The New Yorker last week carried a cartoon of a man delivering a commencement address to a graduating class, all in caps and gowns, and his advice was: “It’s an intern-eat-intern world out there!”
I thought of that cartoon after recently writing about the startup HireArt, which specializes in matching job seekers with job creators by testing applicants on real-world skills that mimic the jobs for which they’re applying. The co-founders, Eleo-nora Sharef (who was my daughter’s college roommate) and Nick Sedlet, were flooded with emails after the column appeared, from people who were either seeking jobs, wanted advice on how to better apply for a job or wanted to share their frustrations in finding a job. I asked them to analyze their mail to see what it tells us about today’s job market. Here are some of their conclusions, starting with internships.
Internships are increasingly important today, they explained, because skills are increasingly important in the new economy and because colleges increasingly don’t teach the ones employers are looking for. Experience, rather than a degree, has become an important proxy for skill, they note, and internships give you that experience. So grab one wherever you can, they add, because, even if you’re just serving coffee, it is a way to see how businesses actually work and which skills are prized by employers. Of course, for all these reasons, said Sharef, “it is almost as hard to get a paid internship today as it is to get an actual job.” This summer, Goldman Sachs hired 350 paid investment banking interns out of 17,000 applicants.
Since so many internships are unpaid these days, added Sedlet, there is a real danger that only “rich kids” can afford them, which will only widen our income gaps. The key, if you get one, he added, is to remember “that companies don’t want generalists to help them think big; they want people who can help them execute” and “add value.”
But what, they were often asked, does “add value” mean? It means, they said, show that you have some creative flair — particularly in design, innovation, entrepreneurship, sales or marketing, skills that can’t be easily replaced by a piece of software, a machine or a cheaper worker in India.
HireArt heard from many people, as did I, who have been out of work for six months or more and can’t get an employer to even look at their r￩sum￩. That is no coincidence. No employer will say this out loud for legal reasons, but if you’ve been out of work for six months or more, they won’t even look at you because they assume nobody else wanted to hire you. This is a tragedy that may need a public policy fix. In the meantime, what to do?
For starters, said Sharef, “do not let yourself get to the point where you have done nothing for six months. Don’t let yourself go without building something on your own or taking an online course ... to show that you have not been slacking off.” Even if you have been out of work for more than six months, stay engaged in the industry that you aspire to join, so you can better craft your job interview answers.
Sharef cited a recent HireArt candidate who wanted to be a product manager: He was unemployed for more than six months after his company went under. During his layoff, said Sharef, “he taught himself how to code by taking free online classes at Codecademy. He did a product management course at General Assembly, which was taught by product managers at two New York companies. He also spent a lot of time networking ... with product managers. He started a website with a friend just to get practice. For every job he applied for, he would create a product pitch, with wire frames and designs the company could use. Eventually, when he told his story to potential employers, he had a compelling professional narrative about making a career switch. Looking at his r￩sum￩, it’s actually hard to even tell that he was unemployed. He still got rejected a lot, but he finally got an amazing job as a product manager.”
What are the biggest mistakes? One, said Sharef, is a cover letter that tells an employer all sorts of things that the applicant has done but fails to explain how being hired would “add value” for that company. Two, she added: “Trying to be everything at once. I will speak to candidates, and they will say, ‘I am a great marketer and I’ve also been a college professor and I also know Excel and I was also once an Olympic ice skater.’ Employers don’t have the mental capacity to decide for you how you are going to help them in one specific capacity. It’s important to have a narrative that speaks to what you’re good at and what you can do” exactly.
Finally, if you can’t find a job, try to invent one. Employers appreciate candidates “who’ve started their own businesses,” said Sedlet. “Even if it doesn’t work out, employers can see that you have passion and motivation — and it teaches a set of skills that have universal value: marketing, sales, product development.” Unfortunately, he added, “entrepreneurship is still the domain of the privileged and the young-unattached — unless you can start while you still have a job.”
So there it is — underneath all the headline employment numbers, this is what’s really going on out there.