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Job search in a tough market: what to do when top consultancies and investment banks aren’t an option…

A couple of weeks back, reader Svetlana posted an extremely important question on my post what is a female-friendly career, and I want to address it at length today, because it is so relevant, especially in this tough economic environment. She asked:

“Not everyone who is smart and ambitious is hired by McKinsey, BCG or IB straight after they gradute from college, leave aside those who graduate in a bad year.

Do you have a word of advice for those who keep receiving rejection letters after putting all efforts imaginable into trying to follow the path you have described above?”

This blog is dedicated to helping young people strive for financial and personal independence, and I wouldn’t be of much help to people if I only addressed it to people who have got McKinsey offers in their pockets. Looking for a job for the first time is incredibly tough, especially in this environment. Even I received lots of rejections from places I was hoping to work for when I was finishing my undergraduate degree. You can be perfectly qualified but somehow not fit the right profile. Before I received my McKinsey offer, I received rejections from P&G, Shell, the World Bank, the IMF – all without even being invited to a phone interview. It is very hard to stand out when you don’t have much real world experience, and at this stage life can seem unfair. So what do you do when you don’t even get a chance to show how good you are? What if you don’t even get interview invites?

My short answer is: you do exactly what your classmates who do get the McKinsey and banking offers will be doing two or three years later. Two years is the average life of a consultant or a banker, upon which they will have to rethink their life and career. They will potentially have some more savings than you do now and two years worth of experience, so they won’t be in the same position as you are now, but they will still have to start out again in two years.

Let me elaborate using two observations from my business school class of 2008: last summer, I went to our three year graduation reunion, which marked the fifth year of us moving to London for the MBA. I was talking to a girl who had just quit the Boston Consulting Group to found her own company in London along with two other of our classmates (one of which previously worked as an investment banker). We started talking about what the other classmates who had gone to BCG were up to, and it turned out that every single one we could think of had already left. Two were working in Venture Capital, two others had founded their own company, and yet two others had returned to their home countries to work for medium-sized businesses. Secondly, a month ago some current MBA students interested in working in Mergers & Acquisitions contacted me for advice on breaking into investment banking. I wanted to redirect them to classmates of mine who were working in M&A in London and tried to think of suitable people they could contact. This was supposed to be easy, since a whopping 25% my classmates had gone into M&A (according to p.12 of the class of 2008 employment report)! The problem was, three years on, almost none of them still was. By the end of the exercise, I could only come up with a total of five names of guys who had started in IBD and were still doing it in London. Many had lost their jobs right after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. Some had quit to move back to their countries. Others had joined asset management companies. Others still got laid off recently and are looking for a new job.

So first of all, if you are feeling bad that your classmates seem to be landing well-paid, prestigious jobs and you are getting sidelined by the top recruiters, don’t feel bad because over a few years, these things will even out. Five years on, chances are nobody will be working at these companies anymore anyway, and you will get a headstart doing something different already. So maybe now you feel a bit better but of course still want to know what to do, because feeling good is great, but you still need to find a job, right? So what can you do when you don’t seem to be getting any love from the top recruiters?

  • Specialize: if all you face is rejection letters so far, chances are your job search is too random. Are you applying to everyone under the sun who has a job opening? What specifically have you got to offer that makes you stand out from other applicants? Try to find a niche that you are passionate about and that you have an edge in based on your profile and become more targeted in your job search. It becomes much easier to convince recruiters you are the right candidate when your CV and experience are visibly suited to the job in question. And you will be much more convincing in the interview when you are actually passionate about the job.
  • Check out local start-ups/SMEs: these generally don’t pay as well as the big name recruiters, which is why competition for these jobs is much less fierce. Don’t worry too much about your starting salary though. What counts is the long term outlook, and if you can get more responsibility and learning opportunities in a small and growing company, don’t dismiss the opportunity. Jobs at these kind of places are much more likely to come up informally and you will need to network rather than wait for them to post job ads with your career service. A good place to start would be a local entrepreneurship conference.
  • Build up skills: while you don’t have an income, your opportunity cost is low, so use the time to build up more skills that could make you stand out in the future – be it learning a programming language, a foreign language, a specific marketing strategy or a course on taxes – make it relevant to your passion and the job you are looking for.
  • Start out on your own: I know this is easier said than done, especially when you have a student loan to pay off, but don’t dismiss the option outright. Consider that when you find a job, you essentially find someone to pay you to carry out specific services for them, and this is the same as finding a customer when you have your own business. If you don’t have any sort of skill that you could sell as a service, finding a job is no easier than starting up your own business. Thinking about what services you could sell will also help you think harder about your strenghts and the skills you need to build up to become more marketable to potential customers and employers

The good news for you is that you will be at least two to three years ahead of those who do seem to be landing the better jobs. I am only speaking three years after graduation, but I can already tell you that even now those classmates who started their own small companies (usually one man operations) or who joined start-ups and small sized businesses are probably among the happiest of the graduating class. They are even serving as mentors to those unhappy bankers and consultants who are now looking for the exits, so there may be some late justice being done.

Finding your dream job is not easy, particularly in this climate, so I have only been able to start sharing my thoughts on how to go about it. I hope this gives you some ideas on how to get started. What do you readers think? If you have found a job recently, how did you do it? What have you tried? Please share a comment below.

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