connected with the people close to you. Is there a friend of the family's who might hire you in an entry-level position, or knows someone who can? Probably. Especially in Winnipeg, where everybody knows everything about everyone.

9. Don't forget about job-search resources at your school, university or college.

Red River College's library services department has an online resource for jobs and resume writing here. And an employment services department here, which works in conjunction with I also believe that grads can join the department's e-mail list, and it will notify you when a job becomes available.

E-mail your former instructors - all of them - once a month to tell them that you're looking for work. Often, stuff comes up that current students can't do - because they have to be in school all the time. If you're the last person who e-mailed, you're the first person to find out about the job.

10. Don't blame anyone - including yourself - if you can't find work.

If you can't find a job, it's tempting to blame the economy, the schooling, the employers, the government, your parents, the industry - whoever. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that you are a helpless victim. This thinking can really torpedo your initiative to find work: if it's everybody else's fault, and you're not in control of your own destiny, then why even try to find a job?

Fact is that you aren't helpless: if you do everything you can to find work, not having a job is a temporary condition - even if it feels like it's forever.

When I was in my early teens, my mother told me to put on a shirt and tie and go look for summer employment. I did. In my little uniform, I went to every McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, A&W - and maybe even Grubee's - in town and asked for job applications. At every, single place, they said, "We're not hiring."

At the end of the day, I sat in the food court at "Unicity Fashion Square," as we then called it, hanging my head low, thinking about a life of unemployment, as I wearily munched on my fries from the very restaurant that wasn't going to hire me.

Like a Willy Loman in a high-school production of Death of a Salesman, it felt like my career was over before I even turned 17.

Like all misery in life, what feels like it will last forever is only ever temporary. Thank God.


  1. Wise words. I would always feel apprehensive when I saw a job ad that asked for 2,3, sometimes 5 years experience required. In reality, no employer is going to write an ad stating "no experience required". You got to start somewhere and put yourself out there.

  2. I've always found the experience requirement to be the most flexible part of a job description. Most employers are more focused on attitudes and work ethic.

    And yet some people seem to think that their job posting for an entry level position at entry level pay is going to attract experienced people. Scoff!

    Good post, Kenton. Always good points to remember.

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  4. Thanks Kenton!

    Great post -- and I'd add that the minimum education specified in many communications job posts is also relatively "soft".

    Job hunters who have relevant education -- like, for instance, a Creative Communications Diploma from Red River College -- should still apply for jobs that claim to require a degree in Communications; just as often as not, that's just a placeholder for "post-secondary education" in the job ad.


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