For many, graduation is a happy, liberating milestone. But it’s also almost always followed by a dreaded job search that has many questioning why they were so excited to leave university in the first place.
First-time job seekers now need to maintain dazzling LinkedIn profiles for the assessment of potential employers. After all, the hiring process is not what it once was, with companies and applicants now relying on technology — for better or worse. While human resource departments could, in the past, be unexpectedly wowed by an applicant, most applications today are done through online portals where resumes are easily filtered out by rigid requirements. It’s easier to apply from the comfort of your own home, but it’s easier to be ignored by potential employers too. This is especially true during the pandemic, as many companies continue operating through remote work. If you’re lucky enough to get an interview, you’ll have to charm your way through a video call.
It’s little wonder that many Gen Zs, fresh out of college, are stuck in their job hunt.
Ellie Boisen, a 21-year-old geographic information systems major based in Minnesota who graduated last May, recounted how her professors essentially threw her a virtual pity party over email, when they realized that she is still looking for a job.
“They were just like ‘Oh, the first job is always the hardest to find,’ she said. “It’s kind of embarrassing to have the professors notice that it’s taking a long time for you to get your first job.”
Enter Alexa Shoen, a career coach who meets Gen Z where they are — TikTok. Through short, witty videos, Shoen, author of #ENTRYLEVELBOSS: How To Get Any Job You Want, shares sage employment advice for new graduates, like Boisen, who follow her on the platform.
Shoen said that job seekers can actually use what seem like obstacles to their advantage. No networking events? Try Twitter. Not getting any responses from companies? Start personalizing your cover letter. Shoen spoke to VICE about how Gen Z can get started on their career in the age of social media and COVID-19.
Look for opportunities people are sleeping on
“You get really bad career advice during recessions because it's all based from fear,” Shoen said of the job market during the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are saying to 22-year-olds right now that they have no hope, that there are no jobs…and that's not only not very motivating, but it's not helpful either.”
Yes, we are in the middle of a year-long pandemic and a deep recession, but in many cases, COVID-19 is probably not the reason why people aren’t finding the jobs that they want — or at least it’s not the only reason.
“This idea that there are no jobs — period — is fundamentally not true. Now, is it a harder economy to break into? Yeah, absolutely. But there are also plenty of opportunities popping up right now,” said Shoen. She pointed to the concept of inferior good — things that come into higher demand during an economic recession.
“Look for the opportunities that people aren't paying attention to,” she said. In 2020, for example, some companies had no idea they were going to have the best year of sales. Think: e-commerce platforms, online dating sites, and even puzzle makers.
“If you are ahead of the curve in chasing those opportunities, you're gonna find it an easier road,” she said.
Be intentional about using social media for your career
In the past, we were taught to keep our personal and professional lives separate. Instagram photos were hidden from the public, in case, God forbid, recruiters found them and saw how fun you actually were. But with the domination of social media, Shoen thinks that the people who are “learning out loud and publicly” are the ones who stand out. While it’s still worth putting your best foot forward online, social media should no longer be hidden from the sights of recruiters, but rather worn proudly as an extension of your personality and professional ambition.
“Bringing your whole self to the internet in this kind of conscious way can be wildly helpful for your career in a way that we were taught was gonna be too dangerous,” she said.
“Bringing your whole self to the internet in this kind of conscious way can be wildly helpful for your career in a way that we were taught was gonna be too dangerous.”
Besides using social media as a way to showcase your personality, it’s also an incredibly useful tool for networking. What a lot of people overlook is that, besides LinkedIn, other forms of social media like Instagram and Twitter are equally legitimate ways of reaching out to people for job opportunities.
“A lot of newer office jobs, especially jobs in the tech industry or jobs that have a younger workforce, you could easily DM somebody on Instagram or Twitter and that would be how you do your networking.”
This is even more common now, when opportunities for face-to-face encounters are rare.
“I think that people who are finding success…in their networking right now are absolutely doing it because they are finding creative ways to reach out to people on social media,” Shoen said.
So, look for your dream companies on Instagram, reach out to them on Twitter, nobody cares. Just find any — legal and socially acceptable — way to get to your potential employers. It also helps to just reach out to a company, even when they don’t have job postings. This means looking beyond job portals, LinkedIn, and hiring notices, and letting them know that you’re interested in joining their team. .
“What you could do instead is proactively go out and ask…10 people you really really admire if you could do some of their backlog admin for the next three weeks — just how can you be helpful and how could you make somebody's life easier,” suggested Shoen, “and that is again a valid way of getting experience that people don't understand is valid.”
Most people will not say no to extra help. And just because they didn’t actively ask for it, doesn’t mean you can’t actively offer your service.
Think of your first job as a study abroad program
According to Shoen, people usually want to know about as many jobs as possible. This is what she calls the “job search junk food diet.” Job seekers are often tempted to cast a wide net — from their dream jobs to things they simply don’t really mind doing. They then end up applying for positions that they feel lukewarm about, just so they feel a sense of security for having submitted a bunch of applications.
“I don't think that there is ever a type of job that's right for graduates. Graduates and young people are needed in every industry. The problem is, usually, that they don't know where they want to go,” said Shoen.
For Boisen, the recent graduate, the biggest takeaway from Shoen’s TikTok advice was “getting all my ducks in a row, getting all my thoughts organized, knowing exactly where I want to work, and being able to tell people the specifics of where I want to work.”
“Before, I thought it was better to just be agreeable, and to be like ‘I’ll work anywhere,’ because that means that I’m an available candidate for anything, when, in fact, that just makes it more difficult for people to recognize you as a candidate for a specific industry,” said Boisen.
A lot of people are paralyzed by the choices they have to make when getting started on their lifelong career, especially when that first job is framed as a make-or-break moment.
“I was convinced when I was 22 that I needed to decide with a capital ‘D’ on what I wanted to do with my life in order to start applying for jobs,” shared Shoen. “So when I was starting my career, I felt this pressure that I had to pick the ‘right’ thing’.”
But the truth is, you’re probably not going to find that perfect job on your first try.
“I've started to tell people, think of the first year of your career like a study abroad program,” said Shoen. “Like what sounds fun to do for 12 months, and now let’s get curious about that, and apply to it as if we're applying to a really exciting study abroad program.”
That being said, Shoen also recognizes that not everyone has the privilege of going on a carousel ride of job experiences.
“I didn't face the same student loan pressure that so many people face now,” she admitted. “I think that if I personally had had to take on a ton of student loans, I might feel differently about my education paths.”
For those who do have the freedom to explore different career options, here’s what Shoen suggests: “Don't worry about what's gonna happen after [the 12 months] because if you don't start at all, then that's the way that you fall behind. …You're gonna figure it out through trial and error, just like the rest of us.”
“You're gonna figure it out through trial and error, just like the rest of us.”
Informal education is underrated. Just get curious.
While a formal education certainly provides a structured way of learning, it should not be mistaken as the only legitimate channel to gain knowledge.
“We all talk about Gen Z…[as] digitally savvy and yet we're still teaching them that they need to be educated in this way that moves much more slowly than the technical reality that they're used to,” she said.
The value of informal education is something that is hugely overlooked by job seekers today.
“So many times those qualifications matter less than you think they do. Sometimes, it helps to learn in a structured environment but a lot of times, if you just follow your curiosity and start asking questions to people, that's just as valid of a way to get the experience that you need.”
“So many times those qualifications matter less than you think they do.”
Shoen recommends “hacking your skill set.” This means thinking about all the ways you can teach yourself something, be it through online tutorials or extracurricular activities — anything. The goal, at the end of the day, is to prove that you can do it.
This was the case for Courtney Custodio, who graduated from California State University in 2010, but is “still searching for [her] first real career job.”
“I think part of it was because I danced around so many times on what I wanted to do,” said Custodio. “I didn’t decide to finally let myself do digital art until a couple of years ago because I think I was afraid to do something that I love. I was afraid to be like ‘I have to do this thing that’s gonna take a long time to teach myself, and it’s gonna be hard,’ but at the end of the day, it’s something that I love.”
“I want to highlight that it's not bad if you wanna learn in a structured environment. Just know that just because it's structured, doesn't make it more official in the grand scheme of things,” said Shoen.
You’re not alone
“I remember specifically the fear and stress of being 24 and feeling like all my friends have got it right and I screwed it up,” confessed Shoen. “Everybody didn't seem smarter than me when we were all drinking the same cheap beer in the back corner of the library but somehow, they all got hired and I didn't, so maybe I was dumber than everybody else and I didn't know it. ...And what I find to be true is that a lot of people feel that way.”
This sentiment is echoed by 25-year-old Emily James, a freelance video editor in Minneapolis who graduated in 2018. She has applied for over 40 jobs in the last three or four months but hasn’t heard back from any of them.
“New college graduates, they don’t have the tools or the mapwork to be given a fighting chance,” she said. “We really have been thrown to the wolves.”
“For people in my position, you have to just, like, keep going,” said James, who is still in pursuit of finding a job. “Don’t let your self confidence take a hit because you don’t get calls back, or you don’t get interviews. We’re all struggling, it’s a difficult time, and it’s not your fault for being stuck in this position, especially as an entry-level person.”
Having been stuck in the same rut herself, Shoen is glad that she is helping other despondent young job seekers through her employment tips. “I don't pretend to have all the answers at all,” she said. “But it's amazing to see the ways that people go out and apply the things that I teach them.”