Dear Class of 2020,
Like so many others, I salute your accomplishments. Congrats.
It’s unfortunate that your senior year of college ended on a horrible note. You have mucked through uninspired online classes, lost the ability to physically be with some of your family and friends, and face the worst job market in at least 100 years. This was not the way it was supposed to go.
It would be easy to despair. While the times ahead will certainly be tough, I believe there is light at the end of this long tunnel. Though it was many decades ago, I once found myself in a similar situation to those of you that can’t get a job. This letter is to you. It is about what I learned – hopefully, it will help you endure, persevere and get your career off to a strong start.
In 1982, I graduated from Cal Berkeley at the top of my class with an undergraduate business degree. My resume was filled with numerous academic awards, as well as valuable work and leadership experiences.
But, despite all that, for 6 months, I couldn’t get a job.
Lasting from the summer of 1981 until almost the end of 1982, the United States suffered a major recession. While it wasn’t nearly as bad as our current situation, it was dire. At the time, with an unemployment rate at nearly 11%, the 1981-82 recession was the worst economic downturn in the United States since the Great Depression (it was later eclipsed by the 2007-09 recession).
Not being able to get a job was devastating on an emotional level. But it taught me valuable lessons. Hopefully, those lessons, combined with my decades of experience as a businessperson and senior executive, will allow me to impart wisdom that will help you through this crisis. I have five tenants for you to remember as you continue to search for a job:
It is hard to be patient during a job search. Anxiety sets in early, and it can be easy to doubt yourself as rejection letters mount and prospective employers don’t even have the courtesy to respond. When it happened to me, it weighed on my psyche and crushed my confidence. Perhaps the most important tip I can give you is to keep believing in yourself and your capabilities, even in the bleakest of times. Your abilities and potential have not changed, despite the pandemic. While it is natural to feel some despondency, don’t let it shake your belief in yourself. Get help and support from family, friends, or professionals if you need it. Self-doubt and depression will show through in your interviews and reduce the tenacity of your preparation.
In my book Strategy First, I talk about how business strategy is all about making bets.
Your career is the same. Think of your career as a long-term bet. As you progress throughout your career, you should plan to gain the skills and experience to help you reach your destination. To make the right bet it is critical to be self-aware. What do you like? What gets you excited? Are there particular challenges that seem fun to you? Are there companies you admire and want to work for? Is there a cause you feel committed to? Where do you excel, and where do you struggle?
Having some sense of what you are about is important to targeting the right companies or industries during your job hunt. For example, maybe your job goal is to gain some skills that will help you succeed at a long-term passion. Don’t know what your passion is yet? That’s okay. An additional approach is to consider the industry or job type you wish to bet on, and what might best align with your interests and experience. In the early days, personal computers were mainly used by hobbyists, but my bet was that the personal computer would grow into the mainstream. That led me to leave my sales job and go back to school to earn my MBA, so that I could more easily pursue high tech jobs. Borrowing the words of the great hockey player Wayne Gretzky, I tried to “skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” That proved to be a fortuitous bet as I ended up at a top choice -- Microsoft.
Because of Covid, it is hard to know where the puck is going. In addition, the job types you were considering six months ago might require some rethinking. As I discussed in another blog post, some bets are clear. Every company is undergoing a digital transformation, and digital skills will undoubtedly help you throughout your career. Some trends are likely: more telemedicine, online learning, more “eating in to eat out” (i.e. more sales of pick-up, delivery and prepared foods). More everyday living going digital: from games to happy hours to workouts to entertainment. Sadly, COVID-19 will cause more income inequality and poverty, but fortunately, a likely rebound in the importance of science.
I expect less globalization, more automation, less business and personal travel, smaller offices, changed office environments, more work at home, and more video meetings and conferences. That is just a short list, but it gets to this key point. As you embark on your job search, think about the trends and industries you want to bet on in this time of Covid.
The legendary basketball coach John Wooden is credited with the famous quote “failure to prepare is preparing to fail.” Once you make your bet, do your research to understand the industries, key people, key companies, and trends related to the companies you are interviewing with. Use the resources at your disposal such as your school’s job center, friends, and alumni who work in the field or at a company you are interested in, training courses, and the web to educate yourself so you can talk the talk when applying and interviewing for jobs. The same resources can help you learn new skills you might need. For example, before I went back to get my MBA, I took a programming class at night because I knew I would be targeting the PC industry for a future job and I thought some additional programming knowledge would be helpful.
Perhaps the biggest part of preparation is figuring out the story you want to tell about yourself. In her memoir, Becoming, Michelle Obama says “your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.” You are selling yourself to potential employers. What makes you, you? What makes you unique? Why should they hire you? What do you have to offer to help, especially during these unusual times? What are the examples you have from your life, college, and business experience to support your story?
Once you have a story to tell a potential employer, it needs to have a tangible connection to your resume, LinkedIn profile, and emails you send. Of course, it also needs to be clearly articulated in your interviews.
Speaking of interviews, make sure you practice with friends and family members. Know how you will answer key questions that always, or are likely, to be asked. Answer questions truthfully and succinctly and support your answers with an example or two. If you are asked if you have a skill or experience that you don’t have, then answer honestly but add an example that shows how you have effectively picked up a new skill in another situation. Avoid allowing your interview prep to turn you into a robot. Employers hear endless canned stories and answers; ensuring your story is genuine will help you stand out.
Building connections is key to the job hunt. If you aren’t active on social networks, it might be time to start. Consider posting articles or starting a blog to expand your reach and let others know more about you. Set up as many informational interviews as you can with friends, family, alumni, social media connections and so on. Informational interviews are primarily about gathering information and gaining insights about a company and an industry. Don’t ask for a job, ask for advice. If someone can help you with your job hunt, they will generally let you know.
At the end of every meeting, if you haven’t already gotten some names of others you should talk to, then ask the person you are meeting with if they can recommend two or three people you should meet with. Within a couple of days make sure and send a thank you note or email. Periodically, keep everyone in your network up to date on your progress (send personal emails, not group ones). If someone gave you a key piece of advice or connection, let them know that you followed up:
“Hey Dan, yesterday I met with Lisa as you recommended. It was a great meeting and she gave me some great advice. Thanks for the referral. I’ll keep you posted how the job hunt is going.”
Not only is this kind of follow-up common courtesy, it will help people feel vested in your job search.
Sometimes, if a meeting goes really well, you feel a good connection with the person you are meeting with, and they are enthusiastic about helping, than ask the person you are meeting with if they can be a career mentor for you and keep giving you advice and help, even after you get your job.
As your network grows you will learn, and opportunities will emerge.
Looking for a job is a full-time job. All the research, preparation, informational meetings, connecting, and follow-up is extremely time consuming and emotionally draining. You will get tons of rejections and nonresponses. If you felt like the company or recruiter you were working with was transparent with you, I recommend politely asking for feedback on why you didn’t get the job so you can learn and improve. Like much of life, the job process is all relative. You may have done a great job in the interview process, but someone else came across as a slightly better fit. Keep at it. If you are excited about an opportunity and think you could really succeed, you can keep pushing even after the prospective employer says no. You can ask them if you can check back in in a month or let them know if you have some new data that can change their mind.
Don’t be afraid to take a solid job that is not your dream job. I wanted to go into marketing out of college but ended up taking a sales position. The sales job gave me experience and insight that was valuable during my career.
The tough times ahead will also require scrappiness and creativity. For example, you could consider taking unpaid internships, asking to shadow people who work in a field that is interesting to you, taking volunteer jobs to learn and gain experience, taking online classes or even going back to graduate school. If you think grad school might be in your future, consider taking grad school admission tests, such as the GRE or GMAT, now, while you have the time,. The scores are generally usable for around 5 years.
As you navigate this nightmare, I hope these tips provide aid. The process will be demanding. Hang in there, look after yourself and most of all, good luck!