Job prospects were on the minds of students last night at Northern Illinois University where I was honored to deliver the annual Albert Walker Lecture. Titled “Career Realities in a Flash Mob World,” my remarks focused on five ways college graduates can differentiate themselves from the mobs of candidates applying for most job openings. Here’s a synopsis of of the lecture:
1. Build a compelling resume
Citing 667 applications for an entry-level position at Ketchum’s Chicago office, I noted that only a dozen made it to the next round of consideration. Only four applicants had three or more internships and related work experience. A majority carried no post-college work experience or internships, and several were from people with impressive legal and business backgrounds but no public relations experience. So, who do you think got interviewed? You’re right, only those whose resumes were clearly differentiated from others.
2. Become digitally savvy, not just comfortable with social media
Unfortunately, many young people are surprisingly slow in adapting to rapidly changing demands for digitally savvy talent. Too many applicants feel their surface knowledge of Facebook, Four Square and Twitter can get them through initial stages of employment consideration. But employer expectations have ratcheted up dramatically in the past year. While growth of other communication jobs has remained flat over the past few years, job boards like AdExchanger report that digital jobs have nearly doubled in the past 12 months.
I was a late adapter to social media, but I’m almost fanatical about it today. I’ve watched as every major agency beginning with Edelman and Ogilvy put major stakes in the ground in order to grow their social media presence. And, as a result, they have been richly rewarded with both talent and clients. Social media firms like ComBlu and Zocalo Group didn’t exist five years ago. Today, they’re the growth engines of their parent companies. In the past year alone, Zocalo Group has added 25 employees and more than doubled its revenues.
As demand for everything digital escalates, we face a serious lack of ready talent. Despite a 9% unemployment rate, 52% of U.S. companies report difficulty filling jobs. This paradox occurs because employers are more picky about who they hire. They view employees as major investments, and they don’t want to make a mistake. Hence, the often long, drawn-out hiring process.
3. Build and Maintain Your Network. . .Now
This is so obvious and everyone knows they need to do it, but few people do it well. In the past week, I got emails and phone calls from three former colleagues. When I receive such out-of-the-blue messages, I know they are looking for a job. I asked one long-lost friend why he dropped off the face of the Earth when he got his last job five years ago. He replied that he became too busy to stay in touch with anyone other than family, and he now has lost touch with most people in his outdated Rolodex. Yes, I still call my Outlook Contacts list a Rolodex.
And don’t be annoying in building your network. Don’t be overly aggressive and try to make it happen immediately. Truly effective networks take years to develop. They are built on having more than a superficial meeting and business card exchange. Don’t forget to start close to home with neighbors, family and friends and systematically add a few new ones each month. Keep them informed about what you are doing and your whereabouts.
4. Consider Non-Traditional PR Jobs
Most recent PR graduates want to pursue jobs that sound like the most fun and only tap the right side of their brains, jobs that are event-driven and creative. However, aspiring professionals can differentiate themselves from the pack by focusing on other areas of public relations, specifically employee and financial communications. American business is facing a confidence crisis, both from within and outside corporate walls. This spells significant opportunities for those who can help business communicate with its key stakeholders.
In this year’s Gruning Lecture at the PRSA International Conference, Dr. Bruce Berger of the University of Alabama addressed a subject that has been given only lip service for years—employee communications. He calls employee communication the Rodney Dangerfield of PR, noting it ranks a distant third in priority behind shareholder communication and customer communication in the minds of management.
Corporate management clearly needs help with its employee communications. I don’t think any of us want to work in the world described by the authors of the new book entitled “Re-Engage” who say “Many people today go to work at jobs they dislike, supervised by people who don’t care about them, and directed by senior leaders who are clueless about where to take the company.”
5. Present Yourself Well
The one-minute elevator speech is yesterday’s measure of first impressions. Today you’ve got 30 seconds tops. In that time, you must convince the interviewer that he or she is going to want to talk with you for more than a few minutes.
Of course, core skills such as writing and active listening are essential, but Bill Heyman, one of the top PR recruiters in the U.S., says he and his team seriously weigh the intangibles like looking people straight in the eye, a firm handshake, being well dressed and the “thank you” note. These are all qualities that used to be taught and practiced at home and in colleges.
Thanks to the three panelists who participated in last night’s program — Travis Kessel, vice president of recruiting for Edelman Chicago; former agency head and now executive career coach Rita Dragonette and Michele Westergaard, PR/marketing coordinator at event management company Marcus Evans. They answered questions from the 100 students and NIU alums, and suggested ways for job seekers to differentiate themselves from their peers. For instance, cover letters should focus on what you can do for the agency or company, not about what you have achieved. The resume will do the latter. In many cases, the cover letter is read after the resume to determine if you’re a good writer. Measurable accomplishments should be emphasized in resumes, not simply descriptions of current and past jobs.