Experience/job Catch-22
October 2, 2009 7:50 PM   Subscribe

How does a recent college grad gain job experience when everyone requires it?

This past June, I graduated with a B.A. in English from a small prestigious liberal arts college that you've most likely heard of and may be single-sex. I then moved back home (NJ, near NYC). Since then, my life has taken a familiar turn: applied for tons of jobs, and have been on 8 interviews--not counting those with temp agencies. I look on tons of job sites--including Monster and CareerBuilders--and apply every day. My search is really limited to NYC, since I can't drive and NJTransit has many shortcomings, but recently I've been applying to places in towns nearby as well.

In my life, I've only had two real jobs, both of them work-study. Both were admin assistant type jobs, and I've been applying for those, as well as publishing/media positions (despite the fact that I was unable to get an internship in those fields in college, and I can't get one now for financial reasons). I've also been applying for entry-level paralegal jobs since I've kind of been considering going to law school or some kind of grad school (probably for film/cinema studies) after working for a couple of years. The thing is, I've never made it to the second round of interviews, let alone gotten a job offer, and I think it may be obvious why. This past week, I interviewed for a paralegal position at a law firm, and after I wrote the interviewer a thank-you e-mail, she then responded by saying that she had looked over my qualifications and wanted someone with more secretarial experience. This confused me because it's not like I told them anything--in terms of experience, anyway--that wasn't on my resume, so she therefore knew going in that I didn't have enough secretarial experience, in which case why the hell did she even call me in for an interview? And it's not like that has been the only job--I have gotten responses from HR people after applying saying that I didn't have sufficient experience.

(A word about temp agencies, since I know that will come up: I haven't had much luck there either. The ones I've been to--and I'm on the books at close to 20--have said that they aren't getting many positions, and the ones that they do get are either super-specific or call for lots of experience or I am suitable for them, but they pass on my resume or they fill the position internally.)

Partly because of financial family troubles and partly to keep from going insane, over a month ago I did get a part-time job calling people for this sales recruiting company. So in a way, I am getting experience now, but it's not like I can show it--I was advised against putting it on my resume by a recruiter. However, they recently cut my hours, so today I applied for a job at Starbucks in the hopes of getting a better part-time job while I look. But how does one get experience when they are inexperienced? Starbucks is nice, but it's a far cry from an office job--and how can I get that when I haven't had any office experience?

How do I get over this hump and start getting some experience? I feel like my life is at a standstill--I can't get ahead. Is it just me, or is that the way things are now--especially now--and no one talks about them? How is it that other people I went to school with who have just as much or less experience than I do have jobs and I don't? Aside from reading job search books, what can I do to make this more successful?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (22 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
How is it that other people I went to school with who have just as much or less experience than I do have jobs and I don't?

Call the other people that went to your school and got jobs and find out what they did to get them. Copy their methods. They probably know people that you don't. Ask to meet those people.

PS- I would find a way to put the job you are doing on your resume, despite your recruiter's admonishment. So long as you're not doing anything illegal, the benefit of being employed outweighs the downsides of advertising the fact that you're cold calling.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:08 PM on October 2, 2009

I would get whatever job I could temporarily--Starbucks will at least get you some cash coming in--and then I would find an organization whose mission I could get behind and volunteer there. Since you're looking for legal/office type jobs, see if you can set aside a few hours each week to answer phones, do research, etc. for a group that needs a hand. You won't be getting paid, but you'll be getting experience, and non-profits are usually happy to write you a letter of recommendation (or at least the ones where I worked were).

Not getting paid is going to be frustrating. Not working in your field of choice is going to be frustrating. (Although, who knows? You might find a volunteer gig doing something you absolutely love.) But in the long run it will be less frustrating to be taking concrete steps toward the job you want. (And you'll be providing help to someone who needs it.)

How is it that other people I went to school with who have just as much or less experience than I do have jobs and I don't?

So much of it is being in the right place at the right time under the right circumstances. Sometimes it's that a friend of a friend's stepmom is looking for someone to answer phones on Thursday mornings, and you happen to be available. I once got a job as a personal assistant because at a memorial service, I met someone who needed one.

Hang in there.
posted by corey flood at 8:10 PM on October 2, 2009

Contact your college's career services and ask for help.

What did you do during the summers in college?

Also, there's an overall tone of helplessness in your question, which I understand. (I too have a BA in English. Link to the song from Avenue Q.)

My search is really limited to NYC, since I can't drive

My advice to you is this: Barring a disability that prevents it, learn to drive. Take driver's ed. It's a concrete step that will let you move forward toward looking at jobs in other areas. I'm not joking.
posted by purpleclover at 8:23 PM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've also been applying for entry-level paralegal jobs since I've kind of been considering going to law school

Law is one of the MOST difficult fields to get into right now. I think the huge majority of recent law-school grads would be happy to get an entry-level paralegal job right now, so that might be a reason that you're not getting bites on the paralegal jobs; they have dozens/hundreds/thousands of applicants.

I think crazycanuck is on the right path; talk to the people you know in your field (or not in your field). When cold-calling resumes aren't cutting it, you need to fall back on networking.
posted by specialagentwebb at 8:28 PM on October 2, 2009

I am a hiring-guy-for-hire, so to speak. You're making a few innocent but fault assumptions, so here's some shattershot advice. Take it or leave it. :)

(1) "We're looking for someone with more experience", especially after they already know your resume, is a business lie. They were interested enough to interview you, but after your interview you were no longer the best candidate. They needed to find some nice way to tell you that that would not hurt your feelings. "Experience" is a go-to excuse.

(2) Everyone is in the no-experience/no-job loop all the time. No matter what the printed job requirements say, apply anyway. People understand.

(3) If you're applying for office admin or even legal sec type jobs, there's nothing wrong with a telephone sales/recruiting job experience. It shows advanced and fearless phone skills, and that's something that can't be taken for granted.

(4) People get jobs from connections more than from any listings service or newspaper. Someone knows a guy who knows a guy who you'd like, poof, you have a job. It's always been this way: college is pretty much a network for building a list of contacts for this sort of thing.

(5) I don't mind seeing Starbucks or retail/service on a resume, either. It suggests to me that the person can handle rude/annoying people and work. That said, the "reverse progress" order of your resume might be bad, so I'd probably add the Starbucks and/or the sales thing as undated et ceteras near the end. "In my life, I have also been a Starbucks barista, a telephone recruiter, and a puppy rescuer." or something to show depth and human interest. That is, don't rank them as important.

(6) Your best market skill set with that BA is probably your written communication skill. Apply for jobs in media companies, PR firms, design agencies (as a copy/tech writer), software firms (as a documentation writer/proofreader) and so on. And add "I write great letters" and something about plus-written-communication skills to your resume. Today's generation of grads cannot fucking spell, let alone write, so push that advantage.

(7) And this is most important: you applied for eight jobs and you're despondent already? Eight is nothing. You need to apply for eighty. Lucky for you, you're in a city with eighty thousand job openings. You'd have a harder time in Kansas.

Apologies for the ramble; maybe there's something in there that will help you.
posted by rokusan at 8:39 PM on October 2, 2009 [24 favorites]

Maybe you need to learn how to spin your existing experience: you did secretarial work in college, so have specific examples of problems you solved or duties you handled; you have a job making sales calls, presumably working in an office environment, so practice describing it as legit, professional experience rather than a part-time job you leave off your resume. This is not lying.

Also, I second the suggestion to learn how to drive--take the Starbucks-type job and scrape together money for a class or lessons.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:42 PM on October 2, 2009

First: Take whatever will bring the money in. This will at least give you some breathing room.

Second: Network. Networknetworknetwork. Seriously, this is how your fellow college-goers are getting their jobs. Recently I made the transition from stocking auto parts to an office/science/tech-type job and it was entirely due to a friend who worked at the company, saw the position was open, and recommended me to it. Ask around your contacts, make sure they know you're looking.

And volunteer or something in a non-profit that has work in the areas you're interested in--this will give you something to put on your resume and more importantly offer other networking opportunities.
posted by schroedinger at 8:47 PM on October 2, 2009

Anything that's "worklike" is work experience. I think the key is making it sound relevant to what you want to do. Did you write for you campus paper. for example? Were you an officer in any clubs/organizations? Include those things, even if they were unpaid. But also understand it's rough out there right now. I have a number of years on you, but it took me until January to find my first job out of college after graduating in May.

I would also recommend learning how to drive. It looks like in NJ, if you're older than 21, you just need a learner's permit and 3 months of "supervised" driving before you can get a provisional license. No classes necessary if you have a parent/sibling who can teach you.

I didn't drive until I was 22. I don't love it, even now, but I do admit it's useful. And it allowed me to expand my job search significantly.
posted by darksong at 8:54 PM on October 2, 2009

Oh, the joys of the post-grad job search. Seeing as I'm in the same mess as you are I'm probably entirely unqualified to give you advice, but this is what I suggest:

1. Seconding purpleclover's suggestion to use your college's career centre. My university allows alumni to use the centre for five years after graduating. Most career centres provide job-search seminars, resume review services, and interview practice sessions to help sharpen your job search skills. They should also have a library of resources that will help you find contacts in the fields you are interested in. With these contacts you can then...

2. Conduct informational interviews. Write letters to people who work at companies/organizations you want to work at and ask if you can have a minute of their time to talk about the industry. There are tons of resources online about conducting effective informational interviews, so I won't talk too much about it here. You could even be so bold as to volunteer your services for any menial tasks they might have at the office so you can see what the workplace is like, or to job shadow for a day/week.

3. Volunteer. As corey flood mentioned, a great way to get experience.

4. Networking. You mentioned two previous work-study experiences. Were those in industries you are still interested in? If so, can you get back in touch with your former managers and let them know you are looking for work and if they have any leads or suggestions for you?

Don't be shy getting in touch with people, you have nothing to lose. Good luck!
posted by Rora at 9:00 PM on October 2, 2009

1. Don't get caught up on experience: rokusan is exactly right, it is an easy out for companies that prefer another candidate. It is just as possible these companies already had someone in mind and interviewed you just as a formality. It is also possible that their boss told them to interview at least ten people for the position so they brought you in even though they knew you were not the right fit. This is unfair to you as a job seeker, but it certainly happens.

2. Legal professions and media are perhaps the two toughest markets to enter at this time. Both have been declining, both have more applicants than available positions, and (from experience) both are populated with very bright people who otherwise don't know what they want to do career wise.

3. This is the worst period in recent memory to be looking for a job:

According to the latest government job report, the average job search now takes over six months, the longest average since the government started tracking unemployment in 1948.

- Bureau of Labor Statistics, via Consumerist

4. Plenty of experienced, educated people are out of work right now. I recently filled a position at my company. We were looking for an intern and offered 15-20 hours a week. The response was overwhelming, especially among out of work 25-35 year-olds willing to do anything to fill their time, avoid gaps in their resumes and make at least some money. It was depressing to read all of their resumes as until recently, these people had good financial, legal or media jobs and came from good schools. These people do indeed have more experience than you, but they are not necessarily better off.

This is not meant to dissuade you, only to give you a realistic view of what other people are going through. Your best option is to apply everywhere (especially at smaller companies in growing industries) network, and nail interviews.
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:27 PM on October 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm another person with a BA in English. There are a lot of us. When I graduated, I worked a series of really crappy jobs that included temping, waitressing, cleaning people's houses and then eventually got hired on as a receptionist for a company. After proving that I could answer phones and file and spell and write correspondence, I was moved up the food chain to secretary, administrative assistant and then project assistant. Realizing I was sentenced to a life of unjamming copy machines and meetings, I applied and got into grad school, where I chose to get into a specialized field with some employment opportunities. While in grad school, I interned and volunteered at a place that ended up offering me a full time job before I even graduated.

My advice to you is to pick up any kind of work you can get right now. Even if you are vacuuming office buildings at night or making latte's. You don't have to put it on your resume. During the day, see if you you can get a post-grad internship at a place where you want to work. Warning: a lot of internships do not pay. Make as many connections as you can and work your butt off.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:35 PM on October 2, 2009

Ohh...I was there last year. It sucks. I applied for over 100 jobs, and went to around 30 interviews before I got some offers. It's really hard and I'm still paying off the credit cards that I lived on (it didn't help that I moved to SF from Chicago two days after graduation). That was early 2008 and I'm sure it would be sooo much harder now.

What worked for me was treating the job search like a full time job. I got up in the morning, got dressed, went to a coffee shop, and spent the day working on my laptop (going home for lunch so as to save money)...

Also, I never had ANY luck with any sites other than Craigslist and EdJoin (a website where school districts post jobs in CA) - Monster, Idealist, nothing....even though I certainly spent time looking through them.
posted by gleea at 10:44 PM on October 2, 2009

Oh, and I was an English major for two years, then switched to double majors in Gender Studies and Sociology. So much more lucrative...

Good luck. :)
posted by gleea at 10:45 PM on October 2, 2009

Don't take recruiters' words as gospel, put the sales job back on your resume and look for something else in sales as well as what you're looking for now.

Really broaden your area of interest and apply for ANYTHING that might work or be decent.

Also, keep in mind that your admin/sales could get you in to all sorts of weird niche NY things, like children's gyms and party planners.
posted by kathrineg at 11:05 PM on October 2, 2009

If you really start feeling down, try volunteering and you'll remember that you DO have skills that are valuable and you are a good person.

You are a good, competent person and you do have skills and abilities that other people want. You'll make it eventually.
posted by kathrineg at 11:08 PM on October 2, 2009

I graduated last year (with an English degree, naturally) and it took me months of applications to get any bites.

If I had to do it again, I would ask everyone I know -- friends and neighbors, old friends and neighbors, people on Facebook who I barely remember anymore, the college career services office -- if they had any job leads. If you're just another resume in a pile of hundreds it's hard to stand out, especially with the stiff competition that 2bucksplus describes above.

I'm a shy person and was afraid of imposing on anyone, so I avoided networking as much as possible. In retrospect, that was a dumb decision. Use other people!
posted by danb at 5:20 AM on October 3, 2009

don't forget Americorps. It's engaging, honest work which gives you great experience (and a barely livable wage). Seriously, many of my English-focused friends got jobs through Americorps tutoring children and things.

Also, don't disparage part-time work. It's important for many reasons: it gets you the experience you're lacking, it stops up gaps in your resume, it gives you money to live off of, and it gives you something to talk about at parties. Starbucks is a great employer (or so I've heard). To take a job from them in this market is SO far from a failure on your part.
posted by Think_Long at 7:50 AM on October 3, 2009

These may be dumb questions, but I guess it's worth asking...

What format is your resume in? Chronological, or functional? Functional resumes are often recommended for people with little direct experience in the field they're applying for, and also for liberal arts majors. By listing accomplishments and skills, and not tying them directly to a specific job, you can seem more appealing.

Do you target your resumes? It's necessary to have a single, stock resume, but it's also necessary to tailor each resume to each application.

If it's not too personal, can you give an example of what you think your strongest duties summary is from your current resume?
posted by codacorolla at 11:51 AM on October 3, 2009

I would echo those telling you to cast a wide net. You might think about social service jobs. They are demanding and not for everyone but willing to take entry-level people and turnover for caseworker positions is high. In NJ you would likely need a car but in NY everywhere is train-accessible except parts of Queens and SI. Also, check out your anonymous prestigious liberal arts college's alumni network. Good luck. Now is not an easy time for job hunting and many others are in your position.
posted by Marnie at 1:37 PM on October 3, 2009

For Starbucks and other customer service-type jobs, lie about your experience if you have to. Get a well-spoken friend who has experience in the field to act as your reference. If anyone wants to know why you provided an individual's phone number rather than the business line, it's because your direct supervisors no longer work there. Or because the business closed. If you can't find a good reference, MeMail me.

Volunteer as much as you possibly can--it's fun, you'll meet people and make connections, and more importantly, you'll get really good experience. You can offer to help with projects far beyond your on-paper skills, and it's a great way to get more comfortable in the work world.
posted by soviet sleepover at 3:24 PM on October 3, 2009

Hi. I graduated in 2004 with a liberal arts degree, and have had to hustle since then. Even before the recession technically started, it was clear my degree was not going to get my the jobs I was interested in alone. So I've gotten paid to do jobs I would have never considered. House cleaning jobs are really not all the bad, especially if you can do them for well-to-do but nice people, and you can make decent money doing it. ( not for a cleaning company, but for families, small offices, etc) Personal Assistant work is also a great way to get experience- these might not be advertised in the way that you think, but I've gotten jobs putting up signs and networking. I've done sales and cold calling jobs, myself, and probably learned the *MOST* from these- some people simply can not stand it, but I ended up making a good amount of money this way, because my employers saw early on I was willing to do it and put myself out there. By trial and error I realized I was good at sales/marketing/PR work, something I knew NOTHING about when I graduated. So, it really does take trying on some different things and winging it sometimes. Hang in there.
posted by Rocket26 at 7:27 AM on October 4, 2009

Have you considered tutoring or teaching? There may be less demand and work for tutors with mostly language arts backgrounds, but if you are comfortable tutoring children in all their subjects, you can do that/nanny for at least a few days a week. SAT teaching companies may also be on the look out for writing instructors. Check Craigslist for ads or to post your own. It can be highly inconsistent work but the hourly pay can be really good. I know some people (at least a few English majors) who make/made a decent living out of it. You are probably going to have to look into getting reliable transportation though.

By the way, it's not just English majors. I have a B.S. in bio and I'm extremely unqualified for pretty much everything despite years of laboratory research and animal health experience.
posted by problemcat at 10:52 PM on October 4, 2009

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