What to do when you can’t find work in your chosen field
I hear it over and over again, from friends, from family, even from the news. I’ve been there myself, more than once.
You’ve graduated from an amazing program (chances are you even have an advanced degree), your resume and work experience are solid, and you’ve made some great contacts in your industry. But you can’t find work – actual paying work.
First, know this: you are not alone. Four out of ten university-educated workers in Canada are working in jobs for which they are overqualified following graduation. From what I’ve seen and experienced, a huge number of these people are not only overqualified – they’re way overqualified.
The search for meaningful work that pays well can be a grind. But don’t give up hope; it is possible to find work you love, and a paycheque that matches.
There is one main thing you need to do: keep yourself in the game. Whatever industry you’re aiming for, find ways to stay involved.
Find online spaces (social media, forums, professional email lists) where people from your chosen industry are getting together to talk about what’s happening in the field, and get your voice out there. Don’t be intimidated just because you’re less experienced than some. You have opinions – share them.
One step up from tweeting about your field: start a blog. Challenge yourself to keep up with industry news and share your responses and best practices. Provided your writing is insightful and clearly communicated, this is a great way to establish yourself as a thought leader in your field (and may lead to people reaching out to you, rather than being another faceless name in a pile of resumes).
Getting a job can be easy, but getting a good job involves a certain amount of hustle. Cultivating your online presence is important, but so is finding ways to connect face-to-face. You want people to know who you are, and to connect you to the work you want to be doing (even if you’re not officially doing it yet).
A key: when people ask you about what you do, your focus should be on your professional field, not the job you happen to have right now. Say you’re working in a coffee shop, but you’ve finished a program in marketing. If that’s the kind of work you want to be doing, get comfortable saying it: “I’m in marketing.” Don’t hide your skills and expertise behind your current job title. This is not to say you should lie. If the follow up question is, “Oh, where do you work?” it’s totally okay to say, “I’m actually looking for something right now. My focus is on…” and share your niche/area of expertise. Then follow up with a cool experience or project you’ve worked on in the past – something amazing you’ve done.
Even better – get involved with a project now that allows you to show off your skills.
Two great ways to do that: start freelancing to build your portfolio a little bit at a time (yay, money!), or find a project or event that could use your expertise and will be grateful for the help (possibilities include a related board, a not-for-profit where you can volunteer your services, a grassroots initiative that’s taking place in your community, an indie project where no one’s getting paid yet). This option can be especially important for people who work in skill-specific roles (like marketing, HR, accounting, design, and so on) that serve multiple industries. Don’t do all of your networking with other people in your role; spend time connecting with the people who will need your services, where your skills will stand out.
Another thing to consider: “Transferable skills” is a buzzword in universities, where professors know that they’re sending students into uncertain career futures. This exercise can help you figure out what your transferable skills are, and find jobs that might be a perfect fit, even if they’re not what you thought you were aiming for. Ask yourself:
- At the heart of it, what do you love about your chosen profession?
- What skills have you built up so far in your career? Include hard skills (accounting, database design, research) and soft skills (managing teams, time management, communication, organization)
- What comes most naturally to you at work (and life)? It’s simple to overlook these things because they can feel so easy, but often these are our biggest assets.
Really take some time to look at your list and figure out the specifics of what is important to you in your work, along with what you’re really good at. Now think about other positions or industries where you might be able to apply your skills and find the job satisfaction you’re looking for. Chances are that you don’t even know about many of the options, so engage some of your career champions in this process. Search job listings using some of the keywords you’ve identified, and you might be surprised at what comes up.
This is also an opportunity to build some relevant skills that weren’t covered in your degree, but that can make you a more appealing candidate when you apply for jobs. Project management, tech skills, leadership, social media, business communications (and many more); find out what’s the most sought after in your field – what qualities and experiences really make a hiring manager take notice of an applicant – and start building your skills in those areas. There are plenty of cheap or free online courses, and if you check in with the business librarian at your local or university library they’ll be able to point you to the best resources for you.
Your career is not over before it even started, even if it feels like the engine stalled and you’re going nowhere fast. For now, keep yourself in the game any way you can find. Hustle, self-promote, and keep going as if you’re a part of your chosen industry or profession – because you are. Underemployed or not, you have the skills, experience and dedication to make it.
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