Ask the Headhunter: How New Grads Can Get in the Door for a Job Interview

BY Paul Solman  April 9, 2013 at 10:59 AM EDT

By Nick Corcodilos

Young people graduate from college in search of jobs, only to be rejected for a lack of experience. Headhunting expert Nick Corcodilos explains how to combat age discrimination at the start of a career. Photo by Mehmed Zelkovic/Getty Images.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Kathy Sullivan, Kokomo, Ind.: I have a son who graduated last May from college and can’t find a job. He is facing the age-old dilemma: You need experience, but how do you get it if you can’t get hired? They think he and his credentials are great — he did several internships — but they always go with a more experienced person. Any ideas?

Nick Corcodilos: It’s difficult to guess at the problem, partly because I don’t know what your son’s degree is in and what jobs he’s been applying for. But in general, he’s encountering the age discrimination problem: He’s too young.

Ironic, isn’t it? Either older workers are “too experienced” and “over-qualified,” or younger workers lack skills and experience. Here’s what has become very clear to me, and we’ve discussed this in other columns: Employers demand job applicants who have done the exact job before, and who will take less money to do it.

It makes me wonder what Human Resources departments mean by “Our company offers exciting new opportunities!” when they offer no new opportunities at all. Why would anyone aspire to a new job doing the exact same thing they’ve been doing for years already? Why would they take a salary cut to do the same old job? (Peter Cappelli at the Wharton School of Management has documented this in his short book, “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs.”)

When you hear the CEO of a corporation proclaim, “People are our most important asset,” it seems what that really means is, “People are a depreciating commodity at our company — and you’re next in line, so take a salary cut to do the same work you did last year.”

Sorry to rant, but I get fed up with companies that pretend they’re offering careers when all they offer is the same old grind. But back to your son: What can he do?

New college grads do get jobs, so your son needs to reconsider “How to Start A Job Search.” (Few schools teach effective job hunting to their students.) He should also consider what is an acceptable substitute for experience and skills. I think the most compelling substitute is a personal referral for a job — from someone the employer trusts. This doesn’t mean your son will get hired because he knows someone. It means he may get hired because someone will vouch for his intelligence, for his work ethic, and for his ability to learn a new job quickly. Even a cold-blooded employer realizes they can hire talent at a lower cost if it starts with a new grad who shows promise. “Promise” is the key, and the lynchpin is the referral.

Your son should carefully select the companies he’d like to work for, and then proceed “backwards.” Before applying for any job, figure out who he knows who knows someone at the company. This may require multiple steps, but it’s a time-honored way to get in the door for a first job. He will have to spend time talking with each person along the path, to make them comfortable that he’s worth their recommendation. After all, they’re putting their names on the line for an unknown entity. (Sorry, but a new grad is usually an unknown in the job market.)

Your son should contact the alumni office of his school to help identify people who work at his target companies — and then contact them. He should talk with parents of former schoolmates — and ask for their advice. Ask former professors for introductions to people they know in business and industry. Then keep talking. Trust is the coin of the realm, and your son must build it if he wants a referral.

In my PDF book, How Can I Change Careers?, I offer some tips about “getting in the door” that are perfect for new grads. (After all, shifting from college to the work world is a career change, right?)

Don’t worry if you’re not good at introducing yourself or making cold calls. Write a little script and use it until the words start to come naturally. After a few calls, they will. For example,

“I’ve been considering a move into the widget industry and I want to learn more about it. What books or articles have you found helpful in your work?”

This phone call should have nothing to do with asking for a job. Make it a casual but intelligent discussion with an expert who can educate you. This is a great way to make insider contacts. I know it’s not easy to make such calls, but if you’re asking for advice and insight rather than a job, you’ll find that some people will talk to you for a few minutes. Some may take you under their wing. Why? Because people love to talk about their work with others who are interested. When you demonstrate your willingness to invest time and effort to learn about their business, you’re not likely to be shrugged off as another desperate job hunter.

I find that one problem many new grads have is taking advice from people who might help them. Please see “How to Get Coached.” Don’t waste those new contacts!

We can all cry that this is unfair and that employers should hire more rationally. But 26 million people are looking for work in the U.S. Employers seem to think the perfect worker will come along, so why take a chance? New grads do get hired, but with so many of them job-hunting, the personal referral makes a crucial difference.

Question: Through an alumni connection I learned of a job opening at Company X. I sent him my resume and he said he’d pass it along.

Meanwhile, I met someone else at a networking event who worked at Company X for ten years. He left under good terms and still has many friends still there. He has offered to talk to some people on my behalf. Should I contact him as well?

Finally, a friend of a friend currently works at Company X. Should I also contact him, even though he doesn’t know me directly?

How much is too much? How would a hiring manager feel about hearing from so many different people? When does it start to look desperate?

Nick Corcodilos: You’re worried you’ve got too many connections to the company you want to work for? You cannot have enough! What you’re doing is triangulating — getting to a manager through several connections. My compliments for doing such a thorough job of focusing on one employer! When a manager hears good things about you from multiple trusted sources, it’s a good thing, if you handle it properly.

Just be careful about sending lots of resumes to one company–that could indeed seem odd. It’s far better to contact these people and ask them for insight and advice about working at the company. (For more about how to benefit from such help, please read “Mentoring and Getting Mentored.”) And if one or more of these contacts talks to the hiring manager about you, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s far more risky to have no one talking to the manager about you. Let each do it in his own way, and let the manager see that you come recommended.

Your job is to use those contacts to learn all you can about the manager’s operation so that you can approach the hiring manager more effectively. When you finally do talk, you want to have something intelligent to say, and good questions to ask about the business. (See “Five Sticky Interview Tactics” for some tips about how to leave the hiring manager wanting to know more about you.) Being informed and being able to talk shop is the best edge you can have — and if people the manager knows are talking about you, all the better. Don’t stop now — you may be the only applicant who is personally recommended to the manager.

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2013 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark. This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight. Follow Paul on Twitter.