The holidays are no time to give up the job search. Used wisely, experts say, the winter break can lead to a yuletide miracle: gainful employment in 2010
The holiday break is the perfect time to gain an edge on the competition if you're an MBA student searching for an internship or full-time job. "The worst thing anyone can do is just sit back at this stage," says Jackie Wilbur, director of career development at the MIT Sloan School of Management (MIT Sloan Full-Time MBA Profile). Although some career placement directors at top business schools are reporting—at least anecdotally—that the traditional fall recruiting season for full-time jobs went as well as they expected, there are still students looking for work. Some job-seekers have the economy to blame, while others are looking for nontraditional positions, which aren't always found through on-campus recruiting. While there are glimmers of hope about the economy, certainly more than there were last year, unemployment remains in the double digits. Indeed, experts are saying that today's job-hunters need to take a different, more aggressive approach. "There aren't enough jobs in the country for all the people who need them," says Jay Block, author of 101 Best Ways to Land a Job in Troubled Times (McGraw-Hill, 2009). "But those who write a slam-dunk résumé and communicate their value to potential employers will get them." Still, finding a job—even for a future MBA from a top business school—is not as easy as it sounds. Here, however, are tips on how to spend your holiday break from school earning the best holiday gift of all: a job. Make a list, check it twice. Block says that in the more than 20 years he has worked as a career coach, no client has ever taken the time to write an extensive, full-fledged plan for a job search. Block isn't talking about scribbling some notes as an afterthought on your daily to-do list. He wants people to take a pen and paper and give thought to exactly how much time they will spend on job hunting each day and what tasks will lead them to finding work. He wants them to conduct research and create calendars that feature interviews (informational and hiring), seminars, networking, and job conferences. Of course, you should keep looking for job opportunities throughout the holiday season—and you must consider that part of your official plan. Before you even leave campus, you should meet with a career counselor at your business school and ask about reciprocity programs. If you're planning on heading home for the holidays, you might be able to use the job-search tools and career services offices of the university in your hometown. Some universities have "reciprocity" agreements that allow students from one school to use the career services of another. You need to speak with a career representative from your school, who can find out if it has any reciprocity agreements with schools near your hometown, says Wendy Tsung, associate dean and executive director of the MBA Career Management Center at Emory's Goizueta Business School (Goizueta Full-Time MBA Profile). Spread good cheer. Block says 75% to 80% of jobs are filled through networking—someone knew someone who knew someone who was a perfect fit for the available position. Networking is vital to finding a job, yet most people never make networking a formal part of their job search. Truly, you are networking all the time—from the friends you're making in class to the guy you met on the airplane last week. But you need to redefine networking and be more tactical about meeting people for it to help you in your job search. "The old definition of networking is the mutually mortifying process where you impose on every friend, relative, and total stranger and ask them for something they can't give you: a job," says Don Orlando, owner of the McLean Group, a Montgomery (Ala.)-based career coaching service. "The new definition of networking is to find out how you can help other people." That means figuring out what potential employers need to be successful, and that you're in a position to provide. Then you must clearly tell them how you can and will solve their problems and improve their business, says Orlando. Any specifics, especially concrete details, such as how much you can save the company each year, are a great help. Limiting your networking to potential employers only is a big mistake. Every holiday party is a networking opportunity, says Tsung. Orlando suggests contacting the top people in the career field that interests you most and asking them what it takes to be the best and to be acknowledged as the best by your bosses, clients, and yourself. He says you should never ask these mentors for a job or even to pass on your résumé—and you should let them know up front that you will not be asking them for a job. They will answer you because they are flattered you think so highly of them, and they don't see you as competition, says Orlando. Calling potential mentors or head honchos of companies that interest you over the holiday season is a good bet. Many of them give their assistants time off while they keep on working, so they're likely to pick up the phone and answer your questions, say experts. The days of dead offices during the holiday season are over. Hiring even takes place during the holidays, so this is no time to get complacent, even if you'd rather be eating leftovers and watching football. Certainly, you should not drop the ball on the basics, especially responding to potential employers, mentors, and contacts who get back to you via e-mail and phone during the holiday season, says Jessica Henry, senior associate director of employer development in the Career Services Center at University of Chicago Booth School of Business (Booth Full-Time MBA Profile). Think like a busy little elf. School might not be in session, but that doesn't mean you don't have homework to do. If you're changing careers or want to improve or pick up a particular skill, you should consider taking on a freelance or volunteer project with a company that interests you. Before leaving campus, you can check in with your alumni association, which can probably match you with an alumnus who is looking for extra help, says MIT's Wilbur. Don't just do a project to show you're a hard worker. You should do it to fill a gap in your skill set or become part of a network, says Chicago's Henry. Some students opt to travel over the holidays. Whether you are going on an international trip or job trek organized by your business school or a vacation that you've planned, you can still take advantage of the opportunities that arise when traveling. This is a chance to network with people in other geographic locations. Reach out to companies wherever you are traveling to see if you can get an informational meeting with someone or tour a plant, for instance. Wherever you are, continue to network and make connections. You never know who will know someone who will be able to help you find a job. Try not to travel just for the sake of traveling. It's best, say experts, if you choose a destination that fits into your overall career plan and could help you improve your chances with a particular industry or company. One of the most important jobs you have during the holiday season is to build a digital presence, says Orlando. Try to write industry-relevant blogs or articles for e-zines and trade publications. Join professional organizations, suggests Orlando, and be of service to them. Employers, more than ever, are searching for employees via Google search. "Jobs are going to find people, not people finding jobs in the future," says Orlando. If you become an expert in your field of interest and demonstrate that online, you will eventually get noticed. These items can always be pointed out on your résumé, on Facebook, or LinkedIn. Visit with the ghost of experiences past. You don't have to be Scrooge to reflect on your past. In fact, doing so will help you come up with examples of your outstanding performance to share with potential employers. Orlando reminds clients to think of their academic experiences, too. Describe how you managed a chaotic team project or discuss feedback you received from a professor. If you get an A on a test, ask your professor how many people earned A's. If you were, say, one in a class of 20 to get an A, you might want to mention it in an interview, says Orlando. Block suggests coming up with examples of how you have solved problems for other companies and how you can translate that to solving problems for a new employer in the future. Keeping on top of the job search and staying positive are necessary if you want to find a job and have a happy holiday season. "No one should be embarrassed if they're looking for work in this environment," says Wilbur. "Let people help you. It sounds easy, but it's hard for most of us."