Smart searching

Lessons from the front lines of a new job-hunting world

Janice Catalano braved a group interview and scored her first job after graduation. Janice Catalano braved a group interview and scored her first job after graduation. (Photograph by Mitch Weiss)
By Rebecca Dorr Sampson
March 6, 2011

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How a new graduate can succeed

At this time last year, Janice Catalano was a senior at Lesley University, faithfully applying for entry-level positions. She had majored in nonprofit management and had held two solid internships; she got good grades, captained the cross-country team, served in student government, and did community service. In years past, many employers would have been overjoyed to hire a young person with that resume, but times have changed.

It used to be that a college degree virtually guaranteed you a job, but now recent graduates are finding themselves competing for entry-level positions with older and more experienced candidates. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average unemployment rate for graduates younger than 25 last year was 9.3 percent – that’s up from 5.4 percent in 2007. “Every day, I would get home, refresh Craigslist and, and apply to any job I thought would work for me,” Catalano says. In the first four months of 2010, she submitted online applications for some 35 jobs. She didn’t hear back from a single place.

Of course, that wasn’t Catalano’s only tactic. In February of last year, Wellesley College offered a career fair focused on nonprofits, where Catalano talked with representatives from an array of organizations. Two months later, she’d been called in for only two interviews – but both grew out of personal connections she had made at that fair. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

Catalano was jockeying for a place in a fiercely competitive market, and her interview at Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership (MBHP), an affordable-housing nonprofit, was a microcosm of that reality. On the day of the interview, she arrived to find 20 other applicants in the office’s lobby. They were separated into groups, then put through a grueling group question-and-answer session that left each potential employee trying to one-up the other.

Catalano steeled her nerves. “My strategy was to not let panic and stress take over,” she says. She saw other people in the room seize up, but she coached herself through the moment – she was young but confident. “Know that you have the tools, that you can do it,” she told herself. Her calm paid off; the day after graduation, she started a job as a program representative at MBHP.

Alison Angell, senior associate director at the Lesley University Career Resource Center, says it’s crucial that students and recent graduates spend time preparing for interviews. “Most people can benefit from tips on how to market themselves effectively,” she says. It’s a skill that older applicants tend to be more experienced at, but the concept is simple: Know how to speak about your strengths and connect them specifically to the job you’re applying for.

While tech-savvy young job seekers may want to focus solely on online applications, Angell recommends getting out from behind the computer and into the world for networking. And she cautions new graduates not to set their standards unrealistically high. “It’s OK to take a job even if it’s not perfect,” she says, “as long as it’s a learning opportunity that will give you a positive experience in the professional world.”

Catalano echoes that sentiment: “I have friends who were too picky and didn’t give anything a chance.” (Some of these friends, it turns out, are still unemployed.) But she knows that what’s she learning now will help determine her next career move. “I’m definitely happy with the choice I made.”

How to learn about yourself in a long layoff

Even if you don’t love your job, even if you’re looking for an excuse to start fresh, even if you have a financial pillow to soften the blow, getting a pink slip is always going to hurt – but, of course, never more than when you actually love what you do. Just ask Stacie Madden, who nearly two years ago lost her job in the marketing department of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the latest in a series of layoffs. “I cried for a while,” Madden says.

Unfortunately, extended layoffs are becoming an all-too-common occurrence in Massachusetts. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 12,000 people here lost their jobs in sweeping layoffs from large firms last year and were out of work for 31 days or more (experts estimate that 1.4 million Americans have been out of work for 99 weeks or more). Getting laid off can feel “like a mortal blow for people whose identities are caught up in their work,” says Kendall Dudley, who runs Lifeworks Career & Life Design in Belmont. “It’s that sense that ‘the world has it in for me.’ ” He encourages his clients to seek out people to talk to about the change – a counselor, for instance, or a faith group.

For Madden, one such support has been the Marketing Professionals Network in Newton, an association through which she has nurtured industry relationships for more than a decade. After a layoff, she dusts herself off and attends a meeting held for people in transition. Talking to colleagues experiencing similar job uncertainty reminds her that she isn’t alone.

One unexpected benefit of a long layoff, though, is having time to conduct a self-assessment, a process that Joycelyn Snell believes is vital for people in any kind of employment transition. At Professional Career Solutions in Boston, she advises clients to identify themes that recur in their lives. Maybe it’s an interest in music or a love for taking gadgets apart and seeing how they work. Tapping into true passions – and pursuing a career aligned with them – will help a job applicant radiate confidence, Snell says. “It will enable you to kick in superb interviewing skills and express your competitive advantage.”

Although Madden held corporate marketing and development jobs for much of her career, she decided in 2007 to find nonprofit work that felt more meaningful. For a time, she considered a hospital job, but ruled that out through volunteer work and informational interviews, a bit of water-testing she recommends. “When I was in a hospital setting, my energy levels drained,” she says. “Pay attention to those signals.” On college campuses, though, her enthusiasm spiked, so she’s turned her search to educational organizations.

Madden has yet to find a job, but she’s networking. That means keeping up with old colleagues as well as working to forge relationships with prospective ones. You can’t just join professional organizations, Madden says, you have to get involved. For instance, she’s spoken at events for the Association of Fundraising Professionals and sits on the marketing committee for Women in Development of Greater Boston. In addition, she stays busy with consulting work, which furthers her reach with the nonprofits she’s targeting, but also helps ensure that when she goes in for an interview, she won’t have a glaring gap on her resume.

“The most challenging part [of the job search process] is rejection,” Madden says, “but you can’t take it personally.” When you don’t get that interview, or that hiring manager doesn’t call you back, it always stings. “I might want to mope around,” she says, but she never gives herself long – she’s always quickly back at her desk, working phone and computer.

After all, sometimes staying positive is the best asset for someone struggling through a long layoff. “You’re the one in charge of your career,” says Snell. “If you’re not fully engaged, your behavior [on interviews] is going to express that.”

How to move on from a recession job

In November 2008, in the deep trough of the recession, Jordan Liebhaber accepted an entry-level position at Hertz Rent-a-Car, not because it was his career ambition – that was sports administration – but because he simply needed a job. It’s a not uncommon fallback position in this economy: taking whatever work you can find out of necessity, not passion.

As a junior at the University of Miami, Liebhaber had landed a coveted internship with the South Florida Super Bowl Host Committee, part of his inspiration to pursue sports administration as his major. “It was something I felt I could do as a career,” he says. Even as the economy was collapsing, an internship with the Red Sox operation in Fort Meyers the spring of Liebhaber’s senior year further buoyed his aspirations.

But after Liebhaber’s internship ended and he graduated in August 2008, his career prospects dwindled. He found the job at Hertz and eventually started the process of regrouping. But when it came to the question of how he would reinvent his career plans, Liebhaber was initially stumped. If sports administration wasn’t the answer, what was? “It was not easy,” he says. “I really had to sit down and do a lot of self-exploration.”

Luckily for Liebhaber, his mom, Gail, knows a thing or two about helping people find jobs that are right for them – she’s a veteran career guide in Lexington. In her practice, Gail Liebhaber regularly uses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a personality assessment that helps clients articulate qualities they can bring to a job. “It’s a jumping-off point, not a silver bullet,” she says, but her son gave it a try.

According to the results of the assessment, Jordan had strong people skills, which had drawn him to sports administration, but he also discovered a cheerful desire to serve others that he hadn’t recognized before. Sales and marketing would be a good fit, but so would something in the health industries, which happened to be a growing field. He fondly recalled volunteering for a hospice in high school and wondered now whether he could make a paying career out of it.

And so began the intense research and relationship building, which Gail says is fundamental to any job search, whether you’re forced to change fields or just looking to move to a job you enjoy more. Jordan built his network from scratch, starting with family friends who worked in health-related fields, particularly elder care. He made cold calls and scheduled informational interviews. He joined industry groups and mined LinkedIn.

The process took a lot of effort, putting in days at Hertz, then devoting nights, weekends, and vacation days to pursuing his new track. Gail concedes that finding a new path while working full time can be tiring, but she’s always amazed at the stores of energy folks can muster for the hunt. “Once people are focused, things start to shift,” she says. “The emotional drain of being in a job they don’t like gets lifted.”

Jordan’s persistence led to crucial, short-term experience in sales and client services at retirement and nursing facilities. Those bulked up his resume and allowed him to test his own new and tentative career interests. After a few months, certain that elder care was his calling, he shifted from information gathering to an all-out job search. He responded to online listings, went to trade shows, scored job interviews, and tried to demonstrate deep knowledge about the industry and where he fit into it.

Finally, about a year and a half after Jordan began the process, Bayada Nurses, a home health care agency, hired him as a client services manager for its Newton location. His first day at his new job is tomorrow.

How to start over mid-career

Janet spitz moved from Cleveland to Boston in the early 1980s with a master’s degree in art history and experience managing a small arts organization on her resume. Here, she shifted to fund-raising and held a string of top-flight development positions at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Wang Center, and the Worcester Art Museum. Then, for nearly 10 years, she led development and special projects at the Perkins School for the Blind.

But after a time of personal tumult, Spitz decided she needed another change. She wanted to return to the arts, perhaps as a museum director, and interviewed for four positions. Confident an offer would materialize, she left her stable job at Perkins in June 2008 – a decision that in hindsight was poorly timed. “I had this brilliant idea that I’d take the summer off and start my new position in the fall,” she says. Things didn’t work out that way.

Spitz indeed got her summer off, which allowed for some travel and downtime, but no job offers materialized. Weeks of unemployment turned into months, and that winter left her staring down blank days. Restless, she took long walks, bundled up against the cold. “I was really itching to go back to work,” she says.

Carol Axelrod, a career coach at Rasi Associates in Boston, says that for anyone used to full-time work, the lack of structure in unemployment is a hurdle. “It can seem like an unending future, and you don’t know when it’s going to break,” she says. She recommends imposing a personal routine, even if it’s just volunteering every few days or taking adult education courses to keep your skills sharp. “It creates a form to your week, and that makes a difference.”

Spitz consulted with arts organizations to keep mentally and professionally active and dug deep into her network of colleagues. At first, she narrowly focused her career search on openings in development and fund-raising, her former specialty. But when an old friend approached her about an executive director position, it sparked something.

Eleven months after leaving Perkins, Spitz was hired to helm the new Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. There, she’s now combining skills and interests from throughout her career, including fund-raising, helping curate exhibits, and reaching out to the public through education.

Spitz says the map center is smaller than organizations she’d worked at in previous years, but she rejects the idea that a bigger career trajectory is always better. Embracing transition, she says, “requires getting off one track and looking more broadly at the possibilities.” It’s realizing a new career “isn’t just the next step up on the same ladder.”

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