Surely the economy isn't this terrible!
January 21, 2011 1:28 PM   Subscribe

Pardon my naiveté, but what's the best way to go about job searching for an entry-level/retail job for a person who doesn't have a degree beyond high school? They never taught me this in school.

I've been giving an application to nearly every place that will give me one/has online applications, but I just don't seem to be getting any interviews or offers. No place is too cheap or "beneath" me. I'm not just applying to retail positions at places that seem like they'd be "fun." I really want some income, because I want to move out of my house and be somewhat independent, and I'm tired of hearing daily about how I'm a real problem for household finances from my mother. However, I think I'm a bit naive about job searching.

I'm 22 years old, and eager to work. I don't really have any qualifications towards retail (weird home-life meant I couldn't get a ride to get a job while I was in high school or even back when the economy was good). I'm currently a college student at community college, and I'm studying towards an associates in computer science. I have a decent grasp on Java and I've played around in AS3 before. I'm also almost A+ certified, I'm passing the practice exams but don't really have the money for the certification test. I've worked for a financial planner's office before doing PC repair, but he lately hasn't had any jobs for me. If it matters, I have taken a good 5 years of French, and I'm confident I could translate most simple written documents.

I don't really have any spiffy connections or anything to pull (my mom's a financial planner and all my friends are college students, none of whom seem to have any clout at their jobs).

I tried signing up for the state job exchange,, and applying all over the place. Is there something I'm missing, or is it just a factor of a bad economy?

Failing finding work near me, I might, just might, be able to convince my mom to pay me a little money to move elsewhere in the country if it means me being independent. Anywhere in America that has a better economy for a person starting out than NJ?

Honestly, I'd even settle for odd jobs right now (filing, shoveling snow, etc), if it meant at least building up some savings and not sponging off of my mom for every sort of luxury. Any tips for getting those?

(Crosspost from
posted by mccarty.tim to Work & Money (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, the economy really is this terrible. Keep cranking away at it.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:34 PM on January 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Have you considered getting in touch with a temp agency? I'm not sure what your travel situation is, but if you're mobile, you could probably get lots of short term projects. A day of filing here, some organization here. That's how I made my money as I was going through college.

Good luck!
posted by chatongriffes at 1:35 PM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Temp agencies helped me a lot at this stage of life, as did having decent recommenders (adults from church, former teachers, friends of my parents.) Also, seriously, apply everywhere. Go to the mall and fill out an application at every single store. Go to Meijer and Target and Wal-Mart and the Piggly-Wiggly and Kroger and then go to the same ones on the other side of town. Be sure your handwriting is neat and your shirt and shoes are clean. Spread the word to everyone you know that you're looking for a job.

But mostly temp agencies, because they know everyone hiring for short-term work, and often have a lock on warehouse and even factory jobs, as well.
posted by SMPA at 1:37 PM on January 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

You say you are near your A+, forget retail. Ask if there are any paid internship opportunities at the community college IT department. Ask if they have an exchange program for paid internships at other schools. Believe it or not even Harvard will bring in a student from another school to get some experience. Don't be discouraged. Like restless nomad said the economy still sucks.
posted by Gungho at 1:40 PM on January 21, 2011

My wife has a college degree and can't get a callback for part-time retail work. It's probably not you. Keep at it, and don't let it get you down.

In the short term, next time it snows grab a shovel and go door to door. Faced with doing it myself, or giving the kid standing at my door a $20 to do it, I'm opting handing over the $20 every time.
posted by COD at 1:41 PM on January 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

Thirding the suggestion for temp work. They are probably flooded too, but at a temp agency persistence will pay off and you have specialized skills that will put you above the normal landscaping/filing jobs. Basically, if you call every day they will find a placement for you eventually, and lots of the time that placement will translate to another placement or full-time work.
posted by muddgirl at 1:57 PM on January 21, 2011

This may stand out as a little out there, but I suggest that since you're headed in the CS direction you call local freelance web developers, web designers, and programmers. Ask if they need assistance with data entry. Many of them will need help with data entry because their clients don't want to pay $150/hr. for data entry, but they don't know anybody who will do it cheaply and who also knows a bit about computers (i.e. won't be calling the programmer every 10 minutes for help).

Regardless, it's great to make those sorts of connections, too. Now is also a great time to do informational interviews that will help you as you look into careers. Call somebody up, ask for 10 minutes of their time to ask them about their job. Don't ask them for work, just keep it interview-y. Could always turn into something, but it will help you regardless.

Finally, don't forget to email your college teachers. When I was teaching at my local college, the kids who emailed me for career & job help ALWAYS got the best picks from what I knew about. It will make your teachers feel good, too.
posted by circular at 2:03 PM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Why don't you go to your community college and see if they have any positions available in the IT department. If you are doing well in your classes, you should be able to get recommendations from your professors.

This would help you along with your career (if you want to stay in the cs field after you get your degree) and get you a job.
posted by TheBones at 2:06 PM on January 21, 2011

Also, do not discount your friends because they don't have clout. You don't need clout, you just need to find out about job openings before other people do. I once got a job at a restaurant because one of my friends who was a dishwasher gave me a call to let me know they were hiring waitresses.
posted by interplanetjanet at 2:45 PM on January 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

Check if your campus has a CS or math tutoring center that will hire you.
posted by anaelith at 2:55 PM on January 21, 2011

Jobs are often found through connections rather than blind applications - be sure to ask everyone you know if they know of any openings, which includes your friends, family, fellow students, people in your department, etc. (Also be very nice to the administrative assistants in your college department! They can ensure that your application is at the top of the stack for grants, scholarships, work-study jobs, etc.)

Consider, if you get a nibble for something slightly higher than retail, offering to work for X amount of time for free, so the boss can decide if you're worth it or not. That's how my boyfriend got his current job - he knew two people who worked at the company. They got the boss to look at his resume, which got him an interview. He then offered to work for free for a month on a specific project problem that came up during the interview, and at the end of the month he was hired. Can't guarantee that people won't exploit you, but it's worth a shot.

Resumes/applications are often kept on file for a while, until positions open up. You might get a callback in a few months
posted by telophase at 3:07 PM on January 21, 2011

Oh yes - start asking around your college about work-study and other student jobs now. At this time in the semester I suspect everything will be filled, but ask them when's a good time to come back and check for openings for the summer and the fall. These types of positions are usually filled well before the semester starts.
posted by telophase at 3:09 PM on January 21, 2011

Just keep hammering. I assume you're applying for at least one job a day?

Also, when I was temping, in between computing jobs, for example I noticed their website was out of date (had not done any web work at all at that point). Offered to proofread and update it. Had to call up the web design company to ask about permissions beyond what was available in the CMS, which turned out not to be appropriate, but with just that little bit of editing I had a nonzero amount of web work to my name.

But when the gig finished, and I was looking for something new, it occurred to me to call up that company and offer to freelance at a low rate for some more experience (and they remembered talking with me). We didn't close the deal before I got another job, but the negotiations were positive. I would have called more local companies if I'd needed to. But that is the kind of thing that proved fruitful for me.

Forgive me if I'm teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, but do make sure your application forms are filled out PERFECTLY. A surprising number of people don't do this, disqualifying themselves early and making more opportunities for you.
posted by tel3path at 3:26 PM on January 21, 2011

These two suggestions are more for picking up scratch than for finding steady hours...

You're fortunate to have some programming/web design experience. I'd use that to look for various freelance gigs out there. I see a ton on sites like Craigslist and Odesk but don't have those particular skills so I can never go after them.

Also, is any sort of campus job board available to you? We had one at my school and I used to get all sorts of jobs from them. Some paid pretty well.
posted by world b free at 3:31 PM on January 21, 2011

I had a "temp" job for about two years (and finally quit for a full time job, I think they would have kept me on as temp forever...) and it was a real lifesaver in tough economic times. Even data entry can pay a decently hourly wage. Even if you have transportation issues, some temp jobs like inventory specialists will drive people in a van to the place to be inventoried.

How are you with kids? Would you do some babysitting?

Your community college might have some job resources as well, they could possibly help.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 3:45 PM on January 21, 2011

Can you show us an example of what you're writing on these applications? That might be part of the problem.

I think online applications are useless, and I think you really need to show up in person, early in the A.M. at a time when they are not busy, looking fresh and wearing clean appropriate clothes. Ask who in the store is hiring, and ask if they have a moment to speak with you. They have a ton of people to choose from who can do these jobs so ability to do the job is necessary but not sufficient- make yourself someone they want to see every day. Energetic, courteous, positive, in a good mood, friendly, as attractive as you can be. Make sure the hiring person is the one you talk to/give your application to, because otherwise your application will just go in the huge pile with all the others. If the hiring person isn't there when you come, come back when they are.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:50 PM on January 21, 2011

P.S. It's jarring how differently people treat you, and what they assume your abilities to be, when you are dressed a little fancier. I found this out when I started having to wear suits, and especially the day I had to go dispute something with my building's awful management office and didn't have time to change out of my suit beforehand. You should not go as far as wearing a suit to look for retail jobs, but try wearing a crisp button-down shirt, pants that are a step above the jeans one would wear on the average day, and making sure your hair is cut well and looks professional. If you can't afford to buy nicer clothes, just go to the Goodwill/Salvation army and I absolutely guarantee you can find a nice outfit for under $10 though you may have to do some digging. You just need one good outfit and you can wear it to all the places.
posted by Ashley801 at 3:59 PM on January 21, 2011

The economy is that bad. Take a look at this webapp from 2009. While the average unemployment at publication was 8.6, the average for for men your age with a high school degree was 17 percent!

Your friends don't need to have clout, they just need to know if there's any open positions. The problem is, 1. There probably aren't. 2. Your friends are probably too young & stupid to follow such things.

When I was in university, temp agencies were a good source of summer jobs. There were also several employers offering internships that paid surprisingly well; I wish I had realized internships weren't something you had to be qualified & productive at, since it was intended to be a learning and recruiting experience.
posted by pwnguin at 4:05 PM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Plus... you'd be amazed how many online applications just get thrown away as soon as they reach the other end.

At the end of each cover letter, put "I look forward to hearing from you, and I will be contacting your office within the next few working days to make sure that you have received this." Make a note in your diary to do so. Ideally by phone, ideally with a contact name. Very often they'll say "no we didn't get it can you send it through again?" This may not go any further... but you can at least in some cases make sure that your applications are being received and read. I really don't think the buggers should be soliciting your laboriously-completed applications just to ignore them without so much as an auto-reply.
posted by tel3path at 4:05 PM on January 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wait, Wasted effort. Start calling companies directly. Local newspapers, yellow pages, pre-research about what they do and the name of an individual (not in HR) to call up. Think very carefully about what you're offering before you call and tailor it to each company. In your position it would be fair to say that you're looking for more experience and will happily work for a lower rate (check salary/hourly/daily rate stats for your area) in exchange for starting small. Some companies will even turn out to have job ads on their websites.
posted by tel3path at 4:09 PM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

For short term, if you like people, consider tutoring work. You might consider dropping off a resume with some specialties at local high school and junior high school offices. For the most part you will need to have a clean CORI report (depending on the jurisdiction).

Cruise the want ads. Show up in person with a resume (actually, bring a few). Your resume doesn't have to be huge and it can include classes that you've taken. Dress nicely nicely. Smile. A cheerful good morning will go a long way. "Good morning! May I speak with someone in HR, please?" Even better if you can find a name on their website and ask specifically. "I saw your name on your company website and I thought I would try to see you personally."

Also - if you show up, always have an answer to this question, "do you know what we do?" that starts with, "I saw on your web site..." or "I looked it up in the library..." or "I tried to find it in x,y, and z, but couldn't and now I'm *really* curious..."

Where I work, we use that question as a first screen - basically, if you didn't even take the time to look at our public propaganda, you damn well better be able to shit unicorns that in turn can shit rainbows because we're going to quickly take the same amount of interest in you that you showed us.
posted by plinth at 5:06 PM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Lots of good advice so far...

One thing that comes to mind is some places may look at your qualifications or experience and see it non-retail related and think you'll just be a short-timer using them as a stepping stone. So the manager may pass on you and not want to spend training resources on someone who will most likely leave in a few months. So it may sometimes be necessary to exclude certain info on applications.

Also, if you are sitting around with extra time you might consider volunteering. For example, when I was in college for CS, I volunteered in the computer lab at my high school once or twice a week. It helped that I knew the teachers, so if you're still local to past schools then volunteering like this can be helpful on a resume for a future computer related job.
posted by JibberJabber at 9:28 PM on January 21, 2011

People above have solid job-hunting advice, and that's part of it. Make sure when you go in you aren't in "desperation" mode, or it's easy to undersell yourself and lay back on the actual search:
- No place is too cheap or "beneath" me: scratch this from your mental process
- I don't really have any qualifications towards retail: can you not steal from your employer? can you deal with basic social interactions in a friendly or helpful way? can you do basic math and learn how to use a computer? Congratulations, you are qualified!
- I don't really have any spiffy connections or anything: actually I think your mom might be interesting to talk to because her clients may chat about their changes in hiring etc. I've heard it's not the guy YOU know who has the job, it's the guy HE knows.
- I tried signing up for ...: these are deceptive because it looks like you have done all you can in making a profile and hitting submit. That's where the naive stop. The pro goes and hunts down good opportunities on these boards and pursues them IRL.
posted by whatzit at 1:32 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

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