Contrary to popular believe, networking is not something that begins at the point when you are comfortably ensconced within an industry and easily surrounded by useful contacts. As undergraduate numbers rise and the competition for jobs gets tougher, the savvy undergrad is the one who starts networking during their university years. But just how many undergraduates are making the most of ALL of these means in order to optimize their chances to the max?
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” As professionals, we are well aware that this still holds a lot of truth in the job market. But while experienced workers are usually more than happy to utilise any contacts they have to help them get a foot in the door, undergraduates can be much more reluctant. “I want to do it all myself” says the second year student whose uncle is a partner in a top professional services firm. As noble as this may seem, it is undoubtedly naïve. Quite simply, if you are not using your contacts, someone else will be. As a first step, all students should be putting time aside to brainstorm everyone they know – family, friends, family of friends, tutors – who are in a position to help them professionally. And then ask for that help. That’s not cheating, it’s being proactive.
Universities can be very tight-knit communities, with many people wanting to help out ‘their own’. But alumni networks shouldn’t just start existing after students have graduated (although these contacts can be fantastically helpful throughout the lifespan of your career). Many university careers services now have abundant links in place with their alumni and perhaps specific schemes that are designed to link students past to students present. So ask your students if they are doing enough to make use of these links? And ask yourself; are you doing enough to facilitate these networks?
You will know just how hard university careers services work hard to put a programme of events in place for their students, whether these are industry specific or more general careers fairs. Students need to make sure not only that they are attending these events, but that they are getting the most out of them. Turning up at an event completely unprepared is unlikely to allow you to shine. However, spending time beforehand researching the companies and their employee representatives, and having questions to ask and CVs to hand out are much more likely to score success. Additional to university led events, students need to be aware of other networking opportunities that take place within their targeted industries. Professional memberships to the relevant governing bodies and institutes should, for example, give them lots more options to network.
The rise in social media has resulted in a situation where even the least confident of students have no excuse not to network. But social media networking isn’t just for introverts – everyone should be at it! LinkedIn is hugely popular among working communities but seems to be less quick to catch on within the student populations. This is a shame as so many recruiters use it to check up on candidates and it is a great way for students to be able to stand out as mature and serious job contenders. And LinkedIn isn’t just about growing your number of connections and utilising these. Students should also be taking advantage of the ‘Groups’ function to liaise with professionals, join in with active discussions and ask for tips on getting ahead. For those students who may find LinkedIn intimidating to get to grips with, Twitter may feel like a less formal way of keeping in touch with employer requirements and reaching out to the professional community and perhaps a more comfortable way of becoming initiated into the world of social media networking.
Of course, one of the best ways for students not only to connect with employers but to show their potential value is through internships or work experience. We are all aware that such experiences are becoming increasingly necessary for those wanting to target the most prestigious of graduate employment schemes but students should stay grounded in that securing an internship alone may not be enough. Again, it is about making the most of this as a networking opportunity and using the experience proactively not just to work hard, but to branch out and forge a reputation of being an outstanding student. Every opportunity should be taken to mix and mingle within the company and to connect with these networks through social media in order to stay in touch. Who knows at what point these may be valuable contacts in the future? Networking is a lifelong skill after all.
So next time you are working with a student who thinks that they have networking sewn up, check how many of these 5 boxes they can confidently tick. Where may there by room for improvement? A little bit of tweaking may make a whole lot of difference not only to their post-graduation job search but to their future career progression.