College seniors – the time for your career is now!

Attention College Seniors! I know you don’t believe me, but the time for your career is RIGHT NOW.

It’s August, you say. We’re buying books, going to parties and figuring out how to fit classes into our busy social lives.  Isn’t August beer time?

Ok, enough stereotype.  Truth is, just as many of you are holding down several jobs, juggling family and working toward your graduation where you will stand and show the world what you earned.

I’ve talked with many seniors who don’t want to plan for their career until after graduation when they start job searching.  After all, isn’t career planning all about updating your resume and applying for jobs by the dozen? This has to be how to do it, especially now that the national unemployment rate is down from last year and several employment sites such as Indeed, CareerBuilder and Monster are trending growth in leads posted. Anecdotal feedback from the front lines indicates companies are projecting growth. They are posting leads. They are interviewing. They are networking. And they are hiring the people who have worked hard to be ready to be hired.

So what hard work are you doing to be ready?

You may not have that degree until next spring, but read below for 5 things you can do in less than 5 hours to make sure you land where you want to be once that degree is yours.

First and foremost, Spend an hour honing your stump speech

Politicians have talking points – so should you. You need to know your strengths and a bit about the industry where you want to work. This should be a well-rehearsed 30 to 60 second pitch about where you want to go and should solicit advice when appropriate.

Three things to remember about this networking intro:

–       Keep it simple, focused: Name, degree, experience/relevant expertise, open-ended advice question.   Example: “Hi, I’m Jason Ortega and I’ll be graduating next year with my Bachelor’s in Communications. My passion is PR and I also excel in writing and editing. I write for our school paper and wrote a media plan for XYZ Company in my internship last year. What are your thoughts on what I can do to prepare for the professional communications market next spring?”

–       Hone this speech, and use it daily with professors and classmates, in networking associations and fall career fairs, and even in line in at your local coffee roaster.  Adapt it, make it conversational and make it yours.  Then start talking to people.

–       Listen and engage.  Listen to the responses and internalize what they mean for you and how you can implement relevant suggestions.

Doing this will help you meet someone to help you with the next thing you can do for your career…which is have coffee or tea with someone who can help you develop and hone your pitch and start talking – and listening – to others about your career.

While it really is that easy to get started, it is also a little daunting figuring out your best path to your career and going about finding the people who you think can have a great impact on your career.

That’s why Step 2 is easier – and makes things a little less formal.

While it may seem counterintuitive that you should relax with a beverage of your choosing (I suggested a couple, but you probably know of a few more…), that is exactly what you should do next to take charge of your career and maximize your results.

No, I’m not suggesting that you go and have a coffee to think about your career.  Thinking is good, but you need to interact. The point is this – you need to set some informational interviews.

Informational interviews are short meetings (to respect the time of the person you are interviewing) where you gather information about successes and suggestions on paths you may consider when making your own career plans.  That’s it – plain and simple.

Look at your pitch and identify your goals.  Now make a list of 3-5 people that accel in the field that are in your immediate circle of influence and who you admire and invite them to coffee.  You want to be an engineer?  Great!  Who in your circle may be a good person to invite for a 15-20 minute meeting to learn more about how they are successful?  A professor? A top classmate? The guy you met at the career fair who told you about future opportunities? Your local IEEE membership?

I love this brief informational interview article over at the New York Times on informational interviewing.  For a more in-depth look, go over to the Quint Careers site as they pretty much lay it out from start to finish.

This is probably one of the easiest things you can do to begin to identify some of the ways that you can be successful in your career.  Take the stories of others and identify what works for them.  Think about what you’d like to incorporate for you.  And then go and do that.

Step 3 of the 5 things you can do in 5 hours for your career right now is coming soon… make sure you are ready!

Using SM in your job search?

Ask yourself if you are using the right medium for the right activity.

Chances are you already have a presence on many channels.  If you haven’t already, it is important to determine which tools are going to be used in a professional capacity. 

LinkedIn, Quora, Twitter and blogs are all good ways to showcase your talents and the value you can add to a company.  You must be able to be found online, and the things you post help define that you have a brand beyond your resume and cover letter.

At minimum, your LinkedIn account should be robust with a professional picture and showcase your professional highlights.  If you haven’t already, consider using Twitter to share industry-specific information, link to articles and join in on job seeker chats.  Also, check out Quora to answer questions and show your expertise on a topic by topic basis.  These tools will help you maintain contact with your network and could potentially help you connect with like-minded professionals.

How do you use social media in your job search?

New Year, New Resolutions?

A friend told me about a discussion she overheard at the gym yesterday.  Two ladies were talking about their overbooked Spin class and how they were vying to get a seat.  At the end of the exchange one lady remarked to the other, “Just wait.  This class will be empty again by mid-February.”  Similarly, many people who are searching for a new job or career path often vow to begin their search anew come January.

While many people resolve to do better in the New Year, the truth is that sometimes those resolutions don’t stick.  And sometimes new resolutions aren’t needed to find your next opportunity.  The best career advice I can give you for 2011 is to follow the SMART methodology for setting your goals, commit to a plan, execute according to your timeline and reflect and refine at key milestones.

While this is hardly revolutionary, it is often overlooked as we are enchanted with the thought that the New Year has somehow transformed us.

Start SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timebound

Don’t be too broad in your goals.   As yourself of each of your goals if it follows the SMART model.
–          Is it specific? What is the objective you want to accomplish?
–          Can it be measured?  How will you know when you have achieved it?
–          Is it attainable and plausible for you to achieve your goal?
–          With the resources and abilities you have, is this goal realistic?
–          What is your time limit?  Be realistic and be sure to set milestones for your goal.

Also, you need to apply the SMART model to all of your goals as a whole once you have run each of them through the SMART test.
–          Are all of them specific?  Are they compatible and work together?
–          What is the overarching measurement for all of these goals?
–          Are they attainable and plausible together? Can you achieve all of these goals simultaneously?
–          Do you have too many goals to achieve or are you at a realistic number?
–         Did you map out your timeline for each of these goals?  What are the major milestones to achievement?

Plan your work
After your goals are set and have passed the SMART test, it is important to come up with your project plan on how you are going accomplish your goals.  Think of this as your blueprint that you will follow throughout the entire process.  Do this for each goal separately, but be sure to incorporate onto one timeline on your primary calendar.

How do you start a project plan?   There are numerous software and web tools to help with this endeavor, but you can keep it simple as well.  For each goal, list the steps needed to achieve success.  Ask a trusted colleague or mentor for input after your first draft.  Write out each of the steps needed to get to your goal – and then schedule them on your calendar.  Put in all of the major milestones and your deadline.  For more in depth help, check this reference site housed on the Free Management Library which discusses basic project planning.

Work your plan
This is where the real work comes in – the execution stage. No, there isn’t a way around this step, but you can make it easier.  Go back to basics and use your ABCs to help work your plan.

Accountability: In addition to your calendar, enlist the help of colleagues, family and friends to help keep you on track.  If you have periodic check-ins, you are more likely to stick to your plan and keep working at each step.

Bend and be flexible:  You will have things that do not go your way.  Do not give up.  The less rigid you are, the more likely you will continue on your way toward achievement.

Celebrate:  Take time to celebrate the milestones, wins and even the learnings from setbacks with your accountability partners.

Reflect, reassess and recommit
Throughout the entire process, you must reflect, reassess and recommit regularly.  For some goals, this may be daily – and for others, weekly.  The key thing to remember is that your commitments must be revisited and sometimes revamped in order to ensure success.

Education doesn’t guarantee you a career

Recently, I was on The Jay Boatman Show to discuss my thoughts on for-profit education and the “Gainful Employment” legislation that is being spearheaded by the Department of Education.  In a nutshell, the federal government wants limit the amount of Title IV funding that private sector (aka “for-profit”) colleges receive for students to attend their colleges and  universities.

The aspiration of rewarding, gainful employment is a solid one.  If you are going to spend the majority of your time working, why wouldn’t you want to enjoy what you are doing and be financially rewarded for it? The Department of Education issue, however, isn’t really about people being gainfully employed – it is more about ensuring that education consumers who select to go to school at market-driven institutions are able to repay the debt they accrued while seeking higher education opportunities.

Unfortunately, both private and public sector colleges and universities have students who graduate who cannot pay back their debt. My core belief is that much of this problem stems from a complex system of misinformation and the culture of debt we have in this country.  I also believe that if we are truly concerned about “gainful employment” for our college graduates, we need to look at ALL higher education institutions and get down to frank discussions about how we educate our future leaders.

Ultimately, YOU are solely responsible for your career readiness and ensuring that you are well-informed about how to make the most of your future.  Education can help you attain your career goals if you are prepared and make the most of your experience.

Keep these things in mind when choosing a school and field of study:

Know yourself and your situation, even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do

You may not know your end career goal, but you need to know your strengths and leverage them.  Spend a few uninterrupted hours (or days!) with yourself to reflect on why you want to go to school and your primary passions.  Know what you like to do and where your talents lie.  Ask friends, relatives, former teachers and managers to quickly summarize your greatest assets and weaknesses.  Blog or journal about your future aspirations and make some SMART goals for the next year, two years, and so on (SMART = Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely).  Assess and list any relevant considerations such as abilities, family and financial obligations, location and other potential barriers or resources.

Research, research – and then research some more

Using your SMART goals and your situation details, start external research.  There are hundreds of websites dedicated to helping you understand how to pick a higher education institution.  Use the web, but use it well.  Don’t rely on one or two websites and use a variety of keywords in your search criteria.  For example, the search terms “pick a college” and “questions to ask when picking a college” are similar, but yield different search results.  Rely on well-known, reputable sites for school listings such as the Department of Education site which includes all public and private sector accredited institutions.  For further resources that I like, see the end of this post.

Think long term

Once you are invested in your education, make the most of it.  Understand the resources available to you on campus.  Utilize your Academics, financial aid, student services and career development offices.  Attend their events, participate and ask questions.  Go above and beyond your peers and don’t take shortcuts on your assignments.  Build a network of people who can help you in your future – and don’t forget to help them and stay in touch, too.  You are there to learn and engage with those around you.   Every day makes an impact on your future.

Be a Marketeer

In the end, it comes down to you.  Proactively promote yourself and your needs.  Don’t be passive and hope that someone else will do something for you.  If you don’t understand something after you have researched it, determine the correct person and get an answer.  Advocate for yourself throughout your education and you will carry that habit onto your career and your future.

Want more information on the issue of “Gainful Employment”?  Read all sides:

Want more information on choosing colleges, majors and careers?  Here are some of my favorite resources: